You want to grab a seat early when Carol Reese comes to town for a talk. She can a throw an entertaining stemwinder soaked with humor. The woman’s got soul and conviction.

The former horticultural extension specialist in Jackson, Tennessee, came to Louisville ten days ago as the keynote speaker for the Winter Conference of the Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Association (KNLA). Carol drew a crowd. No wonder. She’s a pro who doesn’t shy away from admitting countless failures in life or in the garden. She tells the truth that a lot of gardeners don’t want to hear. She was saddled with lingering effects of winter hoarseness that made her sound like a north Mississippi version of Lauren Bacall. All the more fetching.

Her talk title: “They Don’t Know What They Don’t Know.”

Carol Reese grew up on a dairy farm near Starkville, Mississippi, in a family with six brothers and sisters. She both read as voraciously as she played outdoors. Her dad was an engineer and successful businessman. And Carol told Nursery Management Magazine that she thought “everyone’s mother could paint, sculpt and fix tractors.” Carol entered horticulture in her mid-30s, after one failed attempt at college and marriage and a protracted ten-year run of “wasting as many brain cells as a girl could and still be able to walk upright.” Her family had Carol’s back. They never gave up. She gave up the bar stool and returned eventually to her childhood passion for gardening. Carol received a Master’s Degree in Horticulture at Mississippi State University, and then she lost crucial data for her dissertation when a doctorate almost seemed a cinch. She went to work for the University of Tennessee where, for 27 years, she answered thousands of questions across the horticultural spectrum. Along the way, Carol became a popular national speaker and columnist for the Jackson Sun.

Here are a few highlights, and impressions, from her KNLA talk and subsequent phone talks and follow-up emails.

“They don’t know what they don’t know.”

“Even the students that realize they need to know more to be successful think it’s as simple as what to plant here. This could be likened to a recipe of ingredients without knowing how to cook. When I was teaching the Master Gardener classes on design, I told them early on, I would NOT be talking about any specific plants at all. The woody class and the herbaceous class that followed would address regionally adapted specifics for a variety of design functions. I really liked when I could teach all three, often the case for the counties in my region. It was very disappointing when I would be approached after class with a picture of a garage wall, and the query, “What would you plant here?” My disappointment was deliberately displayed with a sigh, that I had failed to teach them how to decide on their own, with the tools I hoped I had provided!”

“We want the perfect shrub forever and ever.”

Carol acknowledged that homeowners often don’t know what questions to ask. Fear creeps in when simple questions are answered with too many caveats.

I had a flashback when I heard this at Carol’s talk. I have spent nearly 50 years trying to answer questions from anxious homeowners about the risk of planting—anything.  I would offer: “If it doesn’t get to hot or too cold, too wet or too dry, you’ve got a window of opportunity.” This answer never seemed satisfactory enough. One time, in frustration, I responded by saying, “Your plant will live if it’s God’s will.” This sparked a surprised look, and then a nod with a response, “Well, I guess you’re right.”

“Come on over for lunch and tell me what to plant.”

Doctors don’t give free advice, neither do lawyers, but professional gardeners are sometimes taken for granted.

Even for those who did not pay for years of academia, the years of accumulation of hard-earned knowledge, often expensively won by killing costly plants, or costly travel to see successful gardens and listen to experienced gardeners and designers, warrant respect and financial reward,” Carol explained. “I laugh sometimes, that the only people that I would gladly help for free, close friends or family, DON’T consult me, to my dismay.”

“We want native plants because they are better.”

Not exactly…

Carol told the audience that the push for exclusively native plants in home gardens is “dangerous and ill informed.” She grows lots of native plants and absolutely loves being in nature, but she’s not shy about telling audiences, for example, that northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) will take over your garden if they are left to re-seed. She acknowledges that there are sites where these might be suitable, but not in mixed perennial plantings. Again, it’s the little things that the purists ignore and the fallacies they push. How can anyone with an open mind imagine a wild roadside of clover, chicory, and Queen’s Anne’s Lace as ecologically offensive? Don’t get Carol going on pollinators. Go ahead and plant a few non-natives on the purist’s hit list—buddleias, mimosas, or paulownias. They germinate out of cracks in a sidewalk. They have indisputable ecological and restorative benefits. “You won’t be the first to go rogue. Birds and creatures have been transporting seeds and plants for millenia.  Carol said, “Mother Nature is in charge. The only constant in planetary time is change.”

