Garden Internship Week 1

Arlene and the Girl Scouts

If you’re new, hello! My name is Lauren and this is my weekly update of being a comm major in a gardening internship.

My boss has the patience of a saint. When she walks through the community garden you would swear she was a celebrity. She can barely walk ten feet before someone yells out for her or stops her to say hello. Case and point, it took her 15 minutes to grab a rake and come back to where we were working. The rake was maybe 50 feet away.

When I was brought on as an intern, I was told I’d be helping out an older woman named Arlene who had had some surgery and needed a young person to be her muscle for her garden plot. I met Arlene this week for the first time I got a glimpse of my boss losing her patience.

Arlene is in her 80’s and uses a midnight blue walker with a seat to get around the garden. When I first saw her I made the error of thinking she would be a sweet older lady.

“Hey kid, I like your shirt.”

“Thank you, I made it myself.” I had done the lime green tie dye the previous week with a friend. I’m proud to say it’s the least ugly tie dye I’ve ever made, a true step up from my usual splotchy brown creations.

“Oh really? You wove the fabric and sewed the whole thing together did you?”

“No ma’am you’re right, I didn’t make the actual shirt. I just dyed it.”

“What’s your name? My name’s Arlene but some people call me Trouble.”

After our initial introduction I was set about my first task of the day. My job was to plant lupines, marigolds, and alyssum in the butterfly garden with my mother. Arlene followed and set herself up on the gravel behind me.

Within minutes she told me about her first husband and how she was glad to have been rid of him and found her second husband.

“First husbands are never good kid. Mark my words.”

It was through her first husband, I learned, that she had been able to travel the world. But not Europe, never Europe she said, and never China.

“I went to Japan a number of years ago. You know, I wasn’t always this outgoing. I couldn’t speak the language and even with the translators I was terrified to speak to anyone serving me in case I messed up.”

Later I overheard her helping some other women in the garden while I worked. It sounded like she was helping them plant their tomatos. Arlene proudly exclaimed, “I’m a master gardener you know!”

The flower planting for the butterfly garden was done and Arlene looked bored so I called out to her to double check if my work looked ok. She shuffled over with her walker assured me the plants would not die from my treatment on them and proceeded to stage whisper.

“You know kid, you’re interesting, I like you. Those ladies over there? Boring as beige. They wouldn’t chat or tell stories like you and your mother. I told them I’d help out if they ever needed anything but I won’t, they’re just too boring. But you can be part of my crew kid.”

What do you do when a little old lady trash talks other little old ladies standing not fifteen feet away? I didn’t know and I still don’t. I felt slightly honored to not be considered boring. All I could do was laugh and call her trouble as my boss approached. I have a suspicion Arlene’s nickname of Trouble is well deserved.

My next project involved a bit more sweat. There are plans for a large pollinator garden at the farm. There are over 1,000 plants that arrived for the undertaking. But the garden isn’t ready to be planted yet. So what do you do with the baby plants? You build them a temporary hoop house.

A hoop house is essentially a tent for plants. It provides shade and protection from harsher elements. The shade also helps stop the moisture in the soil from evaporating as quickly which creates a win win situation for both gardener and plant.

Temporary hoop house in my mind meant maybe a couple months. Nope. Turns out the baby plants will stay in there for the next two years! I was doing my work carefully before I knew but now it felt like I had to do an extra good job for these plants.

The first day of prepping the hoop house involved a lot of measuring, marking, and digging. We planted blueberries and other shrubby plants I did not recognize.

Gardening tip: When transplanting, aka moving a plant from one container to the earth or another container, you do not want air pockets by the roots. The solution? Give your plants a little wiggle by the base of their stem when you bury them. This helps shake loose soil into the air pockets. Every time I do it I think “Give a little wiggle” to the tune of “Give a little whistle” from Disney’s Pinocchio movie.

The next day the girl scouts arrived. I did not envy their job. For their girl scout gold, (a term I’ve never heard before) they were making yet another pollinator garden. This one will be along the nature trail.

To create their garden, the girlscouts need to clear rocky soil of other plants and major stones that would get in the way of planting. In New York, that is often times a lot of rocks.

My boss and her husband drove them out to the back in golfcarts. If you haven’t seen a gaggle of girl scouts clamber onto a golf cart like a clown car, I recommend it. About halfway through the blueberries my boss came back shaking her head.

“Those girls have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. Are you doing alright? Ok then. I guess I should go teach them the right way to do it.”

I pitied my boss then. Not because the girl scouts weren't nice or anything like that. It was because I realized she would probably rather swap places with me and dig quietly in the soil with only the wind and plants for company. That was when I resolved to be the best set of extra hands I could be for her. Pay or no pay, my new goal is to try and create a few moments for her where she can dig in the soil in peace.

Note: Gardeners get finnicky if you say dirt vs soil. Arlene gave my mom an earful for accidentally saying dirt. An old coworker of mine in a plant nursery was fond of saying, “Dirt can hold things like glass and cat shit. Soil nourishes and lets plants thrive”.