I love hearing about people who are so consumed by their passions that they jam on the brakes, hang a “u-ee”, punch the gas and take off in a new direction. That’s what San Diego garden enthusiast Roberta Correia is doing.
Roberta is an old friend who I’d never met; at least not until I visited San Diego last weekend. Lin, my spousal support unit, and I were there visiting family and celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary. [Travel hint: if you’re into brilliant Asian food, you MUST find Kafe Yen in the Pacific Beach neighborhood.]
|The front of the Correia family’s home sits at the top of a long stairway, peering through a grove of Sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). Photo by Billy Goodnick.|
Since I was going to be in San Diego with Lin, I arranged a visit to Roberta’s garden. It’s strange when you’ve seen so many pictures of a place and then visit in person.
Roberta greeted me as an old friend, handed me a tasty glass of home-brewed iced tea and showed me around. The garden was immediately familiar and the cheery light green walls and white trim of the house softly radiated through a grove of densely planted sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). But it was the back yard that got my pulse going.
First, a bit of background.
I met Roberta a couple of years ago while we were praising each other’s pics at Flickr.com, a photo-sharing website that lets users leave comments, pick faves, make “friends” and send e-mails. [See Roberta’s flickr collection]
Roberta and I quickly formed a mutual admiration society. She had just bought a house on a steeply sloping lot and was slowly turning the ravaged fixer-upper into a tropical oasis. Her photos chronicled her garden’s makeover.
|Given San Diego’s Mediterranean climate, you can’t get much more tropical looking plants than maroon castor bean, ornamental banana, angel’s trumpet and the fine textured young Albizia julibrissin. Photo by Billy Goodnick.|
She and her hubby, Bruno—childhood sweethearts, I might add—are originally from Rio de Janeiro, which might explain the rear yard landscaping, overflowing with an eccentric collection of luscious, leafy plants. “I like leaves!” she enthused, as we toured the landscape, still a work in progress. “Flowers are nice, but I’m always attracted to foliage first.”
I’m not sure which was more fun—seeing the garden or meeting her son. Thor (Roberta wanted a name with some power; I’ve nicknamed him GOT for God of Thunder) is a Legomaniac who eagerly showed off his totally coolio stick-figure animation program on his Mac laptop. He seemed stoked to meet me, having seen some of my Garden Wise Guys TV program on-line. I’m not sure what an 8-year old boy gets from a public TV show about sustainable landscaping, but hey, there’s worse stuff on TV.
I could write a separate article about Roberta’s adventurous garden undertaking, with its exotic plants: black elephant ear, Brazilian banana tree, zinfandel-colored castor bean, tapioca tree and Cenozoic-era cycad palms. But that blog will have to wait.
|The fireplace doubles as a retaining wall and center of evening activities. Photo by Billy Goodnick.|
The big news from my visit was that this professional economist, wife and mother had just enrolled in the horticulture program at Cuyamaca College, majoring in landscape design! That’s what I mean about pursuing your passion.
“This change of career was forced by the current economic situation,” Roberta confided. “If it weren’t for the downturn, I wouldn’t have dared leave a promising career and a job I loved in the building industry to follow my dream!”
Her enthusiasm was palpable, reminding me of my decision 35 years ago to hang up my drumsticks, pull the plug on concert tours and recording, and dive headlong into the world of plants.
Recently, Roberta was discussing her situation with another enthusiastic gardener, who told her, “Once you find a job you’re passionate about, you never have to ‘work’ again”!
There’s an enthusiastic “I can DO this” demeanor that pours from this dynamic woman and convinces me that she will soon be a force to be reckoned with. As we talked about all the ways she could connect with the landscape design profession, she was like a sponge, soaking up every idea. I could see mental bridges building as she used her economist’s mindset to plan her exciting new career path.
I know there are a lot of you reading this who identify with Roberta Correia. You might be working at a job that provides a paycheck, but no fulfillment. Or perhaps you have been let go. I’m in no position to tell you to take the leap—everyone’s tolerance of risk is different and you have to judge for yourself if Roberta’s new path would be right for you.
