Mae Lin Plummer & the Laughing Garden Philosophy
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Mae Lin Plummer had an 18-year corporate career as a project manager until one weekend-long short course in botany upended her life as she knew it. In the interview that follows, Mae Lin shares a bit about her courageous, rapid, and convincingly joyful career transition out of the financial industry and into horticulture. She took steps to further her education and volunteer, in addition to founding a garden design practice called The Laughing Garden, fueled by the same spark that ignited her leap. Not long afterwards, Mae Lin was appointed Garden Director at The Duke Mansion in Charlotte, North Carolina. Today, as a Longwood Fellow in the 2019-2020 cohort, she is spending the year in an intensive program designed to build leadership capacity and connect directors in public gardens around the world as they face a biodiversity and climate crisis, evolve to reflect a changing audience, and respond to the need for more equitable access to nature and gardened spaces. Women in Hort is also excited to share that Mae Lin will be joining us as a guest blog contributor in the seasons ahead. Happy reading!
Women in Horticulture: Can you pinpoint the precise moment of your epiphany to leave your corporate career and pivot to horticulture?
Mae Lin Plummer: It is a moment I will never forget! I was taking a weekend Intro to Botany course at UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, as part of their Native Plant Studies Program, and Dr. Larry Mellichamp said, “plants have a strategy”. It was nothing short of an existential awakening and a shift in my place in the living world. I remember thinking “I have to do this!” and share how incredible plants are. While my focus now is more towards leadership in public horticulture, the experience is at the heart of why I am here - gardens can change the course of a life and make a profound impact on others.
WinH: Did you take the leap gradually and strategically, or as a single plunge?
MLP: I refer to it as “cliff dive” so it certainly felt like a giant plunge. With that said, there was some strategy to it. I gave myself a deadline to pay off certain debts and I started my garden design business while I was still working full-time, but it was mostly a mental preparation activity than any kind of commitment or source of income. I was also in the midst of a consulting contract waiting for the right moment to leave without burning bridges, so as soon as the right moment presented itself I submitted my resignation and registered for horticulture classes at Central Piedmont Community College. Changing careers has been more exciting, rewarding and deeply fulfilling than I could have imagined. Within 2 years, I published my first article in Fine Gardening Magazine and continue to be a contributor. Shortly after becoming a horticulturist, I became the first Garden Director at The Duke Mansion transitioning private grounds into a new public garden.
WinH: Do you credit any experiences or memories of your childhood with your later pursuit of life as a gardener?
MLP: My father was in the Air Force so I grew up in the military, mostly overseas. We never had a garden but I remember I loved to play outside and explore nature where ever we lived, whether it was by the ocean, in a jungle or a forest. I was exposed to so much diversity, ecologically and human kind. One of the places that really left an impression on me was when we lived in Germany and traveled around Europe. Everyone seemed to have a garden or window boxes full of flowers. I was an angsty teenager at the time, but I remember deciding I wanted a garden “when I grow up one day”.
WinH: What has been your approach to becoming educated in horticulture? Are there any specific programs, mentors or authors that you'd like us to know about?
MLP: Initially, my education as a hobby gardener was magazines and one of my all-time favorites was (and still is) Fine Gardening - it gave me aspirations and ruined me at the same time! I started gardening in the Carolinas and the soil did not look like the pictures, nor did half the plants I was trying to grow. As I became fully committed to my obsession with plants and gardening (fully embracing my inner crazy plant lady), I started volunteering and taking the Native Plant Studies courses at UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. The botanical gardens not only changed the course of my career, but I learned so much about soil and what to grow in our region. My knowledge and love of native plants has been heavily influenced by Dr. Larry Mellichamp (aka Dr. M) and Paula Gross, who were my instructors but also authored Native Plants of the Southeast and Bizarre Botanicals. The horticulture program at Central Piedmont Community College was excellent and I was fortunate to study there while Dr. Jeff Gillman was instructing, before he took the role of Executive Director of UNCCBG. Jeff taught me the rigor of the scientific method, but he also emphasized how FUN horticulture was. Jeff was also the person who introduced me to the Longwood Fellows Program! Dr. M, Paula and Jeff continue to be my mentors and my “go to” for expertise, but I am privileged to also call them dear friends. As Paula says, “whether a garden or a person, we don’t grow alone”. I wouldn’t be here living my dream without them.
WinH: Tell us about what makes a Laughing Garden?
MLP: What can I say, it is all about love and harmony. The Laughing Garden was inspired by my home garden in Charlotte, NC. As with any garden name, there is a bit of a story behind it. My motivation for gardening was to have a pretty place to throw dinner parties. I might have watched Under the Tuscan Sun one too many times. The more I planted in what was nothing but a fenced rectangle of lawn, the more “life” started to appear. Wildlife from fungi to insects to animals, people, music, food, and dancing - so much laughter. My vision of a good life came true, although it did not look anything like a Tuscan villa. It was so much better! It was beautiful, but it was also a Certified Wildlife Habitat. As gardening became a career, my garden became a playground for experimentation and a place of endless possibilities. So the Laughing Garden honors all the joy, life and possibilities a garden brought me, my friends, wildlife and pets. The Laughing Garden became the name of my garden design business and it was a platform for me to promote the belief that gardening is a way of life and that what we do in our gardens matter. It was a difficult decision to leave my garden after 19 years, but then I realized that The Laughing Garden goes wherever I go and I now have the opportunity to share it with so many others.
Image caption: A series of photos taken at the original Laughing Garden, Mae Lin's back yard in Charlotte, NC
WinH: What's on your radar in the future? Do you see yourself specializing or focusing on a particular issue in our field?
MLP: This is quite a challenge for me at the moment because I think everything is on my radar as a Longwood Fellow! There are so many exciting things happening in the world of public gardens and horticulture, and so many changes. I want to be a part of it all, but I do consider a few things of great importance that I am committed to. I believe more than ever that gardens can change the trajectory of lives by inspiring gardening as a way of life, a way of giving back to nature, and as a career. And it should not only be for the privileged or wealthy. Access to gardens is expanding to all people because gardens are part of growing social awareness and an environmental movement. So I am deeply committed to reaching beyond our garden gates and “building bridges” in our communities and across the horticulture industry. This matters to me because I believe human stewardship of the environment and our well-being is up to all of us, not just in the hands of the few protecting plants in public or private gardens. It may begin with gardens collecting and protecting species from the wild, but it should not end there. We must get plants into the hands of people in our communities and public spaces, and eliminate barriers to the enjoyment of nature. It is the intersection between beauty, conservation, stewardship and urban development. I think this will keep me busy for a while!