Comment on Leading: Details, always by Bill


The third crucial leadership skill is paying attention to the details, always. Once you’ve assembled the right team (People First) and galvanized them into a cohesive group focused on your shared vision (Purpose Second), the key to achieving success is embedded in paying attention to the daily details that add up to make a huge difference.

Think of it this way: In the landscape business, if you’ll walk past a noticeable weed in the garden, you’ll be willing to overlook much bigger problems. As the leader of a business, a business unit, or a crew, if you’re not that detail person, make sure you have someone by your side who pays attention to details.

In a service business, there are multiple, crucial touch points throughout the service delivery process. You might associate these in your mind with “high-touch” businesses like the restaurant business, but the reality is these touch points are just as important in your landscape business; although they are spread out over months, rather than a few hours.

Consider all the ways that your team’s actions impact the customer experience. This goes far beyond the service delivery itself; after all, that’s what you get paid to do and is essential to staying in business! Get it right; make it sharp. I think of this as 51 percent of the deal, along with a similar percentage of the associated details.

So what about the other 49 percent? Here are a few things the leader must consider:

  • What does “done right” look like?
  • How do you consistently communicate that you’re competent and you care?
  • How do you respond when something goes wrong?
  • Are your crews uniformed and sharp?
  • When was the last time your trucks were washed and waxed?
  • Are your service standards clear? And do your customers know what they are, too?
  • Is everyone focused on safety?
  • And the list goes on…

The point is to identify those specific things that wrap around the service itself and make it stand out in the customer’s mind. Those specific things are called details and are absolutely the leader’s business to know, communicate and inspect.

Leaders should consider People First, Purpose Second and Details, Always!

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Comment on Letter to the Editor: Yellowstone’s CEO on the real problem for legal employers, laborers in the landscape industry by Cheryl Porter

I’d like to thank Gregg Robertson for highlighting the labor shortage challenging the landscape industry.

The Wall Street Journal also recently ran an article (gated) that while broader than just the landscape industry, foreshadowed the implications of the worsening labor shortage.

Tim Portland

Tim Portland

Landscape employers that run legal and compliant operations are being squeezed between a shortage of legal local labor; widely available and lower cost illegal labor—with no enforcement or consequences against employers who utilize this meaningful advantage; and a more difficult, unpredictable and constrained H-2B guest worker visa program that hasn’t been expanded since it was created 27 years ago.

The negative financial impact of employers who cheat and employ illegal labor to capture its cost and capacity advantages—and count on continued lack of enforcement to enable them to keep doing so—is what adversely impacts American workers, legal and compliant U.S. companies, their owners and U.S. taxpayers. Until that supply and demand imbalance in landscape labor markets is fixed, adverse impacts to legal American landscape workers and legal U.S. landscape companies will continue to grow, and will continue to generate ever-increasing needs for a viable H-2B program with a predictable returning-worker exemption so legal companies can field a competitive seasonal workforce and compete against the cheaters.

Field labor is more than half the cost in a landscape maintenance business—far and away the largest cost. The cost advantages generated by companies employing illegal labor can be substantial, including lower worker wages (often paid daily in cash); no overtime; no tax withholdings for unemployment, Social Security or healthcare; lower workers’ compensation payroll bases and costs; lower or no worker benefit costs for holidays or paid time off; and no healthcare or retirement benefits offered. These cheating companies further enjoy a very meaningful availability advantage. Legal and compliant companies have been recruiting all available legal local workers for months heading into the spring. To gain approval to use the H-2B program, companies have to prove to both the Department of Labor (DOL) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) they have been trying to recruit legal local workers at minimum market wage rates specified by DOL, yet have been unsuccessful in doing so.

In the markets in which we operate, these rates start at an average of $12 per hour, and rapidly increase from there with skills, experience and driving capabilities. Our average fully burdened wage is $16 per hour. Yet even at these rates, legal companies can’t find legal workers, while the cheating companies pick up illegal day laborers as needed. Then the cheating companies use the cost, capacity and flexibility advantage to take market share by undercutting market prices on bids and quotes for landscape services, and providing more responsive labor surges when needed by customers.

This is not a minor problem. The Pew Research Center estimates that more than 20 percent of all workers in landscaping are illegal. If half of landscape companies run legal and compliant operations, then simple math says that about half of the workforce of the other half of companies are illegal.

When supply and demand doesn’t work

With labor accounting for more than half of total costs in a landscape business, it’s critically important for landscape companies to get their labor force right. If costs are too high, the company cannot be competitive and will continually lose work. But it can’t serve customers without a workforce either. So what should happen when demand for labor exceeds the supply? The wages to workers should go up, accompanied or followed by price increases by companies to customers for those services. But that can’t happen today because the playing field is not level, so supply and demand doesn’t work. The landscape companies that cheat and employ illegal laborers don’t have to increase wages or prices to customers, as they have a readily available supply of lower cost workers not available to legally operating companies, and no one has seen or experienced enforcement actions against such cheating companies.

The result is when legal companies try to raise prices to pay legal workers higher wages, our customers bid us out. The cheating firms, using this significant illegal advantage, undercut us. And we lose the contract. There are some commercial customers that care about the legality of the workers on their properties: schools (where we must pass their background check, drug test and wear a school-issued badge to enter and be on the property); certain high-end manufacturers; and a very small and select group of others. But the vast majority of customers don’t care, and some are so cavalier as to say they already assumed all the landscape workers were illegal, and that’s the landscaper’s problem not theirs. Even state and local governments (outside of schools) often don’t ask for verification that our workforce is legal. The hypocrisy is maddening.

According to the law, there are a series of fines to businesses per illegal employee that escalate for first, second and third offenses and up to a six-month jail term for a pattern of knowingly employing illegal workers. When we ask the DOL and USCIS about enforcement, they’ve told us they don’t have the resources.

Yellowstone Landscape operates in 15 major metropolitan markets across the south, and this is my fifth year leading our company. I’ve never heard about an enforcement action on any landscape company in one of our markets. There has been no deterrent to the practice of hiring illegal workers in our industry. Ethically, our company doesn’t break the law, and we have no interest in risking jail terms. So the lower cost illegal workforce isn’t available to legal companies, yet it still makes up an enormous component of the industry.

