Jennifer Simmons loves plants, gardening in the beautiful outdoors, and chatting about growing with friendly gardeners. Gardening professionally gives her the opportunity to embrace and meld all three. She believes that gardening engages the mind as well as the body and is an amazing outlet for creativity. @GrdnGirlL
In This Episode You’ll Discover …
- Gardening trends
- A garden as a laboratory
- Keep it simple with in dealing with deer
- garden design ideas for modern living
- Succulents & cacti
- garden design ideas for beautiful front and backyards
Click here to see the book Jennifer mentioned on the show:
Watch the Podcast Interview Here:
Dave: Well good morning, good afternoon or good evening depending where in the world you are when you listen to this. I’m Dave Ledoux and welcome to another episode of Back To My Garden. We’re going all the way across the world today to the west coast.
Jennifer loves plants, gardening in the beautiful outdoors and chatting about growing with friendly gardeners. Gardening professionally gives her the opportunity to embrace and meld all 3 together. She believes that gardening engages the mind as well as the body and is an amazing outlet for creativity. Jennifer joins us from the San Francisco Bay area. I want to welcome to the show Jennifer Simmons. Hi Jennifer!
Jennifer: Hi! Thank you for having me.
Dave: Well good morning I’m glad you’re here.
Jennifer: I can’t wait.
Dave: I’ve given you a little introduction and I want to get to know you better and the listeners want to hear your stories. Jennifer take a minute or two and share with us a little bit about your background and how you got into gardening.
Jennifer: Well, I grew up around gardening. My grandmother and great grandmother were always taking pictures of plants and flowers and my grandmother always had lots of plants and trees and succulents and other things growing up in San Jose California. You have that warm nice weather so we can pretty much grow anything we want. Not lately because of drought but … and then when I got my own place I pretty much started doing my own gardening. I wanted it to look a certain way. I laid flagstone. And then when I had my first son I was home and I would garden with him around my neighborhood, people started to notice. I would help them with their gardens. Then when my son got older I helped with a kids’ garden. Gardening with children. Then I realized that this is just something I want to do. Can I get paid to do this? I mean if I could it would be great if I could do that.
So I went to a program in Los Altos, it’s a college, and I got my A.S. in Environmental Horticulture. That it actually where I met my boss, I met her at a Bernard Trainor conference with Pacific Horticulture which was a favorite magazine of mine. I was actually talking to his plantsman, Bernard Trainor’s plantsman, and he was saying “what do you want to do?” and I said “I’m a gardener. I want to garden. I don’t want to design, I don’t want to draw, I want to be in the dirt!”.
He’s like “you should talk to Amy, she takes care of a lot of gardens”.
I talked to her, told her I could be her intern, and the rest is history. I’ve been working for her for about 4 years now. We pretty much intensely manage about 50 gardens around the Palo Alto, Atherton, Woodside, Los Altos area, pretty much Silicon Valley. There are a lot of beautiful gardens around here. We have our work cut out for us for sure.
Dave: Wow! Very cool stuff. Excellent. You don’t do Google do you? That would be enormous.
Jennifer: It’s all residential gardens. So we have everything from little postcard gardens to 2 acres, so it’s all residential. We have pretty nice clients, Facebook people, Google people, you name it, we have them.
Dave: Nice! That’s wonderful.
Jennifer: Actually my boss’s boss is a pretty well known designer in the peninsula named Debbie Ruskin and she’s been designing for twenty years, thirty years, so we take care of a lot of her gardens as well. But it’s all residential, I think we have an apartment building but I don’t go there. We have 3-4 crews of guys that help us do everything and we boss them around and stuff like that.
Dave: You said something interesting. Because you’re in a beautiful climate but you’ve had this unbelievable drought. What’s that been like for you at work with this crazy drought?
Jennifer: You know it’s been really interesting. I’ve always loved succulents and cacti. Working with Bernard Trainor, I don’t know if your listeners know who he is, he’s a pretty well known garden designer. He uses a lot of Restios and grasses, so we’re minded that way for what we pick for clients. That stuff is bulletproof, a lot of times you can pretty much plant it, get it established and you’re done. Although I take that back. Yesterday I was working in a garden and I was pruning some Chondropetalum tectorum and I was just like, Wow! this such a low maintenance plant until it’s NOT!
