Metamorphosis – My Own

Twelve years ago I was living in St. Petersburg and working nights at the post office, a job so boring watching hair grow would be riveting in comparison. Sleeping days wasn’t much fun either. As if that wasn’t miserable enough, I often spent the morning hours, after I got off work, poisoning my own small patch of the planet. I probably should have known better, but nobody I knew back then ever talked about organic methods. It didn’t help either that the owner of the plant nursery in the neighborhood never met a chemical he didn’t love and love to sell. I would bring him a sample of sick grass or chewed foliage, and he would grab a box or bottle off the shelf. ‘Spray (pour, spread, dust) this on it.’ But for all that (and now I realize because of that) my yard was a mess. I found myself making more and more trips to the nursery; but no matter what product I bought and blasted at the problem, it only got worse.

After a few years of this my yard looked as barren as a moonscape and so did my life. Working nights and sleeping days kept me so mind-numb I felt like a spectator watching life go by. Then I’d wake up to my dead yard and my boring job and I’d waste another day. I knew I had to make some changes or someday I’d look back at a wasted life, and since I tend to be one of those all or nothing kind of people . . .

I quit my job, moved to Tallahassee and enrolled in a course in horticulture (of all things!). It was fascinating. Among other things, we learned a lot about the correct and legal use of pesticides; and as we did so, it became clear to me just how irresponsible (and illegal) my previous actions had been.

And then I came to work at Native Nurseries.

Native Nurseries is not your average nursery—they have a different view of what the world (and your yard) should look like; and frankly, it took some time for me to adjust to ‘a different way’. One morning shortly after I was hired, we were having a problem—we were overrun with caterpillars. Well that’s no problem for a recently graduated certified professional . . . I got an ‘A’ on this test . . . Dipel! It’s a safe way to kill caterpillars without poisoning your yard, your family, your pets or the planet . . . right?

‘No, no, no Mary! Go to New Leaf Market and buy some organic parsley for all these Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars! Hurry they’ll starve. No, no . . . not that stuff at Publix . . . it can kill them!’

On my way to New Leaf, I laughed when I thought about how the nursery owner in St. Pete would react to the notion of paying for organic food (and the employee salary and gas to get it) for caterpillars. I stopped laughing when I considered the notion of the parsley most of us eat as ‘quasi-pesticide’.

That was ten years ago, and I’ve come to realize that change is one of the few constants in life. Change . . . metamorphosis . . . it’s not just a process we watch in the <a href=”butterflyrearingcage.html”>butterfly cages</a> we build and sell here at the nursery. It’s a process we are all going through. We all change over time and so do businesses. Thirty years ago, Donna and Jody saw a small ad in the newspaper. It was placed by Mr. Salter, a grower of native plants. Who could have guessed when they took that trip to Madison, Florida, to check it out that the result would be Native Nurseries (some called it Naïve Nurseries back then).

Back then there was only Donna and Jody and their dog, Sam, until they hired a neighborhood teenager to help out. But then life happens and things change. Donna and Jody had two babies; Vanessa and Joseph have both graduated from college and are working at the nursery. Sam’s gone, but Pansy is the perfect shop dog; and there are now fifteen employees.

A lot of you already know all this, because there’s one thing that has not changed. From the beginning, this nursery has been very good at attracting loyal customers and hanging on to them. Whether you’ve been with us since 1980 or two months ago, our customers and friends tend to stay loyal. And so we’ve been able to watch you change and live and grow and have children, some of whom bring their own children in now.

We’ve also watched as some of our friends have passed on to whatever comes next. Change is usually good, but sometimes it’s also sad.

For myself, I’ve come a long way from the Pesticide Queen of St. Pete. I’m very thankful for the changes that have led me to work in this industry, in this nursery, with and for these people . . . Donna and Jody, my fellow employees, our customers . . . friends. For me, the change has been a good one.