And it’s not just the legal companies that are adversely impacted. American workers who might be interested in landscaping see an industry where the work is hard and hot, more and more of the work is done by illegals getting lower (and often times daily cash) wages with no security or protections. Hence, wages to legal local workers are constrained by the widespread impact of lower cost illegals, so these Americans become less interested in working in the landscape industry, and the cycle continues and gets worse.

Why hiring is a Catch-22 in the landscape industry

Landscape companies are the largest users of the H-2B program, as it helps enable legal companies to field a legal workforce. It requires proof of recruiting and hiring efforts, higher cost minimum wages set by DOL and extensive filings and daily reporting to DOL. The hurdles, bureaucracies, requirements, delays and risks to use the H-2B program continue to escalate, and this year Congress chose not to renew the returning-worker exemption. The combination of these actions, or lack thereof, sends a message that sure seems to encourage the continued and growing use of illegal labor by landscapers. It’s a Catch-22 for a landscape company owner. Do the right thing and watch your business get stolen by cheaters, with no enforcement against cheaters from your government, then have your government make it harder for you to legally operate your business. Or go with the flow and cheat, have lower costs, have far fewer reporting hassles, have more flexible staffing, have happier customers and do so since no responsible agency seems to be doing anything about it and our congressional and agency leaders keep taking actions that encourage such cheating.

The recession is over, and businesses are growing again. The H-2B visa cap of 66,000 visas was set in 1990. Since that time, nominal GDP has more than tripled, real GDP has doubled, yet the cap remains unchanged. The returning-worker exemption, which rewards compliant legal companies that create an environment workers want to return to, was not renewed by Congress this year. As a result the two 33,000 visa caps were met faster than at any time in the program’s history. Legal companies that have brought in H-2B workers for more than a decade have been “capped out” of the program, won’t get their workers this spring or summer, and they are looking at a nightmarish season of overworked current workers, upset customers, decimated financials and the rapid loss of the contracts and customer volume that was built over years of hard work. And who will pick up the business the legal companies employing legal workers lose? The cheating companies employing increasing numbers of illegal laborers. What a great set of policies by our federal leaders.

In our industry, supply and demand isn’t working because the playing field isn’t level. There’s a low cost, flexible and readily available supply of labor to companies that cheat. Legal companies get squeezed, and there will be more and more companies turning to illegal laborers as their only remedy, because enforcement doesn’t happen. The cheaters capture a huge cost, flexibility, and pricing advantage. That is what hurts legal American workers and legal American companies.

Proposed remedies

Congress and USCIS can remedy this by a combination of:

1) Enforcing our current laws;

2) Reinstalling the returning-worker exemption and making the H-2B program viable, efficient, far less burdensome and far more predictable; and

3) Addressing the legal work status of the undocumented/illegal population that’s here in our country and seeks a chance to work and build a better life for themselves and their families.

On the latter, some argue for deportation for illegals and say that anything short of that is amnesty. Others argue that the undocumented workers already here should have a way to come out of the shadows and have the ability to legally get a job, giving legal employers the opportunity to compete for these workers on a level playing field. Either solution (or a combination thereof) would allow supply and demand to work as it should. The outcome will be that wage rates will rise for all workers and prices to customers will rise proportionally. That’s one of the underpinnings of capitalism. Supply and demand works, but markets have to be on a level playing field. Today, the labor supply in landscaping is not a level playing field, and the policies and actions of our government are perverse. You either cheat and win, or comply with the law and lose. That’s what we need to solve.

The H-2B program is not the problem. It’s a tool that helps legal companies in seasonal industries find legal workers they otherwise haven’t been able to find; be competitive with cheating firms by providing a seasonal ramp up with workers who want to work through the heat of the summer season; and lessen or eliminate the need to lay off legal U.S. workers over the winter off season, as the seasonal labor ramp down is met by sending the guest workers home. It hasn’t grown in size in 27 years (while GDP has tripled), and it not only has no adverse impact on American workers, it helps those American workers who want long-term employment in the landscape industry. The returning-worker exemption rewards companies that treat all workers fairly and ethically, so they want to return year after year, giving the business a predictable operating plan for serving its customers.

I encourage you to contact your Congressional leaders and ask them to actually lead. Immediately and for 2018, reinstate the returning worker exemption; lower the regulatory, bureaucratic and reporting hurdles of the H-2B program; and expand the H-2B program as the economy continues to grow. Then, ask them to go to work on solving the far more difficult problem of how to best address the undocumented population.

The upstanding companies in the landscape industry are here to help in any way we can.

Tim Portland, CEO
Yellowstone Landscape
Bunnell, Fla.


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Night Swimming

Sophie glared at me from her hiding place inside a 7-11 Big Gulp cup. She had backed butt-first into the cup so that only her head was poking out of the mouth of the cup. Her huge Papillon ears were back, a sure sign she was angry and afraid. And no wonder. She was prisoner in a cage with dozens of dirty, squawking, pecking birds. The noise was deafening. The smell was overpowering. She shivered and tried to retreat further into her cup.




She had been in the cage for weeks and I had just found her there. Horrified and guilt-stricken, I beat at the horrible birds with my bare arms and hands. They flew at me, pecking, pecking, pecking at my face and eyes, drawing blood.  As I fought off the next wave I stretched out my hands to reach Sophie. She was just beyond my reach.

“Come here, My Precious!” Yes, Gollum-like, I often call her My Precious. She stared at me from inside the revolting cage. I couldn’t reach her. I watched, bleeding and helpless as the birds consumed her.

Of course, My Precious Sophie was not in the cage. She was right here with me, as she is now.

I have created a quasi-altar in my bedroom. Atop a rough-hewn wooden bench are candles, a couple of Buddha figurines, a cross, some shells, a vase of dried pussy willow and My Precious. She is in a wooden box ornamented with carved flowers. Her name is engraved on a brass plaque. She has been there since April 18 when she died in my arms following a sudden health decline and one horrible night.