With the drought we’re just getting our clients to be more mindful of that. And they’re coming around too, let’s get rid of our grass, let’s turn our water down, let’s try Dymondia, let’s try a Thyme lawn. We have a lot of really great clients. One of our clients, her garden, she almost let that thing die this summer because a lot of her plants are Mediterranean plants. We were all worried, we were biting our nails all summer like “should we turn the water on?” and she’s like “no, let’s not turn it on let’s see what happens.”
And we got a really nice rain storm in December and her garden just BOOM! it was alive. And it was amazing to see the plants really adapt to that, it was very cool.
Dave: You know you say “Mediterranean” and you think well it’s hot, but it needs a lot of rain. But there are some desert like areas like in Greece and the mountains of Italy and Spain. That must be so cool. I can’t even fathom, you say “everything started blooming in December” and we’ve got sub-freezing temperature and snow on the ground.
Jennifer: Right. We don’t get a break. That’s the thing about being a maintenance manager, I’m maintaining all these gardens. These clients can have anything they want. It’s kind of a balance. I try to explain to them, if we were living on the east coast this would be covered with snow. Right now this is our time to try to relax but really our dormant period here in the Bay area is more summer time. That’s when we slow down because it’s pretty hot. And you don’t want to be doing a lot of gardening and planting when it’s really, really hot. We like to plant in the fall and in the spring. We actually do a lot of planting in the winter. It’s kind of a little backward here as far as other people go.
Dave: You’ve got these fifty gardens. Is there anything that when you go into a garden, you go “Oh No!” You know it’s going to be a problem, or maybe a certain plant that maybe frustrates you?
Jennifer: Yes. Palo Alto is a whole different world. There’s a lot of Boxwood. There’s a lot of traditional type gardens with Azaleas, and Rhododendrons, and Camellias. To me I love all gardens and I love all plants, but those things are sort of in the wrong place and they never quite look good. And also, too, when I see soil that looks tired and hasn’t been amended with compost or any updates, you can tell those gardens, they have a feel. It’s like you walk in and it’s not alive here. It’s just sad plants. Sad soil. We’ve really tried to, some people won’t compromise, they want their Azaleas, they want their Rhododendrons. They just do that well here so we’re always amending. We don’t have a lot of those clients but they are there. That frustrates me.
There’s the lady from Atherton that wants flats and flats of annuals, color, they’re having parties and planting annuals and watering like crazy. That kind of got me at first but I’ve gotten used to it, we don’t do it as much especially now with the drought, it’s been a good excuse.
Dave: Since I have you I have to ask you about amending soil. I’m always asking about secrets, do you have a bag of tricks that you love for composting or amending or mulching?
Jennifer: Well, we have a really great resource here in the Bay area called LyngSo Garden Materials and we use a lot of their compost. They’d got the Diestel compost. Diestel is a farm that raises turkeys and chickens and there’s a lot of compost from there. I don’t have the luxury of being in one place for a long period of time so I need stuff that’s going to be good and I can just leave it and come back in a couple of weeks or a month and it’s going to be good. I really like alfalfa, I really like, I’m trying to think what I use. I use a lot of organic, pretty much only organic, any kind of chicken manure. Any of those organic stuffs. If you love compost we got it. And we have a lot of clay soil here, and that’s why when it does rain here it really gets trapped because we have the clay. It’s not really fast draining so you don’t need a lot of amendments but definitely if I’m doing Azaleas or Rhododendrons I’m going to go and get Active Planting Mixes and all that kind of stuff. It has to be ready to go.
Dave: I wanted to ask you Jennifer, you’re running around doing fifty gardens in basically a climate that never stops in terms of gardening. Do get any time to garden yourself on a personal garden?