The First Step is a Doozy

When I quit my job at the St. Petersburg post office, my friends and co-workers said I was crazy. They said I would regret giving up a job with such great benefits. When I told them I was going to move to Tallahassee, take a one year course in horticulture and look for a job in the nursery industry, they knew I was certifiable.

During that year at school, while I was living on a combination of savings and credit, there were many times when I was sure they were right. What was I thinking . . . a forty-something-year-old woman with too many years and too many pounds on her and way too many years out of school? Wingless, I had jumped off a cliff, and I wasn’t confident of my ability to bounce.

Lucky for me, a parachute appeared just as I was graduating in the form of an opening at Native Nurseries. There were holes in it (I thought), because Native Nurseries is a retail nursery, and I am not a people person. I get along with plants way better than I get along with the average person.

Lucky for me again, most Native Nurseries customers are not people . . . they are gardeners, nature lovers and bird watchers. It is fun and sometimes even a joy to help them choose just the right plant, find an organic solution to a landscape problem or identify the bird they saw that morning. So as it turns out, the one aspect of this business I was sure I wanted nothing to do with has turned out to be my favorite . . . almost. My very favorite are the National Geographic moments.

Those are the times when the nursery comes to a stop for a few minutes to watch some wonderful happening of nature. Employees and customers suspend their busy running, buying, tasking to watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis in one of our butterfly cages, two male pileated woodpeckers performing their odd territory-claiming dance round and round a large pine trunk, snakes mating(!) or dozens of zebra longwings flying in from all directions to roost together, like Christmas ornaments hanging from the Spanish moss in a dogwood out by the parking lot.

But the best nature sighting of all occurred on a Friday in the spring of 2008. A wood duck had chosen a cavity at the top of one of the topped water oaks in our bird garden for her nest; and late that morning, the nursery came to a complete stop when Jody ran through shouting ‘the ducklings are fledging, NOW!’

Customers and employees poured from all parts of the nursery; my customer and I rushed away from the counter leaving the credit card machine waiting in vain for the transaction amount. We crowded around the office window, lined the west side of the building and packed the back porch—anywhere with a view of the bird garden. What an amazing sight. Wood ducks hatch fully feathered and fledge within hours, jumping from their nest to the ground whether the drop is six feet or sixty! In the office we passed the binoculars around; and there they were—at least four ducklings peering from the opening at the twenty-five foot drop to where their mother and the rest of the brood were waiting behind the moss covered rocks.

Did they look nervous? You bet! Through the binoculars I could see them jostling each other and working those beaks. And you didn’t have to speak duck to get the gist: ‘your turn’, ‘no, no, after you’ and maybe even ‘go ahead—jump—the career change will do you good’.

Finally one of them took the leap, and dropped like a rock (those are some pretty useless wings on Day One). It bounced once and joined the rest of the family to watch as the rest of its siblings followed. The luckier ones landed on the spider lily, one bounced off the suet feeder; but they all finally joined mom in the march to the creek behind the nursery. That is, all but one joined mom.

For those of us who grew up in large families, we get this. There’s always one sibling who just has to go her own way. So once the west side of the nursery was taped off so the new family would have a clear shot to the creek without human interference, Donna and Jody chased ‘Following my Own Drummer, Thank You’ through the secret garden, the native azaleas and the mountain laurel under the close scrutiny of one of the resident hawks. Donna had the butterfly net, but Jody finally caught the little truant with his bare hands. I heard he dived head-first into the brush to do so.

You’d think after all that the little AWOL duckling would be home free, but by the time Jody reached the creek, the others were so far downstream Drummer Duck didn’t stand a chance of catching up. So once again Jody helped her out. He threw that duckling as far as he could in the direction of her family. She was the only one of the brood to drop from the sky twice that day, but at least her second landing was on water. Mom swam back to collect her and that’s the last any of us saw of our wood ducks.

We spent the rest of that day grinning and telling the story to everyone who came into the nursery. For myself, I couldn’t wait to get home and call my St. Pete buddies to tell them just who had the job with the great benefits after all.