For some reason, ever since I was a teenager (and I'm in my mid-50s now) I've had people walk up to me in stores and ask, "Do you work here?" I've never known why, except in the case of nurseries and garden centers. I can see why they think I must be an employee when I'm there wearing gloves and dirt-stained clothes while loading bags of peat moss, soil, compost and plants onto wagons. I've always responded to the question with, "No, I'm afraid I don't work here. But I might still be able to help you. What's your question?" Usually this leads to a nice conversation about their vision for a few plants, or a garden border, or a bed of flowers, and I offer some advice.
Today I got the same question from a well-dressed older gentleman, while I was loading bales of peat moss onto my trolley at Home Depot. I had already planted two roses earlier this morning, and my shorts and shirt were dirty, I was wearing my "Gorilla" gloves, and my pruner holster was still on my belt. I must have looked the part. But I told him, no, I didn't work there, but would be glad to help him if I could.
He told me he was trying to figure out what soil to buy in order to plant a couple of pear trees he had bought. I explained there were certain commercially available soils that were pre-mixed for planting trees and shrubs, and that they were a good starting point, but that he would probably need to mix it with native soil and other amendments. So we found the bags of pre-mixed soil specifically formulated for trees, and I checked the N-P-K content, but there was none.
"OK," I said, "you'll want to mix this with some composted manure when planting your trees, to help condition the soil and put some organic nutrients around the roots."
He stared at me with a blank expression and just blinked. "Manure?" he asked. "You mean like, cow dung?"
"Yes," I said, "you can get it over there," and I pointed to where bags of it lay in stacks. I saw a look of disgust on his face and realized what he must be thinking. "Oh, don't worry," I said. "It's sterile. They couldn't sell it if it weren't."
"I think I'll just buy some Miracle Grow," he replied.
I smiled and said, "Well, it has to do with more than just fertilizer. It has to do with the condition of the soil, so that rain water can permeate the surface, so that it's aerated, so that the roots can spread. But if you're not comfortable with manure, you can go to a local garden center and get ocean-based compost or blueberry bog compost. That would be good for fruit trees."
"Thanks," he said. "I just need them to flower, not produce any fruit."
I thought about that and smiled. "Good luck," I said, knowing there was nothing else I could impart upon him. Fifteen minutes later I saw him standing in line with bags of "tree soil" and a box of fertilizer, but no manure or peat moss.
It reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a neighbor who I always wished didn't live so close by. He walked over one Saturday morning while I was pruning the hybrid teas and said, "Hey Mike, my wife loves your Butterfly Bush. We've never seen one so big. It must be, what, about 8 feet wide and 8 feet high?"
"That's about right," I said, wondering when he was ever going to return my chain saw, which he had borrowed a month earlier.
"Where did you get yours," he asked? "We want to get one just like it."
"Well," I said, "you can get it at the nursery on Rt. 202. But it's more involved than that. It's all about the size of the hole you dig, and the soil you put back into it. You'll need to blend a lot of peat moss and compost with the soil."
"Mmmm hmmm. Sure," he said, half-listening to me.
"No really," I said. "We live right off the shores of the Hudson River. When a glacier came through here during the last Ice Age, it not only created the river but it also wreaked havoc on the typology. We're still dealing with that today. Too many rocks. Lots of compaction. There's a mixture of clay and compressed sediment to deal with in our neighborhood."
"Mmm hmmm. Great. So the nursery on Rt. 202?" he asked.
"Yep," I said, turning back to my roses.
Two weeks later he planted his Butterfly Bush on an ivy-covered hillside in a little hole, and there it sat all spring and summer. Later that fall he approached me in my yard while I was raking up the leaves from his elm tree. "Hey Mike," he said, "that Butterfly Bush I got from the nursery you recommended must be a lemon."
"Oh?" I asked. "What's wrong with it?"
"It hardly bloomed all summer, and it's no bigger now than when I planted it."
"Huh," I said. "Tell me, did you dig a large hole and blend peat moss and compost with the soil before you refilled the hole?"
"Nah," he said. "I just planted it on the hillside where I thought it would look good with the ivy."
"That would explain it," I said.
"By the way," I asked, "will you be returning my chain saw soon? I'll need it next spring to cut back the Butterfly Bush. The canes on mine are too thick and tough for loppers. Must have something to do with the soil."
And with that I resumed raking the leaves from his elm tree.