New York Times, August 6, 2000


A Professional Hand For Elegant Gardens

Published: August 6, 2000

HALF a century ago, Beverley Nichols, an English journalist, defied common sense and the advice of his friends and bought a small country estate. Upon inspection he found that the property came with a number of 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 in New Jersey. 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.

Though she tends some estate gardens, 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 too busy with career, family or community service to look after their plants without help. Those crowded schedules and demanding lives mean that often the professional gardener can use a certain amount of latitude in plant choice and installation.

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

If Beverley Nichols's Oldfield had a spiritual descendant, he would be Andy Turbridge, a professional gardener, designer and estate manager on the North Shore of Long Island.

In the business for 10 years, the English-born Mr. Turbridge has spent the past four years working for his current employers and living on their estate. His job combines both hands-on and administrative elements. The hands-on tasks include tending the estate rose garden and monitoring for pests and diseases, as well as planning for planting on the property. His administrative responsibilities include supervising arborists, lawn care professionals and other providers of services.

Mr. Turbridge has a flexible arrangement with his employer that allows him to do design work and maintenance planning for other clients. He stressed the importance of the latter. ''Maintenance is the first thing you address when you design,'' he said. ''Any designer who doesn't talk about maintenance will probably make mistakes.''

But even the best maintenance plan can't succeed without appropriate personnel. Mr. Turbridge says there is a definite need for skilled professional gardeners with enough knowledge to cope with the ''higher end of horticulture.''

Fanny Clark, who is soon to retire after many years as a professional gardener in the Montclair, N.J., area, values the personal relationships 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.''

Once Mrs. Clark has gathered the information, she and the clients get down to specifics.

''Clients know the look and feel they want,'' she said. ''I translate that into what's doable.'' Eventually, added Mrs. Clark, ''You get to know a client well enough so you can tuck a surprise into the garden, and you know they will love it.''

Like Ms. Parsons, Mrs. Clark cares for a variety of gardens. She restricts herself to established planting schemes rather than new ones and has often been called upon to tame an estate garden that has been neglected. Her favorite gardens are those that were laid out during the 1920's and 30's, an era she refers to as the golden age of American garden design.

Mrs. Clark says these older gardens benefit from having ''great bones'' or defining structures such as walls, terraces and walkways as well as mature trees. Rejuvenating them sometimes means simplifying labor-intensive plantings by installing less finicky shrubs, vines and foliage plants.

Once a garden is under control, Mrs. Clark maintains it on a weekly basis. Both she and Ms. Parsons are also frequently called upon 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,'' Mrs. Clark said. ''Clients have gotten younger, and are now often two-income couples in their 30's.'' These people, she said, frequently reject traditional workhorse plants such as 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. In such situations, Mrs. Clark maintains the beds in a way that makes the prospect of that work a pleasure rather than just another source of guilt for not tending to the needs of the garden.

''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.

Mrs. Clark is a professional gardener whose work frequently involves aspects of garden design.

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

''I only maintain the gardens I design,'' said Ms. Staunton, who cares for properties 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 intensely interested in new plant colors and varieties, and she travels around the United States and Europe to find them. This nurturing of clients and their properties makes it hard to play favorites.

''I feel attached to all of the gardens,'' she said. ''I have good chemistry with the owners.''

Each gardener arrived at the vocation by a different route. Mr. Turbridge said he came from a family of green thumbs and he did ''many things aside from horticulture,'' before settling into his current line of work.

Mrs. Clark grew up on a farm and attended a school run by Quakers, a group renowned for an interest in horticulture. By the time her children had grown to the point where they 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. With skills honed by lots of on-the-job training, and an education gleaned by reading the many classic garden works in the older woman's library, Mrs. 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, like Mrs. Clark, worked for a time for Avis Campbell. Eventually a desire for greater responsibility led her to go 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 Radcliffe, she began her career at City Gardens, a Boston company that specializes in indoor landscape design. Later she worked for both wholesale nurseries and a landscape designer. Seven years ago she went into business for herself. She does most maintenance work on her own, with occasional help from Richard Wingus, her senior crew chief, who is a Jamaican-born naturalist. He is especially skilled at pruning.

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 posed by maintenance work, which can include such inelegant chores as mixing green sand and composted manure together, then digging it into heavy clay soil.

Each of the four gardeners stressed that in horticulture the learning never stops. Mr. Turbridge keeps the process going by maintaining 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.''