Jennifer: I have a personal garden, yes. We actually just moved up to the mountains and we have deer and I’ve never dealt with deer before. So that’s been a kind of a fun challenge for myself. I want a garden at my house that I don’t have to fuss with too much. And actually my personal garden now, it’s kind of funny, is just leftover plants, which I think is fine. I’m around all these fabulous garden designers and everything is so designed, and my own garden I just pretty much do what I want to do. If I want to have red and yellow on one side, and muted tones on the other, I do it. So I kind of feel my personal garden is my laboratory. I put things in the wrong place, I’ll move plants around, I’ll overfeed some stuff, I won’t water things. I just kind of play around and don’t give myself a lot of rules because I am so regimented in my job. So yes, I do. I have veggies, and cactus, succulents in pots and containers, it’s kind of a Collector’s Garden, my garden.
Dave: I love it! You’re like a mad scientist!
Jennifer: I am! I always have been. It’s just so much fun to garden, it’s my passion. It’s the one thing I could do for hours and hours. And then I realize wow I’ve been out here for 8 hours I think I should go in. It’s very appropriate that this is my job, I get paid to do this, it’s awesome.
Dave: When you’re around friends and family, are you like a doctor? Do they come to you with garden questions?
Jennifer: Oh my god, how funny that you should ask that! I used to talk to people a lot about gardening and now I just say I work outside. I try not to say anything about it because I get asked a million questions. And it’s usually about houseplants which is so funny because all of my houseplants live outside. I’m so bad with houseplants. I find there’s a lot of people that get really guilty about killing plants. Especially the stuff they buy at the grocery store. Like orchids, the cute little azaleas and hydrangeas and all those things that are actually grown to die. So a lot of times I feel like I’m more counselling people, you know it’s ok, you can just compost that. No guilt. It doesn’t mean you have a black thumb, this thing is not meant to go in a garden. So I think I do a lot of that, it’s more of a garden coach.
Dave: Garden coach, garden therapist.
Jennifer: Yes! Garden therapist, exactly. Don’t you find that? I think that most people that garden have a lot of people that do that to them, ask them ‘why won’t my orchid re-bloom?’. And it’s, well, you know, orchids don’t always re-bloom, it’s not a big deal, just go buy another one.
Dave: My wife and I were at a market, a garden market, a farmer’s market, and we’re talking to her friend who is a Master Gardener at a booth. And a lady just randomly walked up with a dead tomato plant and wanted her to diagnose why the tomato had died. And she had lugged this thing to a farmer’s market. I’ve got some sympathy. I’m a bit of a rookie still in the garden, so I still get emotionally attached to certain plants.
Jennifer: Yes. A lot of people do. We have clients like that. I can see if your grandmother gave you something that’s precious, a Boston Fern, she kept it alive for twenty years, and you kill it, then I have a lot of sympathy. But mostly I’m just like, it’s okay. If I give somebody a gift that’s something living I tell them that I’m giving this to you to enjoy for a couple of weeks. When it starts to die just compost it. I won’t be checking in on you, so there’s a lot of that too. When I go to someone’s house they’re so embarrassed about their garden or whatever it’s No No No! I love it all. I’ve seen gardens that were, all the plants were still in the black pots and they were just arranged and I love that too. I walk around and see what do you got?
Dave: I want to ask you Jennifer, you’re on the front lines of gardening now, do you know, maybe it’s more of a prediction. Is there anything that’s going to be trendy or popular or hot in the next year or two that maybe people haven’t heard about yet?
Jennifer: Hmmm … oh boy. That’s really hard. I still think, I have some friends that still don’t believe this, but I still think succulents and cacti are going to be a lot bigger, people are really going to come around because you know, water is a finite source. And these are plants that are lovely and textural and flower and don’t need a lot of water. So I think there’s going to be a lot more of that, the grasses, taking out their lawns, I find that that’s really happening. When I started studying about five years ago taking out your lawn was taboo. I mean living in the suburbs you have to have a lawn. And now I drive around and I really see a lot of people taking them out and I think that’s going to keep going. Which I find very exciting because it’s fun, it’s just fun to see what people come up with. And also, growing your own veg, I think that’s still going to be really big. People are kind of doing it on their own and trying things in pots, whatever they want to do. And too I also see, you know what I would like, is I find as a woman working in the gardening industry, there’s not a lot of good gardening working clothes for me. When I’m looking around I hope that that will be something more trending as women who work outside finding things to wear that are comfortable but still flattering and rugged. I haven’t found that yet, I’m hoping that will be something.
