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The Real Poop

In recent times, gardeners have really been given the short end of the rake. If only horticulture was as respected today as it has been throughout most of history, in all the great civilizations of the world that have prospered from it. If only it had not become so unappreciated, there might be some more flattering things to say about gardening. Unfortunately, however, the elegant beauty that began in the Garden of Eden in the first few days of Genesis has evolved into indiscriminate shearing of any shrubbery—and sometimes even trees—that are within reach. What long ago might have been something on par with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is now acres of unused lawn that waste more water than any other form or urban development. What was the earliest form of organized agriculture is now thought of as "mow, blow and go." Gardening has become the fast food of horticulture. Hope you wanted a seed packet in your Happy Meal.

More than any other horticultural industry, and really more than almost any other non-horticultural industry out there as well, gardening attracts hoards of unskilled labor. We're talking people who can't tell a pair of hedge clippers from a pair of nail clippers. Most gardeners eventually learn something about gardening, but not as much as they should. Why would they? The industry does not dictate that proficiency is needed to prosper. What might have been entertaining in Edward Scissorhands is nothing to laugh at in the real world.

If Edward were here, these hedges would already resemble exotic jungle creatures.

There are a few educated and experienced horticulturists out there in the garden maintenance industry who are able to share their knowledge, but there are not enough of them to go around. (Maybe they could start recording some peapodcasts?) Besides, it is easier for those who make a living from that "mow, blow and go" type of service to continue to do so. They control the industry, and are in no hurry to relinquish that control to those who actually provide horticulturally correct service. Unskilled labor just keeps coming, and needs someplace to go. To be fair, this approach to one’s work is not limited to gardening. For example, those in the funeral directing business may demonstrate a “grieve, bereave and leave” type of service. Those in the horse racing business tend to “straddle, saddle and skedaddle.” You get the idea.

Just because many laborers are unskilled does not mean that skilled labor has no place in gardening. Those who are good at it and respect it can enjoy and "profit" (if you want to call it that) from gardening as much as those who do not. The only problem is that they need to compete financially, which means that gardening is not often lucrative. We already knew that money doesn’t grow on trees; apparently, it doesn’t grow on flowers or tomato plants either.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some people who own gardening maintenance services can make a decent living if they run a good business. Certain businesses can even do better than others by gardening properly. Some people out there still appreciate quality. There are also many gardeners who, instead of becoming the common "mow, blow and go" type gardeners who work for most of the maintenance services, score a much more respectable—and perhaps even prestigious—job at a large garden that employs a full-time staff. Somebody has to tend to the White House lawn….

You dang kids...get off my lawn!

Large public and municipal garden and parks, like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Central Park in Manhattan, and the many big city parks throughout the country can actually offer rather posh employment, with decent pay and good benefits comparable to other city employment. Not that most city jobs can be considered "posh," but we’re working on a bell curve here. The really big city parks often include smaller gardens, like rose collections, conservatories, and arboretums, that need full-time staff separate from the larger parks that contain them.

There are also many large estate properties with acres of landscapes and gardens that need full-time gardeners. The largest of these have the same formal organization among their crews, employed by the property management, as a landscape maintenance business. Others have smaller crews, or even a single lead gardener who manages a smaller part-time staff as needed. These is probably more work (and often more fun) than there are jobs with big municipalities or public gardens, but for some reason they seem to pay less and offer fewer benefits. Don't you hate having to choose between money and fun? It’s like last Friday night all over again.

Gardening is the sort of work that should be done by those who enjoy it instead of those who are merely not qualified for much else. As we mentioned, the money has the potential to make it worthwhile, but only for those who score a good job or own a business. Money really should not be the main motivation for becoming a gardener. Fortunately, there are not a lot of business students at Harvard dropping out to make easy money tending a garden instead of going to Wall Street. The notion that there isn't a fabulous financial future in this biz is instinctual for most.

Those who enjoy gardening and are able to tolerate the low pay get to experience the trade-off of avoiding the stress that is so much more common in the majority of other jobs. It helps if you like working outside and getting dirty. There are actually many who fit into this category—most of them made mud pies as children and drove their mothers constantly insane. Really, are there any gardeners out there besides Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons who don’t enjoy what they do for a living? Perhaps taking on too much stress to earn better pay really is overrated. Try telling that to the producers of The Simpsons.