New York Times, August 20, 2000


THE GREAT OUTDOORS; They Know How Your Garden Grows

Published: August 20, 2000

HALF a century ago, Beverley Nichols, an English journalist, defied common sense and the advice of friends and bought himself a small country estate. Upon inspection he found that the property came with several fixtures, the most permanent of which was Oldfield, the gardener, who had worked on the place for more than 40 years, and outlasted the two previous owners.

Although the relationship began with caution and a degree of skepticism on both sides, Mr. Nichols gradually realized that the old gardener was invaluable. Together they created a showplace, a process that Mr. Nichols described in three books, ''Merry Hall,'' ''Sunlight on the Lawn'' and ''Laughter on the Stairs.''

Times have changed, but the need for professional gardeners has not. With the economy growing like chickweed in the spring, more and more people have both the desire and the means for significant gardens. A well-designed planting design can be a work of art, with the power to elevate a brand-new faux chateau to a higher aesthetic realm. But a garden, unlike a painting or a piece of sculpture, needs constant care and maintenance. Most landscapers and lawn care crews don't have the necessary expertise, and these days, people like Oldfield are hard to come by.

They do exist, however. Kathy Parsons is one of them. For the past 20 years, she has spent a good portion of her professional time caring for other people's gardens in Essex and Bergen Counties. Working mostly by herself, Ms. Parsons waters, feeds, weeds, deadheads and monitors annual and perennial plants for diseases and pests. She also stakes, thins, prunes and divides -- tasks that often intimidate gardeners.

Not all of her clients have extensive property. ''I've done everything from a golf club to a small suburban home,'' she said.

Ms. Parsons characterized her average client as a ''relatively wealthy and independent'' person who loves his or her garden, but is simply too busy with career, family or community service to look after the plants without help.

Those crowded schedules and demanding lives mean that often the professional gardener can use a certain amount of latitude when it comes to plant choice and installation.

''I don't get specifics,'' said Ms. Parsons, who added that the ability to do ''a lot of mind reading'' is as important as knowing when to apply the rose food.

If Beverley Nichols's Oldfield had a spiritual descendant, he would be Andy Durbridge, a professional gardener, designer and estate manager on Long Island's North Shore. In the business for 10 years, the English-born Mr. Durbridge has spent the last four working for his current employers and living on their estate. His job combines hands-on tasks like planning for planting, tending the estate rose garden and monitoring for pests and diseases, and administrative responsibilities like supervising arborists and other ground-care professionals.

Mr. Durbridgealso does design work and maintenance planning for other clients. ''Maintenance is the first thing you address when you design,'' he said. ''Any designer who doesn't talk about maintenance will probably make mistakes.''

Fanny Clark, who is soon to retire after many years as a professional gardener in the Montclair area, values the personal relationships that she has cultivated along with her clients' plants and shrubs. Those relationships begin with lots of questions.

''I want to know what colors they like, which windows they look out of in their homes,'' she said. ''I find out how much they will be outside and when, and whether they go away in the summer.

''Clients know the look and feel they want,'' she added. ''I translate that into what's doable.''

Like Ms. Parsons, Mrs. Clark cares for a variety of gardens. She has often been called on to tame a neglected estate garden. Her favorite gardens are those laid out during the 1920's and 30's, an era she refers to as the golden age of American garden design.

According to Mrs. Clark, these older gardens benefit from having great ''bones,'' defining structures like walls, terraces and walkways, as well as mature trees.

Once a garden is under control, Mrs. Clark maintains it weekly. Both she and Ms. Parsons are also frequently called on to spruce up clients' gardens before parties and other events.

Over the years, Ms. Parsons and Mrs. Clark have noticed a demographic shift among their clients.

''Economics has changed the face of gardening,'' said Mrs. Clark. ''Clients have gotten younger, and are now often two-income couples in their 30's.'' These people, she said, frequently reject traditional workhorse plants like impatiens and hostas in favor of newer and more exotic materials.

Some of the professional gardeners have clients who like to get out and do some work in their own gardens. For them, Fanny Clark maintains the beds to make the prospect of that work a pleasure rather than a burden.

''A garden should be a place that people can fuss in a little bit when they come home at the end of the day,'' she said.

Jody Staunton of New Canaan, Conn., is a garden designer whose work leads her to garden maintenance.

''I only maintain the gardens I design,'' said Ms. Staunton, who cares for gardens in New Jersey, Westchester and Connecticut. ''Maintenance is so important in keeping the shape and form of the garden, that maintenance and design are really one and the same.''

Some of her clients are interested in new plant colors and varieties, and she travels around the United States and Europe to find them.

Each gardener arrived at the vocation by a different route. Andy Durbridge said he came from a family of green thumbs and he did ''many things aside from horticulture'' before settling into gardening.

Mrs. Clark grew up on a farm and attended a school run by Quakers, a group with a traditional interest in horticulture. By the time her children no longer needed constant supervision, she had become an avid gardener.

A serendipitous meeting with Montclair's celebrated landscape designer and gardener, Avis Campbell, led to a job offer. When Miss Campbell died she left Mrs. Clark ''her clients and her library.'' Fanny Clark hung out her own shingle. Working alone, she had, at the peak of her career, 13 regular clients, whose gardens she visited once a week. During the gardening season she worked from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day. ''By the end of each day I was absolutely dead,'' she said.

Ms. Parsons began her professional career by working for a commercial nursery and also worked for a time for Avis Campbell. Eventually she went into business for herself. Now she maintains gardens of her own design, as well as some designed by others.

Ms. Staunton has worked in the landscape design and garden maintenance business for 15 years. After studying at Radcliff, worked at a Boston company that specializes in indoor landscape design, wholesale nurseries and a landscape designer, and seven years ago went into business for herself.

Mrs. Clark has always worked alone, preferring to maintain an intensely personal relationship with her clients and their gardens. Ms. Staunton and Ms. Parsons would like to hire gardeners to help with maintenance, but the supply of knowledgeable people is limited.

''There is such a shortage of talented gardeners who know what they are doing,'' said Ms. Staunton, who added that many people seem more attracted to design than maintenance. This, she said, may be partly because of the ''physical challenges'' in maintenance.

Each of the four gardeners stressed that in horticulture the learning never stops. Mr. Durbridge, for example, maintains trial beds in his personal garden on the estate where he works.

On the verge of retirement, Mrs. Clark remains philosophical. ''Just when you think you have a handle on shade gardening,'' she said, ''you get a client who has nothing but full sun. It's the most humbling profession in the world.''