Dave: You just hit it! I had an ah-ha, that’s hot. There is no fashion for women in the garden.
Jennifer: No! And I always try to be fashionable in the garden! I have a lot of friends are like “Jenn, you’re so girly!” and it’s ok, I am, I’m a girl. That’s why I do “garden girl” I own it. I like to wear lipgloss and put my hair up and have cute jeans and things like that. I mean I’m working with guys all day. I live with all men, there has to be a balance. And this weekend I was looking for some pants and I was trying on Carhartt, and I was trying on Dickies, I was trying on these other ones and they’re all cut for men. It seems like really tough. I’m always breaking through my jeans. Anyways I’m still on the lookout. There’s a couple companies like Duluth Trading Company, I’ve gotten some cool stuff from them like socks and things like that I find comfortable and can put up with me on my knees climbing and getting dirt down my shirt.
Dave: I noticed that in your introduction where most people want to choose jobs where they sit in an office all day under a fluorescent light, you wanted to be in the soil.
Jennifer: Oh yeah, as a matter of fact you have to take all the courses and some of the courses were design courses where you actually had to draw out things. My garden design drawing class, I pretty much cried every single class or I’d have to excuse myself. It was murder for me. I made it through and I got a good grade but I pushed myself and I was happy that I did. But I realized this isn’t what I want to do. I mean I design, I pick plants I do containers, I install planting. If something dies I pick something to do in there. So there’s a lot of design involved in my business but I’m not sitting at a desk coming up with planting plans and stuff. I mean that’s not me, I couldn’t work in a job like that. That’s why I don’t work for a design firm. I work in maintenance it’s perfect for me really.
Dave: I love it! You know Jenn I glanced at the clock and our time is flying by and now is the time in the show when we play a game called Five Quick Questions.
Dave: This is your chance to share your gardening wisdom and experience with rookie novice gardeners. Are you ready to play?
Dave: Question number one. What’s the funniest or craziest mistake that you’ve ever made in the garden that you’re willing to admit to in public?
Jennifer: Oh gosh. When I first started working out I would wear white, that was kind of stupid. That was one thing. I’ve done all kinds of stupid stuff where I’ll be working in a 2-acre garden and I’ll think “oh I just need my pruners” and I’ll go all the way to one side and realize oh no I should bring my bag, and have to go all the way back and think “oh I just need this”. I do that a lot. My brain is going so fast I’m just like why don’t I just bring everything with me. I make that mistake a lot. I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off, not so much anymore but at first the guys would laugh at me. Why don’t you just bring your whole bag Jenn? You know, whatever.
Dave: Question number two. If you were only allowed to grow one plant next year, what plant would you have to grow?
Jennifer: I’ve always loved the plant Elegia Capensis Arestio, it’s just so gorgeous to me, and I don’t have one in my own garden and I’m going to try that.
Dave: OK, my Latin is a little rusty, help me with that one.
Jennifer: It’s Elegia Capensis.
Dave: I like to put the links up to Wikipedia or to different garden centers and the Latin. I’m always impressed with the Latin, that’s very good.
Jennifer: They put it in your head in horticulture school.
Dave: Well that makes sense. Now in terms of question three, the internet, I want everyone to follow Jennifer on Twitter @grdngirlL and you can share her tweets on social media. Jennifer do you have one or two favorite gardening resource websites that you could share?
Jennifer: Well I really like the UC Davis IPN, it’s a website that has a lot of really good stuff about diagnosing plant problems and pests and all that kind of stuff. I really like that website. Mostly I rely on books but I do google a lot of stuff.
Dave: Question four is about books. Do you have a favorite gardening book?