Sophie often visits me in my dreams. Sometimes she just sits beside me, leaning her small body against my thigh as I read or write in my journal. In my dreams I catch a whiff of her ripe dog smell. I like that smell.

Other times she is staring into my eyes. Sophie excelled at gazing into my eyes, beaming her thoughts to me. I usually received the message loud and clear. We were like that, me and My Precious.

One night a couple of weeks ago Sophie and I went swimming. We were in a beautiful pool, surrounded by exotic plants under thousands of twinkling stars. We were alone, but it didn’t matter because we were content to be together. We clung to the side of the pool and took turns launching off and swimming back, splashing each other and laughing as best girlfriends will do. Side-by-side we kicked our legs—my two, her four—and talked and laughed some more. I don’t remember what we talked about. It doesn’t matter. We were talking about happy things that made us laugh until tears ran down our faces and our sides hurt.

It was the most joyful dream I have had in many years.

I was recently talking with some friends about being visited by the spirits of departed relatives. They believe. I am skeptical. But I told them about my dream and they said Sophie’s spirit was visiting me. The idea gives me some comfort.




I have a rich life that comes into full bloom during the dark hours when I close my eyes. I sometimes think of that life as just another version of me—like the flip side of a record—no less real for being on the flip side. Now, rather than keeping me company as I go about my day at work, around the house and in the garden, Sophie is part of my life on the flip side.

I still grieve. But there is comfort there in the dark, where Sophie and I can walk—or go night swimming—and talk and have adventures together. Friends forever.

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  • Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    I am glad you finding comfort visiting Sophie on the flip side.

  • Cristina says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss!
    The spirits of the ones we’ve lost do come to visit us and to comfort us, for they are sorry we are suffering. They come in our dreams. The same happened to me with everyone I lost, including my beloved cat.

  • Layanee says:

    How wonderful to have Sophie visit in your dreams. She was quite a personality. I know the pain of losing a beloved pet. Nothing can compare. Anyone who has been touched by the love of a pet is transformed in some way and Sophie will live on in the lessons she taught you. This is a lovely tribute to her.

  • Diane says:

    Well said Robin.
    Work on expanding “My Life on the Flip Side” as the title works in so many ways…
    I know your ache, and Sophie truly shows you how much she adores you by appearing in dreams…this is very difficult for departed ones to do…My Miss Kitty only returned once…Know you are indeed blessed. Diane

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Lunch: In Praise of the Middle Meal

If I owned a restaurant, it would most certainly be a lunch-only establishment. You would not find me frying eggs sunny side up for caffeine junkies at 6 a.m. or serving apple martinis and pretzels at 5 p.m. to office workers looking to do a little after hours networking (if you know what I mean). And I most certainly would not be sweating it up in a back kitchen at 9 p.m. grilling steaks and mashing potatoes for day-worn and half-sober diners, when a civilized person (of a certain age, at least) is supposed to have traded the dining room chair for an easy chair and a big fat book.

But aside from the mid-day work hour convenience of a lunch cafe ownership, I think lunch just may be the best meal of the day.

And don’t you think lunch is highly underrated? In fact, I think lunch is the middle child of meals.

I mean, we hear all the time from celebrities and cereal companies about how breakfast is the “most important meal of the day.” There are special foods we only eat at breakfast. Belgian waffles, scrambled eggs, sausage patties, granola, oatmeal and the like. Breakfast has a special drink associated with it—coffee. Make that two drinks—orange juice is the other.

Gay's Light Lunch

Hot dogs and Campbell’s soup at Gay’s Light Lunch

Dinner gets loads of respect. Folks are always celebrating birthdays and graduations and engagements over dinner with spouses, parents, friends and business associates. There are early bird specials for people who eat dinner before their lunch has been properly digested. Restaurants have special menu items they whip up just for dinner. What’s more, they trot out uber sincere waiters to lovingly describe each ingredient of today’s special as if it were their own newborn child.

And dinner often comes in multiple courses that slowly drift out of the kitchen small plate after small plate, requiring that people linger for long periods at the dinner table and often pay dearly for it afterward both in cash and calories.

Oh right. Dinner also has a special drink—wine. (Okay, I like the wine part.)

But lunch?

People eat lunch at their desks or otherwise eat the middle meal alone. Lines of folks drive through the fast food lane and eat their lunches out of greasy paper bags cradled on their laps while they cruise along listening to top 40s music or while parked at the far side of the local Walmart with the other lunch eaters. We don’t expect to pay much at all for lunch. Dollar deals anyone?

Some philistines even skip lunch altogether.

I know I’m sounding a bit like an evangelist or perhaps like your Uncle Joe after a couple of beers. Maybe I have some sort of special lunch gene passed down from my mother’s side of the family.

For a while my grandparents had a little lunch joint. It was called Gay’s Light Lunch, named after my mom. (Yes, my mom is Gay.) As you can see, they served hot dogs and Campbell’s soup.

My lunch café would be quite different. First, Gay’s Light Lunch was in black and white. My lunch restaurant would be in color.

There are lots of other ways my restaurant would be different than the places where Americans eat lunch every day. There would be no standing in tedious lines to order food from a backlit sign. There would be no plastic utensils and no paper cups with plastic lids. Food would not arrive wrapped in logo paper describing the contents and would certainly not be delivered in a paper bag. Paper napkins? Nope.

And too many restaurants play it safe and offer the same dishes everyone else is serving. How many Caesar salads must one person eat in a lifetime? Does the world really need another restaurant that is proud to serve chicken wings, even if they call them buffalo wings? Don’t even get me started on salad bars with suspicious bacon bits and bottled Thousand Island dressing that gets poured out of five-gallon drums.

Oh, and too many restaurants take themselves too seriously. No matter how big it is or how tenderly described the contents, a menu is not and will never be a contender for the Pulitzer prize. And speaking of menus, do we really need to have insultingly hopeful photos of what’s on offer so we can decide between the pepperoni pizza or the mushroom pizza? It’s pizza, people!