But you won’t know unless you try. Talk to people in the green world. Enroll in an adult education class. Soberly list the risks and benefits. And if you decide to dip your little toe in the big green pond, know that others have succeeded in following their dreams.
I’d love some feedback from readers who have taken the plunge, or those who are excited by the prospect of “going pro”. That’s what the comment section below is for.
I intend to keep up our connection and provide whatever advice and guidance I can for Roberta. The world needs impassioned, bright plant people like her.
|This sweet little bed faces north along the side property line. With our without flowers, it provides variety and interest year round. The round leaf Ligularia is a survivor of the prior garden, nursed back to health by Roberta. Photo by Billy Goodnick.|
|Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’ and Kalanchoe blossfeldiana create foliar contrast. Photo by Billy Goodnick.|
|The simple color scheme of the house makes a perfect foil for the complex foliage colors of the garden. It was a perfect place to sip an ice tea and view the garden. Photo by Billy Goodnick.|
|Nicotiana brings a splash of floral color rising beside the exotic brown-bract shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana). The big leave of a sego palm (Cycas revoluta) brings a touch of the exotic to the background at the right of the frame. Photo by Billy Goodnick.
|Roberta’s “one-of-each-itis” is brought under control by using only terra cota pots. Front and center is one of my faves: Kalanchoe luciae, Paddle Plant. Photo by Billy Goodnick.
|The narrow beds along the side of the house receive their due attention. This young angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia species) fills the night air with a sweet fragrance that attracts nocturnal moths. Photo by Billy Goodnick.
|Not every plant in the yard fits the tropical category. A simple combo of yarrow and dusty miller lend a more traditional feel. Photo by Billy Goodnick.
I think part of the reason so many people reach garden design as a second or third career is that it is both science as art — as many of my colleagues "used to be" accountants or programmers as marcommers or artists. Plus, it's such a wide-ranging field that you can fill almost any niche you can imagine. Granted, we may not draw quite the salaries or have quite the benefits of our corporate counterparts… but getting to write your own script? Priceless.
I agree with John; most of the landscape designers I know (including myself!) are on a second career. With the market waaay down for the high-end projects I'm accustomed to doing, I'm noticing how very busy my more hands-on fine gardening counterparts are, all over the country: helping their clients beautify their homes, teaching them about gardening, reworking small areas and offering advice. They are swamped. I'm a little jealous! My advice to anyone wanting to get into the green industry right now? Fine gardening, especially as a follow-up to professional design/installation. An infant landscape needs care and training to develop properly and protect the investment, way beyond what can be mown and blown. Caveat? You better know your stuff! Otherwise? Best of luck! To spend most of your days mentally or physically in a garden is a blessing.
So many people who are drawn to our profession think it is easy. It is not. Plants are the least of it. Landscape designers have to have working knowledge of so many factors--construction, grading and drainage, soil, legal issues with towns and HOAs, management skills, drawing, computers, sustainable practices, negotiation, contracts and it wouldn't hurt to know a little Spanish. You also have to have the connections and resources to get the job done and make money at it. Follow your bliss, yes!...but make sure you get some training and know what you're really getting yourself into.
I also am on a what many would call a "X career". Dealing with Bipolar and ADD, it was hard to maintain jobs in engineering, machining, remodeling, management, and Academia (was working on masters in Astrophysics). This has led, in my mid forties, to realize that gardening fills the skill, science, esthetic, and “alone time” that a psyche such as mine needs.
This leads me to why I agree with verdancedesign and Interleafer - the jobs that seem to be available right now are the smaller ones. Being into the softscaping side, the creativity, the challenges of smaller scope balancing color, texture, volume, and being able to incorporate the customer's needs while tying everything together esthetically is a joy. Also, with the smaller gardens, even the ones that are primarily native and zone adapted plants can lead to additional income with regular maintenance.
I was an award-winning designer and landscaper in the 70s, and got out of it to go into programming - which was simply another art form. When has dried up, going through the Master Gardener program made me realize that landscaping was the medium I really wanted to work with all along. That, and having Owen Dell give us his best lecture on sustainability, made me chase my own dream.
