The Problem of Looking Stupid

Shovel, soil, sweat, is digging a hole as mindless as it looks?

Here’s how to look stupid: start digging a hole. Einstein, himself, would look like an idiot while digging a hole. All through history, people have needed holes, and no one has ever looked smart digging one. And no one has ever stood near a digging person, eagerly observing and taking notes, in order to better themselves. Unfortunately for horticulturists, we dig holes, often in full view of people dwelling in their homes or driving in their cars, and, lo and behold, the average American thinks we’re dumb. As such, many of them feel superior to us, awkward in our presence, and, determined to keep their children from entering the vocation. To this end, they also make damned sure to surround their homes with the blandest landscape they can afford. Nope. Nothing to be inspired about here. Suzie, put down that flower and learn to type code. That there is a real career.

Ironically enough, the reason that WE horticulturists are thought to be stupid is because of EVERYONE ELSE’S ignorance. Sure, they see us digging holes, looking dumb, but do they know we have anywhere from a 2-year degree to a doctorate? Do they know that we need to stay current with our certifications? Have they thought it through enough to know that to be good at this crazy passion one must have a solid grasp of both science and art? Of course they haven’t. They just see us lifting dirt out of the ground, and, if they’re paying for it, dollars flying like monarchs out of their wallets as it happens.

Maybe We’re Not As Dumb As We Look

Meanwhile, it must be said that digging a hole isn’t mindless—not for someone with smarts and training. A good horticulturist Bad landscaping and tree careis making all kinds of observations throughout the process, things that all add up to a successful planting. Even before starting, the horticulturist has probably gotten a soil test from a lab and evaluated the results. They’ve probably performed a perc test to determine drainage. This and a lot of experience informs, among other things, appropriate plant selection, which is an art and science all by itself. While digging a hole, a horticulturist is making note of the soil profile, its texture, and roots from valuable nearby plants. They are looking for signs of pests and diseases and evidence of problem weeds. All this and much more bounces around the bright, inquisitive, and invariably ADDHD minds of good horticulturists as they are doing something that casual observers might assume is bone-crushingly mind-numbing.

The Competition and The Consequences

Let’s take a step back. Sad reality: most people digging holes to make gardens these days are not trained horticulturists and are remarkably free of any thought beyond repeatedly wondering where their next 12-pack is coming from. Their qualifications? Their parole officer is friends with the owner of a landscape company. Why? Because a good horticulturist is hard to find. Why else? Because people don’t want to pay any more than alcoholic, ex-convict wages for a good horticulturist. As might be expected, this is lowering the bar on the work.

Underwhelming landscape

Uninspired and underwhelming? A multi-million dollar home, a two hundred dollar landscape.

This situation is having a terrible impact on the state of our yards, businesses, and communities. Look at what serves as horticulture out there around us–dismal designs, poor plant choices from the same old/same old limited palette, inexcusably unnecessary chemical applications, invasive plants, topped trees, plants planted too deep, and mulch piled too high.

This last one, to say the least, is ubiquitously chronic. And here’s a telling truth about that. No vocational school, no university, no accredited professional associations, no extension service, no horticultural magazine, or book, or reference of any sort has EVER recommended mulching trees to the point where they look like toilet plungers. Not one of them even one time! In fact, all of them have assailed the practice. And what does this mean? It means that any company doing this work—and there are tons of them—has NEVER been to school, has NEVER belonged to a professional association, has NEVER taken advantage of expertise from extension offices, and has NEVER so much as read a book or magazine or even a credible blog. And this is how the dumbest, most basic job any green industry company can do—mulching trees—gets screwed up in every community, every day, all across the nation.

volcano mulching

The most basic job a person can do, mulching, done wrong over and over and over. Making this scene especially ironic is that these trees are ash that the community paid to save with expensive EAB treatments. At the same time, they also paid for the toilet plunger mulch job which will ultimately kill them.

Digging Our Way Out

If we’re looking for someone else to fix this, which of course is everyone’s dream, we’re not going to find them. This is horticulture’s problem. The typical American neither has the time nor the interest to learn the difference between the wheat and chaff in our industry, and, dammit, we’re not helping them any. As a rule, we drive the same beat-up trucks as the riffraff, and we use the same tools. That much we can’t much control. Yet, how often do we explain our certifications and credentials? Who takes the time to really excite our customers with our work by teaching them about the plants and the reasons for the design? Because of this, we are losing business to people who know nothing about our craft, our customers assume we’re all dumb, nary a kid in American wants any part of our vocation, and horticulture programs at universities are closing.

transformational horticulture

Transformational horticulture – The High Line. Drawing millions of visitors a year and inspiring neighbors to do better.

Tweed Jackets and A Little Perspective

We can change this situation. Our arguments are rock solid if we just make them and play the game. So understand the crisis and care enough to actually market our life’s pursuit, and its remarkable history, and the transformational environmental, social, and economic benefits more and better horticulture provides. And here’s an idea – a good first step almost any horticulturist can start doing right away. Go to a thrift store and buy a tweed jacket and maybe a cap. Then learn how to fake an English accent. Suddenly, you’re not just another dumb American horticulturist, you’re an English Gardener. Boom, your stock just went up. Instant street cred! And you can double your prices.

Yes, you’ll still look pretty dumb digging a hole, but, hey, every profession has its moment of looking stupid. How intelligent does a proctologist, a highly trained and respected physician, look while examining his 15th butthole of the day…just before lunch? And how smart does a lawyer look on cable news, having been exposed paying a porn star money borrowed against his house to protect a politician? And, for that matter, how brilliant does that politician look, sitting on the can, misspelling yet another impulsive tweet? Fact is, they really don’t look any smarter than we do digging a hole. And when these people finish their day, have they made a garden?

dead trees, bad plant choices

The consequences of dumb plant choices, lost time and money.