But lest I be accused of only offering criticisms and lists of things that must be abolished (like some political party currently getting a great deal of media attention) in my next installment I will turn my attention to what my lunch café would be like.

I’ll give you a hint. My restaurant will have a sense of humor. Yes, I know that restaurants themselves don’t have a sense of humor just as I know that corporations are not people. But my restaurant will be fun. You wait and see.

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Of Being a Grownup–and Weeds

It is before 6 a.m. on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing. As I do every morn­ing I stepped on the bath­room scale and then looked in the mir­ror. On some morn­ings the news is worse than oth­ers. Today was a bad news day. I know the 2 and 4 a.m. moon­light walks with a diar­rheal dog didn’t help how I looked. And I gained two pounds overnight.

sarah on black rug

Post-bath diar­rheal dog

At that moment the thought occurred to me that I may be on the down­hill side of life. And what’s weird is that I can’t even remem­ber becom­ing a grownup. I mean, I still find myself won­der­ing what I want to be when I grow up. I still get these ideas that I can pur­sue all sorts of careers and passions.

I want to be a pro­fes­sional fig­ure skater!”

I’m going to start a rock-and-roll girl band!”

I think I would make a really good pri­vate detective!”

I know! I’ll go to med­ical school!”

Real­ity intrudes most days. The fact is that I have a house with a big yard and gar­den. I have three cars, two dogs, eight pet chick­ens, pro­gres­sive lenses, 27 mag­a­zine and two news­pa­per sub­scrip­tions and four sets of dinnerware.

Yes, in fact, I do call it din­ner­ware. When was the last time you heard some­one other than a grownup say the word “din­ner­ware?” Never, that’s when.

The sad fact is, the train has left the sta­tion on my being a figure-skating-rock-and-roll-private-detective-doctor.

I’m not going to reveal my age, so let’s just say I’m past the age at which some­one would con­sider me to be a kid. I know, for exam­ple, that you would look at me and think “Yup, she’s a grownup.” And the signs are all there.

I know I’m a grownup because I’m the one who cleans up the dog vomit at 4 a.m.

I know I’m a grownup because wear­ing a string bikini is no longer an option. (You’re welcome.)

I know I’m a grownup because I some­times turn on closed cap­tion­ing to watch True Detec­tive.

I know I’m a grownup because I have a reminder on my cal­en­dar to change the heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing air fil­ters on the first of the month. It’s a paper calendar.

I know I’m a grownup when I hear rap music.

And weeds. Weeds make me know I’m def­i­nitely a grownup. No child vol­un­tar­ily weeds. But here I am, a grownup, wide awake before 6 a.m. on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing with the great big to-do list sit­ting on the kitchen counter that says in big cap­i­tal let­ters “PULL WEEDS.”

Oh yes. I have grownup writ­ten all over me. I think I have a t-shirt in the back of my closet that says “Keep Calm. I’m a Grownup.”

You know what? Even if I’m a grownup I should do some­thing to make weed­ing fun—or at least make weed­ing funny.

Two weeds walk into a bar…

prostrate spurge

pros­trate spurge

Hey, I think this funny weed idea has legs. Already we have some funny weed names. Quak­grass. Nut­grass. Pros­trate spurge. Creep­ing Char­lie. Pig­weed. Hen­bit. Hairy bit­ter­cress. I know some­one was pok­ing fun when they were nam­ing these things.

What else can make weeds funny? Lim­er­icks. Lim­er­icks are funny.

There once was a gar­dener in Maine

Who set out to kill the purslane.

Instead of a weed she killed her best steed.

And now she’s con­sid­ered insane.

No wait. That’s not funny at all. Let’s try again.

There once was a gar­dener in Beed

Who set out to kill a big weed.

Instead of a hoe he used his big toe

And now the whole garden’s weed seed.

Hum­mmm. Maybe this better?

There once was a gar­dener named Cass

Who set out to kill some quakgrass.

Instead of a hoe she used her big toe

Of course she is now on her ass.

Oh well. Time to go be a grownup, drink cof­fee and pull some weeds.

Now let’s see…two weeds walk into a bar…

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  • Carol says:

    Funny. I know I’m older than you. I have decided after being a grown up, I will start a sec­ond child­hood. Of course, in my sec­ond child­hood I will still have to weed, but only because I want to. I won’t try to write a lim­er­ick, but I will share I think I have a weed in my gar­den called Devil’s Beg­gartick. Now, who named in that?

  • M A says:

    You need to get out and “weed” more often! This is hilarious.

  • Dee Nash says:

    That was pretty damned funny. Did you hear the one about the rabbi, the priest and the weed? No, wait, that’s not right. ~~Dee

  • Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    Didn’t you feel like a grownup after you had a kid? I didn’t either. I don’t feel like a grownup, I just feel like the dis­junct between my mind and my body is get­ting greater. In my mind, it hasn’t been that long since I grad­u­ated from col­lege. I am always shocked when I do the math. But my body def­i­nitely knows I’m not a kid any­more. And if I’m not a kid, I must be a grownup. I guess.

  • Christina says:

    I always look upon weed­ing as ther­apy time for your insides and out (eat and har­vest them as you go!) and think how pretty they will look pre­sented on all that din­ner­ware! We could start a din­ner­ware library and then we can have infi­nite sets to use (I feel good now know­ing I’m not the only one with all these weird thoughts and habits!) See you almost are a doctor/therapist.

  • Layanee says:

    I am try­ing to embrace ‘being a grownup’. I think I will go order one of those very pop­u­lar adult col­or­ing books! Wait, I can just go grab one of my granddaughter’s kid col­or­ing books. Oh, and I read that as ‘Harry Bit­ter­cress’. Stop call­ing Harry a weed! Very entertaining.

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Behind the Hedge–Garden Work Areas

Unless you count the jun­gle of house plants in my child­hood and later col­lege dorm rooms, I started gar­den­ing as a veg­etable gar­dener rather than a flower or orna­men­tals gar­dener. After all, I do love food. I also come from a fam­ily in which prac­ti­cal and use­ful activities—such as fix­ing your own car, build­ing a shed or grow­ing your own food—are highly valued.