What that made me realize was that all the hippie-dippy, be kind to Mother Earth, no-chem, low-water usage, grow-yer-own ideals were actually viable - and that their time has finally come to be the mainstream. Not only were the ideas viable, but now have university studies to back them up.
As a result, I became a gardening coach and am having the time of my life watching the lights come on in peoples' eyes as they 'get it'...
Other commenters have already done a good job describing the joys of landscape design as well as the reality: it requires a much broader skill set than many realize and it can be challenging to earn a living. So although I would caution anyone considering this as a second career to go in with their eyes wide open, eight years ago I left a florishing corporate career to become a garden designer and have never regretted it, so I say go for it!
I've given talks on operating a garden design business to students in the past, and invariably some contact me looking for more information, which I'm always happy to give. I would advise Roberta to connect with local garden designers, who can give her a solid idea of the opportunities and challenges in her area.
Good luck, Roberta!
What a very excellent post and story. Nice that you and Roberta got to meet face to face. And even nice that you got along so well.
I also love BOTH of your stories regarding the pursuit of your gardening passion.
In fact I would like to encourage you BOTH to SHARE your story on our site (ahamoment.com). It's sponsored by Mutual of Omaha and we collect inspirational stories of all kinds. I think people would really get a lot out of hearing from you.
Take a look and see what you think. And again, THANKS for the post. Great stuff.
Have a great day.
I hope someone from Roberta's college has had some real working experience in garden design so that they can impart the realities of performing this job so that she can make a living at it.
As Susan Cohan succinctly said, plants are the least of it.
Truth be told, if you look at the body of work from successful designers you'll notice a common thread: that many are in their middle ages when they start producing their finest work.
This is because it takes years of education, internships and putting in dedicated long hours under other professional landscape designers before they can really understand what is required to design and build a successful project.
Ask me what I did today on the job and I'll tell you it had nothing to do with plants. Grading, drainage, pipe and steel sizes, hydroment additives vs. polymer mixes, transformers and cable run and size.
Realities of this job.
As much as I love landscaping I decided to sell plants to those designers willing to do the hard work. And, yes! plants are the least of the problems landscapers encounter. Still, garden design is a beautiful job. Best Wishes to Roberta.
Changing careers at 50 from banker to landscape professional was quite a leap but saved my mental and physical wellbeing. I have nothing but encouragement for Roberta in her transition. With Billy in her corner she has the one advantage we all need starting out, a mentor. I was lucky to connect with various big hearted and knowledgeable mentors in school and life since then. Finding my niche in the Santa Barbara Parks Department let me explore and test my abilities, not totally writing my own script but definitely learning a lot about human nature and horticulture. If your best work is visible people will notice and ask you to work for them.
This is a wonderful turn to see, and it's nice to read about. I made the plunge from landscape crew leader/supervisor for a full service nursery about 15 yrs ago, when I moved from Bend Oregon to Sandpoint N.Idaho, and have never looked back.
Roberta will find there is much joy in bringing people beauty right outside their doors, or when they look out any window. Many of my clients become gardeners, even without the intent at the time we meet... It's wonderful to see that transformation.
A hint for Roberta, with her beautiful grounds... Open them up to prospective and return clients, and/or get on the local annual garden tour. My partner and I run a small nursery with sales on weekends, and we open up the 6 acres of gardens when we do sales, and this often ends up with new clients doing design work, or even a full install. The point being that prospective clients see your work, and gets their juices flowing...
Once again, GO Roberta! We're with you!
I did turn pro, not only collecting over one hundred
identified species, but when got tired of the dull
commonplace installations in Puero Rico, became a
Creative Horticultural Critic with a endemismotrasnochado.blogspot.com/, now read in over
thirty five countries, in five continents.
I would like to thank you all for your words of encouragement, and especially a big thanks to Billy G!
I love showing my garden to friends, but I had never expected it would turn into a story for Fine Gardening!
I have worked as a project manager in residential development for many years, and as a plant lover, it was very frustrating to see the same ho-hum plants specified over and over again.