The Lucifer list

There is a line in the sand. Carol would never recommend planting these plants in west Tennessee:

English Ivy

Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei)

Liriope spicata

Vinca minor

What plants would you throw in your sin bin?

Success and failure

“What makes someone fearless and another fearful? It takes both for our species to exist. In ancient times, those that ventured far from camp may have gotten lost or eaten a poisonous plant in hungry ignorance. Some, though, found a new source of a recognized food, or tried a new one that was not toxic, but nourishing. Maybe lives were lost trying to kill mastodons until discovering it could be done with a group that planned the attack. The timid people may have died in the name of safety by not daring to try something new. Some of the bold died, but others not only survived but learned new ways to prosper. I don’t mean to brag, because I certainly made no choice to do these things, just part of my brain that dictated it. I think true courage is acting in spite of fear. I had none. Would I be the one killed by the mastodon?”

I have held onto a photo that the late Dr. J.C. Raulston, professor of Horticulture at North Carolina State University, presented in garden talks in the early 1990s to illustrate the perfect No Maintenance Garden.  There is no garden. No plants, no maintenance.  Fearless, indifferent or fearful?

“Fearlessness can punish or reward. My usual lack of fear is based on the amount of certainty that I will survive embarrassment, but mostly on my confidence that the exchange will be rewarding. My siblings joke about our “daddy’s genes” that inform our daily interactions with others. He was a deeply good man, with a knack for making others laugh, and making them feel seen and appreciated. Maybe he wasn’t as good with tools or paintbrushes as my mother, but give the man a telephone, and watch him charm his way through a network of contacts to get to the person that could make things happen. They may have answered the call in a less than helpful mood, with no idea of how good they were about to feel for helping him on his mission. One of the greatest lessons he taught us might be that we should expect good things of people when we treat them well.” 

“How do we teach?”

“Our reach is cramped, crowded out by product driven Internet garbage. If I don’t even understand  how algorithms or clickbait work, how am I supposed to fight them? We can only do what we do in small circles that radiate into larger ones. We can write but how do the ignorant know we even exist if they don’t know we exist, another case of they don’t know what they don’t know. At the dentist today, the sweet young woman cleaning my teeth made innocuous statements about gardening she had read somewhere, wrongheaded, product driven information that had me nearly frantic for her to take her hands out of my mouth so I could refute it. The third time it happened at least I had the presence to apologize for correcting her again and again.” 

“A shot of shot of exploring, a habit I have done all my life, on foot or on my horse as a child, simply seeing what treasures the day may bring out in the wilds, done the last thirty years with a large troop of “amalgamations.”

“Some of my best teachers answered my questions by asking me questions. They led me logically to my own answer by asking me to acknowledge my own experiences. Others, like The late Plato Touliatos, beloved nurseryman from Memphis, had the gift of putting a huge amount of wisdom into a pithy line or two that rang true with common sense. 

As Plato would have it, the lowest maintenance landscape for our region is a woodland landscape because the south wants to be woodland. Plow a field and watch it come back in 40 years.

Last, but not least, and possibly the best, though most out of reach method, is to integrate required schooling in critical thinking. Instill skepticism as a way of navigating the world. Teach the difference between print and journalism. Just because it’s in print doesn’t make it true. Along with skepticism comes developing a base of knowledge that instills trust in your own observations. If years on a farm, or in a garden, have revealed many cases of native lepidoptera eating nonnative plants, you know to investigate claims to the contrary.”

Carol Reese is seldom bored.


–Carol Reese, a Garden Ranter Emeritus, attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by a generation of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each year to partially “break up his hard pan.” Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her nearly daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.” Carol plans to put her 118 acres into a conservation easement that will allow the next owners to garden and landscape at will on a few acres around the house but will leave the rest of the property in perpetuity for the natural beauty that preceded her.