But even more than that, the intel­lec­tual part of me under­stands that food is grown from the ground thanks to the com­bi­na­tion of sun, soil and rain. The roman­tic part of me, on the other hand, thinks that grow­ing veg­eta­bles, herbs and fruits is some­how magic. When I grow a tomato, I can mar­vel at it for quite a long time before I get around to sink­ing my teeth into it. The cucum­bers I pickle are more than mere jars of food. They are the prod­uct of my abil­ity to do magic—to make some­thing from prac­ti­cally nothing.

Down Place Greenhouse

Green­house at Down Place

Unlike some of my gar­den­ing friends, I have not had the advan­tage of a gar­den mentor—a par­ent or grand­par­ent to show me how to stake toma­toes, wran­gle rangy straw­berry plants or iden­tify which end of the bulb goes up. What I have learned about gar­den­ing has largely been gleaned from read­ing books and killing plants. So when I digress from my report­ing of my Big Fat Eng­lish Gar­den Vaca­tion to sneak behind the hedge and look at the lit­tle green­houses and poke among the uneven rows of nurs­ery pots, just under­stand that I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out this whole gar­den­ing busi­ness. Part of me still believes that if I can just see how these incred­i­ble gar­den­ers do things behind the scenes I may learn some secrets that will help trans­form my own gar­den into some ver­sion of the Eng­lish ideal. For me, it’s like sneak­ing behind the magician’s curtain.

So let me tell you about a few of the things I saw there behind the hedge.

In many Amer­i­can gar­dens I have vis­ited, there is no obvi­ous place where plants are started and nur­tured before being set into the ground or pot­ted up into a pretty con­tainer. In some Amer­i­can gar­dens it looks as if every flower and shrub comes straight from the nurs­ery and gets plopped right into a hole wait­ing for it to arrive. In oth­ers there is a lit­tle stash of plants in nurs­ery pots that looks as if they were shoved behind a garage or under a deck in the hurry to tidy up for vis­i­tors. But I haven’t seen a lot of pot­ting benches and even fewer greenhouses.

greenhouse at The Grange


greenhouse at Old Erringham Cottage

In con­trast, every gar­den we vis­ited on my recent Eng­lish gar­den tour has a place tucked out of sight and around a cor­ner to prop­a­gate plants. At one small town gar­den we vis­ited the gar­den­ers only had space for a small cold­frame, but most gar­dens had at least a small greenhouse.

As you can imag­ine, a few of the green­houses were pic­turesque or even archi­tec­tural show­cases in them­selves. But sur­pris­ingly, most of the green­houses I saw—even on the grand estates—were small­ish, eco­nom­i­cal and util­i­tar­ian struc­tures. Some were well-swept, quite tidy and visitor-ready, but oth­ers were a lit­tle bit messy. Oh they weren’t oh-my-god messy, just the kind of messy that hap­pens when there is work in progress. Many times it looked as if the gar­dener had just stepped away from the pot­ting bench for a cup of tea.

garden work area2

A few of the green­houses were used for grow­ing toma­toes and cucum­bers. If, like me, you are a veg­etable gar­dener then you know that toma­toes and cucum­bers like the warm sum­mer weather that we have here in most of the U.S. I sup­pose the com­par­a­tively cool British sum­mers aren’t all that con­ducive to grow­ing these warmth-loving veg­gies in the open air, so they become cod­dled indoor veg­gies in the U.K.

Some of the green­houses still had seed start­ing oper­a­tions in progress while oth­ers had been mostly emp­tied out by the time we vis­ited in mid-June. A good num­ber of them seemed to have long-term plant board­ers on the green­house shelves. One green­house even had a grape vine as thick as my arm grow­ing through the pot­ting bench, up the wall and cov­er­ing the ceiling.

vine in greenhouse

Near the green­house there were the inevitable com­post bins. As with the green­houses, some were magazine-worthy (for a cer­tain type of mag­a­zine any­way) while oth­ers were no more glam­orous than lay­ered yard waste, but they all had a com­post oper­a­tion going on.

When we asked the gar­den­ers about whether they fer­til­ize, even sin­gle gar­dener said, “Yes!” A cou­ple of gar­den­ers men­tioned spe­cial tomato food. But most often they men­tioned the lib­eral use of fish, blood and bone. In fact, I saw con­tain­ers of fish, blood and bone fer­til­izer in a cou­ple of the work sheds. When I returned home and Googled around to learn about sim­i­lar fer­til­izer com­bi­na­tions here in the U.S., there were none to be found. Strangely enough I did find a Mir­a­cle Grow (of all com­pa­nies!) fish, blood and bone fer­til­izer avail­able in the U.K.

fish blood and bone

Another thing I noticed in the green­houses were plenty of terra cotta pots, although I didn’t see many actu­ally put to use. The nurs­ery plants were all in those ubiq­ui­tous black nurs­ery pots–nothing at all fancy about that.

Potting Shed

Invari­ably, tools were care­fully orga­nized and well-maintained. There was no putting away a dirty shovel or hoe in these Eng­lish gar­dens. I can’t say if they were reg­u­larly sharp­ened, but I’m will­ing to bet that they were and that the fru­gal Brits know the value of tool maintenance.

tool garage

Birds must be a major prob­lem for gar­den­ers grow­ing berries and cur­rants. But rather than toss­ing on a stiff (and often tan­gled) black plas­tic net like I do here in my gar­den, nearly all the fruit­ing plants were caged in proper, neatly con­structed chicken wire houses, com­plete with lit­tle doors and some­times with raised beds. It’s obvi­ously work­ing for them because the cur­rents were gor­geous. We were there almost at peak pick­ing time.

red currents

Berry house at Nyewood House

Come to think of it, the gar­den­ers may have had their fruits pro­tected to keep vis­i­tors like me from gob­bling them right there by the bush. I mean, I had never had a goose­berry before so when everyone’s back was turned I picked and gob­bled the first unpro­tected goose­berry I came across in one of the fancy gar­dens! Have you had one? It’s an inter­est­ing tex­ture and a bit tart. But tasty. I can def­i­nitely see mak­ing goose­berry jam.