Jennifer: You know I have several but I really love the American Meadow Garden by Don Greenlea. I love that book, I use it a lot, it’s completely dogeared. Botany For Gardeners by Brian Capon was one of my favorite books and it really helped me a lot. I got that from school, it has great pictures. And I think the third book California Native Plants For The Garden by Carol Bornstein and David Frost and Barto Brian. That things like a bible, it’s all the California native plants.
Dave: There’s a big movement towards natives, aren’t there?
Jennifer: Yes, in California for sure, it’s really great. Of course I have to say Land Prince, the Landscape Designer of Bernard Trainor too, I mean he’s pretty much why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Dave: Nice. Isn’t it amazing how, I just have this believe that golf and gardening are a lot alike. Nobody wakes up and says “I want to be a golfer”. They always have a great teacher and I find all the great gardeners have amazing teachers. You’ve studied with some of the best.
Jennifer: Yes, it’s great. Just growing up around my family, my parents always gardened, and my grandmother gardened. Just being around that, my son is now doing gardening, he’s been doing this tree thing and I can see him so into it and it’s so fun.
Dave: I love it. Question five no right or wrong answer. Is there any plant that you’ve never grown that intrigues you and you would love to experiment with?
Jennifer: Oh gosh! Hmmm … I’ve grown so many plants. No, not really, I’m trying to think. Maybe like one of those big Saguaro Cactus? I think those are really cool. Also I’ve always wanted to have a Palo Verde tree, I always think those are so beautiful when I see them. Yeah, I’d like to try some of those plants. I don’t know if they do that well here, they need that hot hot.
Dave: Desert like conditions?
Jennifer: Yeah, whenever I see them I’m just in awe. Or those giant Euphorbia Cactus those kind of things I just drool over when I see.
Dave: That’s fantastic. Not too many of your neighbors would have an eight foot tall cactus.
Jennifer: No, not at all. I don’t think the deer would eat it, so maybe that’s a good thing!
Dave: That’s funny! It’s different when you have different pests that you’re not used to.
Jennifer: They eat everything! I just laugh, there’s so many people in our neighborhood who are old timers and they still want to grow their roses in the front yard and they just get decimated. It’s like Give It Up! I have salvias and agaves and stuff in my yard and they don’t eat it at all.
Dave: I guess they have more than enough that they don’t have to eat it, they get to be choosy and picky.
Jennifer: I just pick stuff that’s stinky and like really fat spiky leaves. They don’t seem to really like that.
Dave: I have rabbits in my yard and they get into the sunflowers, and they don’t touch the hot peppers though.
Jennifer: That’s pretty smart on their behalf. We have squirrels. Squirrels are what messes everything up here. They dig like crazy. They have a little OCD those squirrels.
Dave: Their brain is the size of an acorn. I’ve seen them take two bites out a hot pepper then throw it away, take two bites out of a tomato, throw it away.
Jennifer: Oh my god and they dig little divots all over the flower garden and mess up all the mulch it’s like ARG! Get out of here! They’re crazy.
Dave: Well for all the listeners, make sure you follow Jennifer on Twitter. @grdngrlL I’ll have all the links up and gardening books and website and tips that Jennifer shared. Jennifer the time has just flown by you’ve been a brilliant guest.
Jennifer: Well thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dave: We have listeners in 62 countries. All varieties, all kinds of gardens, so I want you to think of them all over the world. I want to give you the last word today to the listeners. Can you leave us with either a note of encouragement or a pearl of wisdom?
Jennifer: Gardening to me is just, my boss Amy and I always say, “You know what, it’s just gardening!” There’s no emergency, it’s like raising a child. You have expectations and sometimes they are met and sometimes they are not, it’s ok. If something dies, learn from that. Don’t feel it’s a failure. Don’t ever think you have a black thumb. Everyone can grow something, even the people that say they can’t. It’s just important to try and have fun, be outside and get your hands dirty and don’t worry about being sweaty and that kind of stuff. Gardening, like I said, is the only way that I know that you can engage your heart, your mind, your body everything, your passion can all rolled into one.
Dave: Tremendous! Outstanding stuff. Thanks for being on the show Jennifer!
Jennifer: Thank you so much!