Designing Gardens — and a Gardening Career
Meet Kerry Ann Mendez, award-winning garden designer, speaker, and author
During the early 1990s, money was tight for Kerry Ann Mendez, an admissions professional at Union College in Schenectady, New York. She needed a part-time weekend job to help pay the bills. So one day, Kerry pulled into the driveway of a local, field-grown garden center and took her chances.
"I knew nothing about gardening, but I knew I needed to make some money," Kerry explains. "So why not get a suntan and be in a field of flowers while doing it?"
Kerry asked the owner, Melba Higgins, for a job, and got much more than a solution to her cash flow problem. For more than six seasons on the five-acre perennial farm, Kerry got hands-on experience with plants, propagation, designs, and installations, and discovered her love of gardening. When Melba retired and sold the business, Kerry started her own.
Today, Kerry runs her garden design and education business, Perennially Yours, and is in high demand as an award-winning speaker, garden designer, and book author.
"I came into gardening because I needed money, but I just fell in love with it," Kerry says. "It became my passion and my hobby, and then, my business."
How did you get started with gardening?
I didn't get interested in gardening until I was in my early thirties. I was exposed to it as a kid — my grandfather was a commercial vegetable gardener on eastern Long Island, and we would spend summers riding the sideboard of the big tractor. My mother used to have a little flower garden, and I watched but had no interest in getting my hands dirty.
I realized I really liked gardening when things were tight for me financially — even though I already had a full-time office job. I started gardening part-time on weekends for Melba Higgins, at her field-grown garden center outside Saratoga Springs, New York. She owned 5 acres of perennials, where I worked in the field, the greenhouses, and the office. I learned on the job and found it incredibly exciting.
When Melba decided to retire and sell the business, I knew I didn't want the hassle of managing it. Instead, I opened my own!
Why do you garden?
It's such a stress reliever. I can step into my gardens, and step away from the craziness of the world. Just looking at the beauty of plants brings me such joy and satisfaction.
What kinds of gardening do you enjoy?
I'm a gardener who uses all types of plants to create pleasing, three- or four-season gardens. I emphasize natives, or nativars, that are low-input plants, meaning that they are low water, low-fertilizer, and low-pesticide, as well as attractive to pollinators while being deer- and rabbit-resistant. Low-input means low-maintenance. I don't work with thuggish plants! Being a good steward for my little piece of the planet is important.
What advice or guidance do you provide to other gardeners?
Especially with new and beginning gardeners, I recommend "superhero plants." They should be success-driven and give great joy without a lot of meddling on a gardener's part. I want to give a gardener the ability to care for their garden and to not be disappointed.
Part of my job is traveling all over, sharing my passion for gardening with others. I love being on a stage, speaking and engaging with people, and yakking and interacting just as much as gardening. Both are equal to me. I want people to grow with gardening and for them to share that with others, too. Even in the middle of winter, I want people skipping out of the lecture room, grabbing a shovel, and saying, "I can do this."
Describe your own garden.
I moved to Maine several years ago to be closer to my family, and I live in a tiny, end-unit condominium. My gardens are around the front and side of my condo, as well as bordering the woods. (I had to get permission to plant this garden in what is considered "common space.") Some of the areas are sunny, but most are part shade or shade. I plant mostly ornamentals. I've expanded into containers because my in-ground space is limited. My containers are a colorful collection of annuals, perennials, flowering shrubs, and vines.
My little toes are just getting into the edible world, and I'm trying to grow more edibles in containers. I planted some patio tomatoes this year.
What gardening topics are you most passionate about?
When I design a garden, I'm utilizing all different forms of plants, creating focal points. I want to create dramatic, exciting gardens that improve property value and benefit pollinators. Really, who doesn't want butterflies, songbirds, and pollinators?
I love problem-solving and creating beauty out of little or nothing, or remaking an existing garden. Give me a space, and tell me your vision. What do you like? What will be manageable for you while giving you the garden you're looking for?
What do you feel are the biggest benefits of gardening?
Gardening is good for us: It get us out in the fresh air, enjoying beauty, which makes us feel happier and lowers our blood pressure. Science has proven there's bacteria in soil that release "feel good" brain chemicals with similar effects to those of antidepressants. So there's that physical, emotional, and spiritual component.
