Beth Stark: Boxwood Queen and so much more
WinH: What is your current role in horticulture?
BSt: I manage the Goodstay Gardens, owned by the University of Delaware and supported by the Friends of Goodstay Gardens, and also design, build and collaborate on the care of private gardens. Most of my work is with either volunteers (in the case of public sites like Goodstay, churches and synagogues, or neighborhood spaces) or with people who are caring for their own gardens. I really like working with people who love plants and gardens, and I’m luckily able to do that every day.
WinH: As someone that has an M.S. in psychology, how and why did you transition fields? Has your degree helped you in your current work?
BSt: I was a young mom at home with a new baby, staring out the window at a completely desolate city back yard all winter (November baby now turning 20) and much, much later, after I had spent lots of happy hours turning that space into a garden I realized that I really needed to find a way to spend my working life outside with plants. I thought at the time that it was going to be all about me and the plants, but now I think that gardens are really all about the person who loves the garden and will take care of it.
I started out designing gardens that were a reflection of my aesthetic preferences and plants I love, but luckily the psychology training finally kicked in and I realized that the most important thing I needed to do was build a relationship between the client and the plants and the space that could sustain itself, without me. A painful but necessary revelation!
Almost all of my clients are women, and it is always an interesting moment when the client can bring herself to reject some plant or design idea, and then I can explain that it is essential for her to discriminate between what she likes and doesn’t like, so that I can build HER garden, not MY garden. Women aren't always eager to examine our differences and disagreements, even on simple dimensions like plant preference, and the psychology background has helped me hone in on the social habits that undermine real collaboration. The successful outcome that I look for each season is not whether a project is a beautiful and finished garden, but whether the garden is loved. That is a goal that requires putting significant effort into really seeing and understanding the client as an individual. My psychological insight into myself is that I don't always have an appetite for the intensive human interactions required, but luckily respite can always be found in some isolated corner that needs weeding!
WinH: You mentioned you work with volunteers at Goodstay, do you employ any staff for your design and build company? If so, what are some of the differences you find in working with staff vs. volunteers?
BSt: I have tried staffing installation projects with a variety of people, from college kids to gardening professionals doing side work, but have gradually moved away from doing that. Instead I work with clients who have relationships with landscaping companies who mow and do big seasonal clean-ups, and the clients themselves are gardeners. I restrict myself to projects that I can install with a client or with minimal additional assistance, and also will help find contractors for components like structures and stonework. It is great to work with other professionals on jobs, but my favorite workers are volunteers—they are wonderful, and it makes the work a pleasure. At Goodstay in particular the volunteers are so knowledgeable about gardens and plants that we really do collaborate on the care and development of that garden. Other installation
projects staffed with volunteers often include many enthusiastic amateurs, and they have their own charm!
WinH: What are some challenges that you have had in your role as a female business owner in the green industry, and how did you overcome them?
BSt: I think that I had to stop thinking that the goal was to create and lead a design-build company with crews and a certain amount of volume. I had to analyze what business framework would allow me to do the work I wanted to do, which turned out to be a very straightforward consulting gardener business. The challenge was to put a value on my time, and ask for it, and not be apologetic. It is took me quite a few years to say with confidence that yes, it’s expensive, but also worth it. Everyone in this line of work is familiar with the client who wants to hire a high school kid to pull weeds, and I think that the challenge that women in particular have to face is that it isn’t our responsibility to gratify the client’s desire to pay a low rate. It is OK to sympathize, but important to bring the conversation back to the value of professional services and not be apologetic about the expense. In general I think this is a great field for women to enter on a part-time basis when they also have family responsibilities. It is low-cost to start and sustain, very controllable if kept at a referrals-only level, offers intellectual stimulation and lots
of physical activity, and can be tailored to fit your individual employment needs.
WinH: Who or what inspires you in horticulture?
BSt: The work that I have found most inspirational in recent years is the work of people who help us (us being plant-and-garden crazed people) see the bigger picture. Particularly people like Doug Tallamy, a scientist who translates the world of pure science (entomology and biology) so that gardeners can hear and understand how their seemingly unimportant choices impact ecological systems in significant ways. As a non-scientist I struggle to understand the actual details of plant and insect interactions, but when a scientist commits significant amounts of their valuable time to explaining how these things work to the rest of us, I am inspired and motivated to work at understanding it myself and passing the knowledge on to clients. James Hitchmough is
another scientist whose work I find very inspirational. He studies herbaceous plants from around the world with the goal of designing plant communities that are simultaneously sustainable and attractive to non-experts. Again, I’m grateful that someone with so much scientific expertise is also focused on the real-world applications of their research. More generally, I am constantly charmed by how passionate and obsessive otherwise normal people can be about plants and gardens. It is so delightful and inspirational to have such a large concentration of fellow-obsessives here in the Delaware Valley!
WinH: What changes would you like to see in our field to help the women working in
horticulture advance or find equality in the workplace?
BSt: My experience is with jobs that involve taking care of gardens, so my thoughts on this topic are about those kinds of jobs. I think that the example that presents itself most readily is the landscaping crew of multiple guys running from place to place all day spending their time interacting with various pieces of noisy, heavy, dangerous gas-powered machinery and tanks of noxious chemicals. None of it seems like gardening, and all of it seems like no fun whatsoever—just a hard way to earn a living. Changing the nature of that work means changing the nature of the outdoor spaces that are cared for this way. I think that requires a persuasive argument to potential clients based on real data about what kind of inputs different types of gardens require. For example, I discuss with clients the difference between caring for a fully planted garden bed and a bed with a few shrubs and lots of empty mulch.
A landscaping crew can maintain a mulch bed with routine spraying and edging, but can’t selectively hand weed a fully planted perennial and shrub bed. I won’t maintain a mulch bed for clients, but I will design a bed that is truly fully planted and can thus be maintained without machinery, chemicals, or even much physical effort. It is even such light maintenance work that a client-gardener can enjoy it as part of their experience of interacting with their garden. I think that women designers and horticulturalists should persuade clients to build the kind of gardens that require the kind of care that we want to provide.
That doesn’t mean that large scale properties that require lots of care should be off-limits, but it might mean that the existing staff or service providers are part of the education and design process that is undertaken with the client. The starting point, however, is deciding what you are willing to spend your time doing, and working towards adapting gardens to the model of care that works for you. Anyone, male or female, CAN run the machinery and spray the chemicals, but is that what we want to do with our time, and what is the larger impact of that model of garden care? Demonstrating that gardens can be just as successful (perhaps even more so) when maintained with a lighter touch can only make the work more appealing to women and also enable women to compete for a piece of the very large market for home horticultural services.
Thank you Beth for sharing your story with Women in Hort, and providing all of these inspiring images!