I have plenty of gor­geous pho­tos of the actual gar­dens. I took 1,977 pho­tos dur­ing my week-long tour, so it’s tak­ing me a while to fig­ure out how to share them. Check back!

A note about the pho­tos: I haven’t iden­ti­fied the loca­tion of most of these pho­tos. There is cer­tainly noth­ing shame­ful about well-organized tools or green­houses. But these pho­tos are cer­tainly not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the beau­ti­ful gar­dens we saw, so I’ll wait to iden­tify the gar­dens with the pretty photos–to come.



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About Those English Gardens

There is no place like an Eng­lish gar­den. And as a gar­dener, there was no bet­ter way to spend a week away from my own gar­den than vis­it­ing gar­dens in Eng­land. So in June, off I went on—of all things—an orga­nized bus tour.

As a prac­tic­ing semi-hermit, I’m not usu­ally enthu­si­as­tic about orga­nized group activ­i­ties. But an orga­nized bus tour of Eng­lish gar­dens makes a great deal of sense.

For one thing, the trip coor­di­na­tor was able to get us an incred­i­bly good deal on a pack­age that included air­fare, hotel, most meals and gar­den entrance fees. Because we were a small group of just 25 peo­ple, she also was able to get us into pri­vate gar­dens that the aver­age tourist would never be able to visit on their own. Trav­el­ing on a lux­ury bus meant we didn’t have to sweat the details of direc­tions or sched­ules. And finally, when you travel with other enthu­si­as­tic gar­den­ers there will always be some­one nearby to help iden­tify that splen­did shrub or drop dead gor­geous flower, not to men­tion enjoy a pub lunch or just a lit­tle sit on a well-placed gar­den bench.

Old Erringham Cottage 2

Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK

Over the course of a week we vis­ited 16 gar­dens, 12 of them pri­vate rather than pub­lic gardens.

The Eng­lish coun­try­side is idyl­lic in the spring and sum­mer. The long agrar­ian tra­di­tion can still be seen in the Eng­lish coun­try­side. You still see miles and miles of ver­dant rolling hills sur­rounded by stone walls and dot­ted with idyl­lic sheep, cows and goats. Drive through the small vil­lages and towns and even the most mod­est homes have roses scram­bling up the walls, lov­ingly main­tained win­dow boxes and wildly bloom­ing peren­nial borders.

English Countryside


Old stone walls and older stone houses add to the rugged but beau­ti­ful back­drop for all the exu­ber­ant plant growth. Flow­ers are allowed to seed and grow in cracks and crevices. Roses are encour­aged to scram­ble up the sides of stone fences and gar­den walls. The warm brown color of the stone pro­vides the per­fect pal­let back­drop for both the soft pas­tels or the more flam­boy­ant flowers.

One of the rea­sons Eng­lish gar­dens are so spec­tac­u­larly full of vig­or­ous plants that in some cases are twice the size of their Amer­i­can ver­sions is that the days are incred­i­bly long. Located at about a lat­i­tude of 51, Eng­land sits much far­ther north than, for exam­ple, Anchor­age, Alaska, at 61 degrees lat­i­tude. That means that in the third week of June, sun­rise in West Sus­sex was at 4:50 a.m. and sun­set was at 9:18 p.m. That’s more than 16 long hours of day­light for the plants to sun­bathe and grow. Com­pare that to my Mary­land gar­den, which gets a measly 14 hours of sum­mer sun­light. As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, it also meant that the sun in Eng­land woke me up at 3:30 a.m. as it began its ascent over the horizon.

Plants in Steps

Then there is the issue of heat and humid­ity. I know that peo­ple in some more of the more hell­ish parts of the U.S. will scoff at my weather whin­ing, but here in Mary­land the sum­mer days can eas­ily get into the 90s and the humid­ity num­bers hover around that same num­ber. Dare to go out­side in the late after­noon and it is like swim­ming in hot air. While we were in Eng­land, some of the hotel staff and even some gar­den­ers com­plained about the heat. It was 75 degrees! Hah. I laugh at their heat!

All this heat and humid­ity pro­vides the per­fect breed­ing ground for mos­qui­toes and ticks. In Eng­land, ticks are not as much a prob­lem as in the U.S., although Google tells me that disease-carrying ticks are on the rise there as well. And when we asked one gar­dener about the mos­quito sit­u­a­tion in Eng­land she assured us that they may have a few but that “They only bite the animals—not humans.”

Well, how civilized!

Old Erringham Cottage

Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK


As a vis­i­tor one of the first things that you notice is that Eng­lish gar­dens are full. Packed full. Plants grow up and out and over and under and around. Won­der­fully tex­tured shrubs, such as cot­i­nus or spirea, serve as the back­drop against which peren­ni­als are wedged. Add some creep­ing vines, such as clema­tis, or a ram­bling rose scam­per up walls, trel­lises and tuteurs so that your eye is car­rier upward. Maybe there will be some clipped box­wood or a nicely shaped yew to pro­vide a bit of struc­ture as a foil to all the ram­bunc­tious scram­bling plants.

Garden House at Parsonage Farm

Gar­den House at Par­son­age Farm, Kid­ford, Sus­sex, UK

You will see broad expanses of lawns on large estates, but in smaller gar­dens the swaths of green grass that make up most of Amer­i­can gar­den real estate just aren’t to be found. And I noticed par­tic­u­larly on this trip that even grand estates are allow­ing rib­bons, patches and even fields of grass to grow high. Some­times it may be just a ring around a tree. In other places the tall grass may run along an old stone fence. In one gar­den we vis­ited the field was a true flower meadow in which wild orchids had taken up res­i­dence. I loved that the home own­ers had placed lit­tle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards on sticks around the perime­ter so that we could find the orchids.

