When Mow, Blow and Go Isn't Enough
The Sandpiper, February 2006

Those of us who live in Del Mar are lucky to have access to a large pool of ‘gardeners' who are available to help us maintain our properties either weekly or on an ‘as needed' basis. These people are mostly Mexican and male. All are hard-working, loyal, proud and strong; they are eager to learn and are willing to work long days, seven days a week to support their families. They have excellent mechanical skills and can repair almost anything, from broken sprinkler systems to sagging gates.

Nonetheless, I get many calls from friends and clients who are looking for a ‘real' gardener…..someone who knows more about taking care of plants than they do and who can work without supervision. My response is always the same. It is, in my experience, very difficult to find people who are well-versed in horticultural principals and, also, available to actually implement or supervise the gardening chores.The gardening laborers who are available to us are people come from an entirely different cultural background; outdoor cleanliness is valued above plant knowledge, the intricacies of enriching soils and creating an attractive color palette. The ability to fix things, in the mostly rural environment from which they've immigrated, is much more important to them than aesthetic or scientific issues related to gardening.

So what's the solution? First, in order to facilitate communication, learn a little Spanish, especially as it relates to gardening. There are several books available that can help: Gardening in Spanish by Jardeneria Feliz (an auspicious name!); Gardening in Spanish and English by J.M. Bary; Spanish phrases for Landscaping Professionals by Jason Holbin and Domenic Arbini. There is also a cassette by Barbara Thuro entitled Gardening in Spanish: How to Communicate Effectively with your Spanish-Speaking Gardener.

Next, be there when your gardener is working and be prepared to give some direction and share your priorities. Would you rather not have clean bare soil but, instead, have leaf litter and mulch left in place? Do you want to have your flowers deadheaded? Which ones and how? Would you like your plants fertilized on a regular schedule? When and with what product? Would you like to hear the soft ‘shush' of a bamboo rake (yours, probably, since a bamboo rake won't last long on a gardening route) than the deafening roar of a gas-powered blower? Is weeding or pruning something you'd rather not have to do yourself? Do you have a special type of turf grass that should be cut with a particular type of mower? Would you rather not use pesticides?

to top of second column

It's probably clear that you're going to have to learn something about these subjects yourself if you're going to teach a gardener to do things your way. There are many good books that are helpful. Bruce Asakawa, Loren Nancarrow, and Pat Welsh are all local residents who have written books on gardening in San Diego. In addition, several periodicals have monthly columns devoted to what should be done in your garden during that particular month. The San Diego Union Tribune, San Diego Home and Garden Lifestyles, and Sunset Magazine, all give such advice. We who live in Del Mar, west of I-5, are in Sunset Zone 24. This is the immediate coastal zone of Southern California. You'll need to know this to get the most from these sources. Browse in nurseries and talk to the people who work there. Write down the names of the plants you like and then go home and read about them. Hire a landscape professional (horticulturist, designer or architect) to give you advice that you can pass on to your gardener.

Finally, remember that these people who work for you are very proud. Complement them when they've done a good job; remark on the fact that they arrive every week at the same time without a reminder. Several years ago, my husband suggested that we have a party to celebrate our gardener, who had not missed a Saturday in twelve years (at least without sending a replacement in his stead). This is a man whose answer to any request was ‘No Problema'. He was so enthralled by the ease with which one could make rich, dark soil, that he started a neighborhood composting project where he lived. Twenty of his clients came to his party and gave testament to what a hard-working gardener and fine human being he is. And, he provided Carne Asada and tamales for all of us!