March 7, 2015


Madge Kaplan, Director of Communications, Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), is responsible for developing new and innovative means for IHI to communicate the stories, leading examples of change, and policy implications emerging from the world of quality improvement in health care. Madge is also the host and producer of IHI's online audio "talk show" called WIHI, a program she conceived of and founded in 2009.  Madge came to IHI after a 20-year career in broadcast journalism for public radio. She began exploring non-fiction and playwriting more than a decade ago. Many of her essays have aired on radio or been published in print.  Her first play, The Last Appointment, was produced on Martha’s Vineyard in October 2011. 

The Garden Consultant

I steadied myself because I could tell there was something she wanted to tell me. “Well…” She looked a tad weary. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to break bad news. “You do know, don’t you, that you have a shade garden?” Suddenly both the garden and I were exposed. I glanced out the window at two new, late-blooming, clematis plants, Sweet Autumn, still in their pots.

In the week since I had invited a garden consultant to come take a look at things, I hadn’t had the nerve to plant the clematis, bought at a late summer sale. Why not wait for the expert? There was also the matter of the Little Kim Rose of Sharon that had looked so tantalizing in the catalog, white blossoms with just a splash of red in the center. It, too, was still in its pot.

“You see, you’ve mostly got shade. And you have all sorts of plants in your garden that need sun. Maybe not full sun, but a lot more than you can count on. I know, I know… you want the color, but…” She didn’t finish her sentence, and shook her head instead, giving me a look that asked am I getting through? “Also, you’ve got acid- loving plants in the same space with sweet soil-loving plants; that’s a terrible conflict. Not to mention all the maple trees – they’re sucking up the nutrients. Same is true of the groundcover, especially the pacasandra. Did you put that stuff in?” I straightened up. “Oh no. When we bought the house, the garden was pretty much established. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

Then, an impulse to say something hopeful:  “That climbing rose bush in the back, the one that we’ve now got growing up and over the arched trellis? It was ablaze with reddish pink blooms in June… you should’ve seen it.” She laughed. Sniggered actually. “Roses in a shade garden? Ha!” I was stunned. Should I go get the photos?

She wasn’t the first person I’d sought to give me advice on the garden, but she was the most taciturn. Approaching sixty, I surmised, with a slight, bony build, she mentioned in passing that she used to be a therapist. “A garden therapist?” I asked.   “Of course not!” She swatted away the very idea. “A psychotherapist…you’ve heard of them, haven’t you?” I nodded. Staring at her tight, narrow face, and even tighter smile, I tried to imagine how someone so disagreeable helped clients in emotional pain.

Lately, she told me, she’d been supplementing garden consulting with copy-editing. That I could picture. She probably had dozens and dozens of red pens and relished finding typos and mistakes. I could see her circling words and writing in the margins: wrong tense, wrong usage, and wrong word. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

“What about your rhododendrons?” “You have a lot of those for such a small yard. They can’t be doing too well, either.” Maybe the operative phrase was sourpuss. Someone who’d never seen a garden she liked or couldn’t criticize. Maybe she hated her own garden!

“Actually,” I said, “the rhodies were healthier than ever this year; we had plenty of deep pink blossoms. The hydrangea yields more flowers each year and in the early spring the lilac bush had an abundance of blooms. The yellow evening primrose haven’t disappointed and some blue, platycodon balloon flowers popped open – not as many as I would have liked given the number of plants I put in, but maybe there will be more next year. And the purple clematis – at least four of those plants yielded flowers.” I conceded the tree peony had all but given up, having disappeared underneath the shade of the lilac. But the other peonies were still blossoming.

She listened to me rattle on, perhaps sensing that I needed to defend the garden and all my effort. Maybe that stemmed from her training in psychology. But, at some point, she cut me off. Did I want her help or not?

I’d come this far I decided to see what sort of redesign and suggestions she’d come up with. I forked over a check, but as I handed it to her I said, “I’d like to see what you can do with what’s already in the ground. I don’t want to buy many new plants, and I’d rather rearrange things than yank them up.” And please, don’t suggest any more hostas. I have all that I need.

When she was gone, I walked around our small house’s even smaller garden again. Every inch was familiar to me and each plant I’d put in represented some possibility, including failure. I remembered that when I was a child in Ohio my mother used to talk to newly planted trees in our yard that were having trouble getting established. I couldn’t for the life of me understand her behavior. Now, I cooed at an emaciated azalea and some creeping phlox that was plenty green but hadn’t delivered the promised flowers. So what? I felt guilty for not having stuck up better for the whole lot of them.


A few weeks later the garden consultant and I are sitting on the patio in 85-degree weather. It’s the first week of October and with the exception of a bushy mum sporting bright purple flowers, the rusty-colored sedum, and all the hostas – still going strong - the garden looks tired. Still, I’ve had time to build up some resolve, the first test of which is my reaction to the two-pager she’d popped in the mail for me to read ahead of time. It didn’t mince words: “Due to the presence of many trees on the property and contiguous and neighboring properties, there is not enough sunlight to support plants needing sun or part shade conditions.” And, in case I still didn’t grasp what she was saying, “Sun or part shade means at least four hours of afternoon sun each day.”

I was ready. “You don’t beat around the bush, do you?” She sat back in her chair, just as I’d imagined she would and laughed, nervously. Then I added, “feel free to use it as a marketing slogan; it might soften the blows.” Now, no laughter, just a weak grin.

“So, here’s the thing.” My turn now. “I know you think the lilac shrub doesn’t look that healthy, but there really were a lot of blooms this past spring so that stays for now. I guess you’re right about the burning bushes; their leaves don’t begin to have that nice, burnt color, so maybe we’ll pull them out.” She looked relieved, but we were far from finished. “I’m sticking with all the platycodon because, well, I plopped down a lot of money for them, and my neighbor has just cut back his maple to give me more sun. So, any decisions there would be premature.” I knew logic just as well as the next guy. “As for the invasive groundcovers, show me some alternatives. Same goes for the yews which I have no particular attachment to.”

We had a bit of back and forth about the sedum—she insisted that they were full sun plants, yet there they were, full of color, so case closed. She didn’t like the remnants of all the day lilies, especially since so many of them were the common tiger lily variety. “They bloom and then they’re gone a few days later. Hardly seems worth it. Plus all those ugly leaves that last the rest of the season.” “They stay,” I insisted. “They’ve never let me down no matter how short the visit.”

She did win me over some with multiple, different view, color photographs she’d snapped of the garden, digitally cut and pasted onto pages now filled with handwritten arrows and names of new plants she believed would be better fits. Plus, for varieties of shrubs and groundcovers, she’d brought tons of books and catalogues for me to thumb through. She wasn’t clueless but the choice would finally, be mine.

Closing the gate behind her, I thought about having all fall and winter to make any final decisions. And some things had been resolved. I started digging the first of two big holes for the Sweet Autumn clematis hanging about in their pots. The Little Kim Rose of Sharon would be added in next. “Welcome,” I said quietly---and with just a touch of vindication.

~Madge Kaplan

Total Pageviews