The Grange

The Grange, Sus­sex, UK


Eng­lish gar­dens are all about peren­nial borders—really, really wide bor­ders where the plants are jam packed in so that you can’t see even the small­est patch of soil. That means that the plants touch.

Arundel Castle aliums and lavender

Ali­ums and Laven­der at Arun­del Cas­tle and Garden


(Aside: I have heard more than one gar­den designer here in the U.S. laugh at clients who have panic attacks because they installed plants that touch. Well, as we learned even before kinder­garten, there is good touch­ing and there is bad touch­ing. When plants touch, it is good touch­ing. Okay?)

And let me tell you about the edg­ing. Those Brits adore their razor sharp bor­der edg­ing. They are cut deep into the sod and are as pre­cise as a mil­i­tary crease. They are metic­u­lously groomed to keep it in tip-top shape. One gar­dener showed us her husband’s prized tool for this task. I was so impressed I came right home and found a sim­i­lar tool for myself.

Almost every Eng­lish gar­den I have vis­ited has a lit­tle green­house, nurs­ery beds and work stag­ing area. These work areas are tucked away so you don’t really notice them, but I always seek them out because they tell me some­thing about how the work gets done. Most of the green­houses have some sort of prop­a­ga­tion project in the works. These gar­dens are already packed full, so per­haps they are expand­ing their bor­ders, grow­ing for friends or maybe grow­ing new plants that will be sold at their local gar­den club or other fundraiser.

Rose at Sandhill Farm

Climb­ing rose at Rose­mary Alexander’s Sand­hill Farm, Sus­sex, UK

Eng­lish gar­dens are all about flow­ers and beauty. Veg­etable gar­dens are quite attrac­tive, but usu­ally quite util­i­tar­ian and tucked away so that you must go search­ing for them. Toma­toes and cucum­bers are often grow­ing in the greenhouses.

Hah! We may not be able to grow David Austin roses here in Mary­land, but we can grow toma­toes and cucum­bers with­out a greenhouse!

The British rally together with their gar­den­ing spirit too, invit­ing the pub­lic into pri­vate gar­dens as part of what they call their National Gar­dens Scheme. I love that they call it a “scheme.” Here state­side we think of schemes as nefar­i­ous plots. The British con­sider a scheme a really good idea, in this case a way of rais­ing money for char­i­ta­ble causes. Gar­den­ers can apply to become a part of the National Gar­den Scheme. They are inter­viewed and their gar­dens inspected. Gar­den­ers whose gar­den­ers are accepted into the scheme must offer some pub­lic days each year and also host pri­vate groups. Fees col­lected for the gar­den vis­its all go into the National Gar­den Scheme cof­fers and are dis­trib­uted to char­i­ta­ble organizations.

Arundel Castle Garden

Arun­del Cas­tle Garden


Lest you start to despair about how inad­e­quate your gar­den is (I did!), let me tell you that only two of the gar­dens were pri­mar­ily maintained—if not created—by the home­own­ers. At sev­eral of the gar­dens we vis­ited, we were met and guided around by the full-time gar­dener. At one gar­den, the full-time chief gar­dener told us he had two part-time helpers—one who worked two days a week and another who worked three days a week. Both are 71 years old and, accord­ing to the young-ish head gar­dener, “Have a most excel­lent work ethic.” One of the old timers was pre­vi­ously in the mil­i­tary. The head gar­dener said that he could set his watch by the guy.

His start­ing time is at 8:30 in the morn­ing. At 8:31 I hear the trim­mer start. His quit­ting time is at 4:30 in the after­noon. At 4:29 I hear him put away his tools.”
Ah, to have help in the garden.

But even if you don’t have help, a con­tainer or two or per­haps a win­dow box sit­u­ated so you can see it as you scrub up the evening dishes can perk up your out­door space. I hope you find the pho­tos as inspir­ing as I do.

Old Erringham Cottage Poppy Field

Poppy field at Old Erring­ham Cot­tage, Shoreham-By-Sea, Sus­sex, UK


I’ll be shar­ing more. Come along on the trip with me.


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  • Carol says:

    I loved com­ing along with you via your blog post and look for­ward to your next post about your trip. It sounds lovely, and I hope to/plan to go some­time to see for myself.

    • Robin Ripley says:

      You’re over­due, Carol! Go for it!

  • Jean says:

    Wow, how I would love a small group tour in Eng­land. Every time I go there I have a hard time get­ting around since we usu­ally don’t have a car. And those gar­dens are some­times dif­fi­cult to get to with­out one.

    Although I know most of those gar­dens have full or part-time gar­den­ers, don’t you think it’s fan­tas­tic that they even have a cul­ture of hir­ing peo­ple for that kind of exper­tise? I wish we did. Looks like you all had a fab­u­lous time!

    • Robin Ripley says:

      You’re exactly right, Jean. It’s dif­fi­cult to even find a reli­able land­scape crew around here. And the ones that you can find can’t tell a hosta from a helle­bore. Oh, the sto­ries I could tell!

  • Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    I really enjoyed the broad overview you gave, not­ing dif­fer­ences in empha­sis and style. I knew Britain had a milder cli­mate, but I had never really con­sid­ered the effect of longer day­light on the plants.

    • Robin Ripley says:

      Thanks Kathy. Longer days for the plants may also mean longer days for the gar­dener. LOL

  • Kat says:

    What a won­der­ful trip! I love Eng­lish gar­dens and the whole con­cept of flow­ers “touch­ing”! I do wish we had their added hours of sun­light and milder tem­per­a­tures, but at least we’ve had lots of rain here in Mary­land, unlike recent years. I hope you’re enjoy­ing your sum­mer so far!


    • Robin Ripley says:

      Hi Kat — My gar­den is lov­ing the rain, although I must be alert now to fun­gus issues. Still, it’s bet­ter than drought, so I’ll take it. Hope all is well!

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Morning Eye Candy: Dropping By

The snow has receded, leaving only snowdrops in its wake.