It always felt like some landscape architects were so worried to make the hardscaping part work out - grading, irrigation, access, sidewalks, etc - that plants were left for the last minute as an "accessory".
A whole lot of people come to me and say "gosh, I kill every plant I buy!". I don't believe that's true. It just takes a mentor to show them how to get started, to point them in the right direction, be it by selecting the right plant for the right place, or teaching one how to care for existing plants.
I am very honored to have Billy as a mentor and I have been learning a lot from him. Once you you have that glimpse of clarity that tells you "Follow your dream!", there is no going back!
The trained, accomplished, professional landscaper feedback is invaluable to you Roberta, but don't let any of that hardcore advice soften the molten enthusiasm that Billy G sought to broadcast. Another caveat that many in the profession haven't touched on. If you know your plants, materials and the installation plan, it may not be enough still. Take a course on entrepreneurship so you know how to supervise your teams, your books, your accountant, in other words your farm. Often, very capable people, with vision, and talent and energy get caught up in the creative or the sell, of what it is to be "your brand" and fail because no one was supervising the total package. If all the "business" part of running a business is too much or takes you away from doing what it is you wanted to all long, get a partner or a manager that can lighten the load, keep you focused and successful to the end.
Hope to see your business in the Fine Gardening Link soon.
I met Roberta four months ago at a gardener's gathering in north San Diego county. I'm the one who gave her that little tid-bit. What I actually said to her (and I remember because I told my son the same thing just before he chose his major in ornamental horticulture) was this: "If you earn your living doing something you truly love, you'll never work a day in your life." I've heard myself give that piece of advice to many young people over the years and never took that advice myself until a layoff from my "good paying career" forced me to re-evaluate what I was doing. I wound up taking a job as a gardener on a small campus for a community college. I'm the only one in that position at my facility. In the past 14 months I've been able to turn this, formerly staid, hedgerow and Agapanthus theme into a colorful and welcoming place to be.
I understand what some of the designers here are talking about when they "warn" that design is largely hardscape work. I come from a construction background. I think what Roberta sees is the trap many designers fall into. It becomes so easy to just plunk down whatever is the current trend in plants. Here in San Diego county, we're going through a Day Lily phase, as opposed to the Agapanthus/Bird of Paradise phase of several years ago. Once Roberta finishes her education and goes into the workforce, if she's the one experimenting with different colors and textures from the "current trend", she'll garner plenty of attention and land more than enough work to keep busy with.
Last November I lost my job. I actually thanked my boss for letting me go. It gave me an opportunity I probably wouldn't have done if I kept working. Over 50, I'm back in school going for a horticulture degree. I've always loved designing gardens. Now I can't wait to get paid to do what I love. I realize it will be tough but I'm ready to take on the challenge!
W9 Rose: In response to "Are You Ready to Turn Pro?"
Thanks for your optimistic comment about making lemon chiffon pie when life hands you just plain lemons. I'm in the same boat, being laid off from a 22 year career as landscape architect for Santa Barbara, then within days, having door after door open for me. One of the doors was this wonderful opportunity writing for Fine Gardening.
I try to embrace the philosophy that in life, "pain is inevitable but suffering is optional." It's all a matter of perspective.
I'd love to hear more as you progress in your horticultural education and see where you land. Stay in touch. Who knows, you might be my next superstar profile!
A good resource to augment understanding of landscape mechanics and hardscaping is the Calif Landscape Contractors' Ass'n. Here at Cal Poly SLO they hold 'competitions' for certifying landscapers in design and contstruction details.
There should be an active SD chapter. Check them out! They also have social dinner meetings monthly where you can network and meet others in the field, local educators, vendors, etc. Good place to make all kinds of contacts.
Trade shows are another networking spot. The Calif Assn of Nursery Professionals (aka C.A.N. in the old days)sponsors one in San Mateo (the "NorCal" show), and one in Pomona, usually early in spring, Jan-Feb. Also the national 'Hort Pro' assn. org has a Las Vegas show, a big one!
Best of luck and good wishes.
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