Sunday Opinion: Blue In The Face

When I was young, I had a dear friend named Margaret Dickson.  We met when I took a job working for Al Goldner at Goldner Walsh in the late 80’s.  She began as a client of Al’s-she went on to hybridize daylilies and plant annuals for him.  They went on to have a very special relationship the likes of which I had never seen before, or since.  I have no plans to discuss that; they have both passed on.  Suffice it to say, how they scooped me up and made it their business to school me-I was lucky.  I planted annuals on Margaret’s crew. That was just the beginning.

Al paid me 16,000.00 a year in 1984, with a 4000.00 bonus at the end of the year.  In 1985, a client of his who refused to pay 4000.00 of her bill-that bill got paid with my bonus.  I ran the crew on that job.  I recall I was more angry about some ill defined blame for some not really legitimate wrong being foisted onto me than I was about the money. The client was enormous maintenance, and astonishingly self centered and thoughtless.  The  shopping, the planting- a sonata in her honor.  She had no comprehension of the amount of work that went into trying to create exactly what she saw in her mind’s eye.  She missed the boat-plain and simple.  Our crime-the garden did not look mature when we finished.  I was taken aback to learn that not all gardens have a gardener in charge. What I learned from this was that some work needs to be accompanied by lots of discussion, so people are not disappointed, or taken by surprise.   Some work requires explanation, teaching-at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.  When clients ask how long they should water their new boxwood-I say until you are blue in the face. I tell them that if they keep breathing regularly once they fell that blue coming on, they will be able to hold out even longer.  A strong finish is harder than a strong start-but you need both.   

   In retrospect, I think Al knew exactly what he was dealing with in me.  Though I would never dream of making any crew person working for me responsible for a disagreement about a bill, I learned something very important from him.  Relationships are difficult, and complicated.  I might spend my time time raging, or I might spend my time trying to make it all work.  The willingness to live through the blue in the face phase is an important tool I would not want to be without.     What I learned from the two of them about making things grow, and making relationships with clients grow, has stayed with me for a very long time. I feel their collective hands on, between my shoulder blades, encouraging me, every day.  This is my best description of what it means to have a mentor and a teacher. The 4k he nicked me-I got over it.  The money I spent restoring my fountain made my stomach churn-but that particular churning went away as soon as I had water.  The water representing that I come home to every day is what I think about.   

I digress.  This essay is really about Margaret, not money. Once I respectably survived working on her crew, she took me in.  She spent hours telling me everything she knew.  She had me over to not only tour her garden, but hear how she made it, what she chose to plant, and how she maintained it.  Her garden had lush hedges of Japanese painted ferns as a border; this I had never seen.  It was informal and rowdy in appearance-she knew when to stop fussing with plants, and just let them be.  She gave an extraordinary amount of time to me-how I loved her for this.  We became the best of friends.  Much late I weeded her garden when she was very sick and dying.  One day I visited her; she insisted she had seen a grey goose in her garden.  That would have been me.  March 29 of 1995, Margaret died.  Her funeral was held in a makeshift greenhouse on my property in Orchard Lake. I will admit I was so beside myself about loosing her, I was so beside myself about being asked by the family to speak about her, I drank two big glasses of wine at 10:30 am.  I spoke about her-who knows what I said.  I showed up at the appointed hour, and delivered.  I do remember half way through my talk, a big wind swept through, and showered all of us with water droplets from the condensation on plastic tunnel house roof.  I have no doubt it was Margaret, sweeping, brushing all of our collective grief away.  That would be just like her. 

She made me put my name on a garden speakers list; she told me I was able to teach.  If you are able to do, you should, she would say.  She encouraged me to start my own business, and was after me regularly about opening a shop.  I opened Detroit Garden Works one year to the day after she died.  There is a plaque on my greenhouse wall; the company that owns the shop property is called Margaret Properties.  Many years later, I hold close how she taught me to water any situation until I am blue in the face.  Whether it be a client, a job, my own garden, or your garden.  Many thanks, Margaret.


  1. Living through the blue … Take a breath, another breath, another; another. ANOTHER. Real patience is a kind of ferocity.

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