Gardening also brings people together. With our world becoming more insular, gardening is an open-gate, embracing way to build community, friendship, and fellowship. It's a non-threatening and fun way to meet people.
What's your biggest gardening challenge?
There's my limited space, but I'm working around that by doing more vertical gardening. I'm using that third dimension and going up to expand. Great choices include vines such as honeysuckle, native Wisteria, climbing roses, clematis, and fast-growing annual climbers like Thunbergia, sweet pea, scarlet runner bean, and hyacinth bean.
Then there's me. I'm 62 and in good shape physically, but sometimes my back and knees don't work the way they used to. I have limitations and tire faster now. Early on I would install my designs, but now my design consultations let me use my mind to give people beautiful gardens. My outlet for creative energy is in other people's yards! I can be right there on the owners' property, hand-sketching, making plant lists, and advising them on how to plant or hire a landscaper.
As a designer on staff at my area garden center, I can walk and talk with customers in a whole yard of different plants. I can show people everything — it's like a candy store where I can show them all the cool things they can do! Plus, I provide on-site garden and landscape consultations, present lectures, lead gardening Webinars, plan programs, work in the yard, help problem-solve, and create plant combinations for displays.
What is your most memorable gardening triumph or disaster?
It's been really rewarding to see my gardens on the covers of garden magazines. Once, Garden Gate voted one of my gardens among its top five most beautiful. In 2014 I received a Gold Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in recognition of my being a garden speaker and educator. I'm really proud to be able to share my knowledge and make a difference in the industry.
How have your gardening practices changed over the years?
I was originally known for perennials. When I lived in upstate New York, I gardened mostly in-ground in a quarter-acre plot at my home, which was in a historic part of the village. It was like a mini botanical garden! As a garden writer, I would trial a lot of plants. Hundreds of people would come tour my display gardens, and they were featured in a number of magazines. It taught me how to bring great color into small spaces.
After living there for 28 years, initially I had a hard time making the mind-shift to living in a condo in Maine, but I couldn't be happier. It's actually made me a better gardener and designer; I'm more selective and I really scrutinize what I plant. With my very limited space, every spot is precious; every plant needs to give me so much more. It can't just be about nice flowers for a few weeks. I'm very demanding and say, "Give me more! I want more from you than just a blip!"
What are some of your gardening best practices?
I emphasize attracting pollinators, incorporating native plants, and choosing drought-tolerant plants. Climate change has been crazy. I really emphasize plants that demand less water or are less stressed by inconsistent rainfall.
If you do have plants that need more water, group them together and place them at a lower point in your landscape. Those that want more water can be in containers. It's a more xeric approach to gardening, creating a micro area for plants that demand a more consistent water source.
I also shudder when I see people spraying chemical pesticides, so I try to educate them and point them toward alternate approaches to solving their problem. And, do you really have a problem? Maybe it's something that can be handled with integrated pest management, without you getting involved with a spray.
What is your favorite garden tool or product?
I use and love a lot of Gardener's Supply products. In the garden, I recommend Gardener's Best® All-Purpose Organic Fertilizer to provide soil nutrients all season long. Slug Magic really works as a natural way to get rid of slugs.
Containers are wonderful for small spaces like mine. Viva Self-Watering Balcony Railing Planters are colorful and easy to install, and help me conserve water. The Tall Solar Illuminating Planter glows as a beautiful focal point at night. Indoors, I love the delicate Gazebo Tabletop Terrarium for showcasing greens and blooms.
How did you discover Gardener's Supply?
About 14 years ago, I started coming to the Vermont Intervale store to teach as part of the Winter Gardening Series. Everyone was so smart and friendly, and there was a crazy energy level there! They had an amazing range of products, displayed so beautifully. I feel like I return for a little reunion every year.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell Gardener's Supply Company's readers?
I just want people to have fun gardening, and if they have never gardened before, then go for it! Experiment with different plants and gardening styles. Say to yourself, "Yeah! I can do it!"
I knew nothing — nothing — about gardening when I started. I had no knowledge or academic background, and now I'm a professional gardener. If I can do it, anyone can do it!
You can find Kerry Ann Mendez on her website, Perennially Yours and on Facebook, as well as at gardening events around the country. And check out her affordable and informative webinars and popular books.
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