Working: Nellie Gentle

By Patrisha McLean | Jun 27, 2009

Camden — Seven years ago, a family friend spotted Nelli Gentle at the cash register of a local art supply store. “It looks like you have energy to burn,” the friend said, and recruited her. For the next three summers, “I was a work horse,” said Nelli. Then she struck out on her own, shelving plans to follow up on her degree in art history from McGill University with grad school.

“It was perfect for me,” she said about life as a gardener.

Now, accompanied by bumblebees and birds as the only employee of Gentle Gardens, she maintains the gardens of two extensive properties plus a handful of smaller gardens. She shuns sunglasses and hat because she wants a clear line of vision but pays attention to what’s on her feet. “I found if you don’t have good shoes it’s like walking with concrete blocks by the end of the day,” she said.

Her work year starts in April with the indoor planting of dahlia bulbs. “Then, as soon as I can get out I start the cleanup, cutting things back, mostly dealing with leaves,” she said. Finding out what did or did not survive the winter “is always fun," she said. "It’s never what I expected.”

“I try to think of them as people,” she said about the plants she tends. “Look at what they endure in a year, with wind and direct sun. Sometimes they get sick or work too hard. But then I love when they rebound.”

When Nelli was apprenticing with her two women friends she was in her early 20s. “They would always laugh at me when I would show up in the morning babbling about how I had stayed up late the night before,” she said. Sore muscles now at the end of the workday have given Nelli an understanding of why they were amused: “I feel it more, definitely.”

Still, her routine this summer is working until 4 p.m. and then going home and working until dark with her husband, who has a mowing business, to landscape their new home. “It’s fun!” she said. Going in the ground are “a mix of plants other gardeners have given me and things I have been wanting to buy, like my own butterfly bush,” she said. Last winter she read up on roses and with seven new bushes, “I’m looking forward to having roses in a vase by my bed.”

The only stressful part of her job is “the battle with the weather,” she said, including two weeks in early to mid-June, “where I’m waking up in the middle of the night checking the temperature” to make sure a late frost hasn’t killed tender seedlings.

There is a much longer list of things about her job that she loves: “My clients. I have met some really wonderful people. Being a plant nerd and talking plants [while on rounds of nurseries]. Doing real hard physical grunt work and feeling good at the end of the day.”

She paused and added, “and when you’ve done a combination and it looks so beautiful it almost takes your breath away, and that’s your job, you actually get paid for that.”
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