In the Ross Conifer Arboretum – Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen

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LGBT@NYBG Continues March 19 at Orchid Evenings

The next of our popular Orchid Evenings is this Thursday, March 19, and this special night will be dedicated to our friends in the LGBT community as part of the Garden’s new LGBT@NYBG initiative. In partnership with the NGLCCNY, NYBG will dedicate one of our special ticketed cocktail evenings to LGBT outreach for each exhibition.

Guests on Thursday will be able to admire The Orchid Show: Chandeliers and even enter for a chance to win prizes from our friends at Guerlain. Enjoy some beautiful snapshots from our last Orchid Evening below, and get your tickets for one of the remaining dates between now and April 19!


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Fine Foliage and Bold Bracts

Sonia Uyterhoeven is NYBG‘s Gardener for Public Education.

Aechmea 'Del Mar'

Aechmea ‘Del Mar’

I find myself surrounded by bromeliads twice each year. During the early summer, when temperatures have sufficiently warmed, high-end landscape designers use these intriguing tropical beauties to dress up window boxes and the small front gardens of Manhattan town houses. And in frosty February and fickle March, though the temperatures make it an unlikely time for a northerner to encounter bromeliads, you’ll find colorful Neoregelia, showy Vriesea, and floriferous Aechmea thriving in the safe haven of our Conservatory.

Bromeliads add an important element of design to The Orchid Show with their color and texture. Their broad, lance-shaped foliage emerges gracefully from their vase-like form, adding structure and drama to the display. This year they are complemented by an array of lush, tropical and subtropical ferns. In nature, bromeliads often grow alongside orchids—the show takes this natural association and transforms it into a vibrant and stylized display.

Like orchids, bromeliads can be epiphytic, terrestrial, or lithophytic, making their homes in the heights of the forest canopy, on the ground, or on rocks. They tolerate a broad range of temperatures from near freezing to 100°F, but prefer temperatures that range between 65–90°F during the day and 50–65°F at night.

Aechmea 'Burning Bush'

Aechmea ‘Burning Bush’

If you grow a bromeliad as a houseplant, they do best in bright, indirect sunlight. When grown outdoors in the summer, they prefer dappled light and thrive when given the mild morning sun. Potting soils need to hold moisture yet drain quickly. A mix of 50% soilless potting mix with 50% fine grade orchid mix works well.

Tank bromeliads are plants that hold water in the reservoirs of their leaves. The roots serve to anchor the plants, while the leaves take on the function of water and nutrient absorption. The cups (at the center of the vase-like form) should be full of water at all times, so flush them with water once a week. The potting medium should be watered but allowed to approach drying out between each watering.

Many bromeliads die after flowering. They produce “pups” or small offshoots that develop around the base of the plant. These can be separated from the parent when the pups are 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the parent plant. You can also cut the dead parent back to its base and leave the pups to grow and fill in the remaining space. Other bromeliads form colonies by producing clusters of plants on stolons (long shoots that grow along the surface of the soil).

In The Orchid Show: Chandeliers, we have a non-stop supply of fine foliage and colorful bracts. Aechmeas are tank bromeliads that have some of the most fanciful inflorescence. One of my favorite is Aechmea ‘Del Mar’. It has grassy green leaves and a hot pink flower spike replete with cobalt blue bracts and whitish-blue flowers.

If you like a plant with a bit more sizzle, then Aechmea ‘Burning Bush’ is the one for you. It’s glossy, bright green foliage acts as a foil for the red-orange inflorescence. Aechmea chantinii ‘Little Harv’ has thick, lance-shaped silver foliage with a salmon-pink spike and bracts that sport yellow flowers. It creates a formidable cacophony of color—one that startles in just the right way.

Vriesea gigantea 'Nova'

Vriesea gigantea ‘Nova’

While bromeliads can be beautiful, some can also be ferocious. The edges of their lance-shaped leaves carry small, sharp spines. While the three Aechmeas mentioned above are spiny, Aechmea ‘Harvito’ has spineless, dark green foliage with a vivid pink bloom. If you are interested in colorful foliage as well as flowers, then a good choice is Aechmea ‘Frappuccino’, with white striations running through its copper-colored foliage.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, perhaps some explanation is called for. A bract is a modified leaf with a flower or cluster of flowers in its axil. Chances are good that you’ve seen one before. The classic examples are poinsettia and bougainvillea. The colorful structures that have the appearance of flower petals are actually bracts, and the miniscule or insignificant flowers are tucked in their center. In many instances, the bracts are there to attract and guide pollinators to the small flowers.

I mentioned earlier that in many bromeliads the mother plant dies once it flowers and creates “pups.” Aechmeas fall into this category. But here’s the good news: the inflorescence on many of these bromeliads lasts for several months—almost the lion’s share of a year on some plants. The mother plant also takes her time while she declines and the pups are being formed.

Vriesea are also typically tank bromeliads. Their foliage is variable in color, ranging from shiny grass green to intricately mottled leaves. The flowers are born on sword-shaped spikes with colorful bracts and tubular flowers.

Neoregelia 'Guacamole' and Delta Maidenhair Fern

Neoregelia ‘Guacamole’ and
Delta Maidenhair Fern

The Orchid Show coincides with the display of two beautiful, mottled-leaf varieties of bromeliad. Vriesea gigantea ‘Nova’ is an epiphyte or lithophyte from Brazil that forms a large rosette with green and creamy yellow foliage. Vriesea ospinae var. gruberi is a native of Columbia that has a variable striped color pattern ranging from pale yellow to cream mixed with shades of burgundy.

Neoregelia do not have showy flowers, but they compensate with exceptional foliage. They look their best when the light levels are on the higher side (not too shady). If you over-fertilize these bromeliads, the colorful foliage will remain green. We have Neoregelia ‘Cookie’ and ‘Guacamole’ in the show. The latter is an appetizing mélange of bright burgundy red and apple green. ‘Cookie’ is variegated with a trio of pronounced green, rosy pink, and cream stripes.

If showy and somewhat exotic are traits you love in a houseplant, bromeliads are a likely choice at almost any time of year—and, with the proper care, that counts even here in New York. Keep an eye out for these lush beauties during The Orchid Show: Chandeliers, now through April 19.

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