GARDEN THERAPY: Growing a Designer – October 2022

By Mel Bellar

I had a conversation with a friendly acquaintance, and reader of the Gazette, at an event not long ago. Somehow, we veered off into talking about my life prior to living in Andes, and he suggested that I write about that in my column.  It didn’t seem like something that made sense for a garden column; it is not about me but about our shared interest.

After 9 years of writing this column, it becomes harder and harder to come up with inspiring topics that are fun to explore and that might be interesting to you. I have loved sharing my knowledge, opinions and passions, but I am going to be stepping down after this year. This leaves me with 3 more columns to write. I am going to do my best to make them something more meaningful than my prattling on about hydrangeas or geraniums. You know how I love going into gory detail about a genus of plants, or into depth about the importance of paths (or big rocks!). These are also easy things to write about, but don’t offer me ripe opportunities to wax philosophical or express my strong opinions.

When people ask me what I do, I say that I have a “landscape design, installation and maintenance business,” but the design part is really my thing. Over the years I have come to realize that my real passion is for combining function and beauty (good design!), and I want to share a little about how I got there.

I grew up as an only child in Louisiana and my mother made me take piano lessons. I didn’t really question this and it was kind of fun until I had to perform; I had debilitating stage fright. I stopped my lessons after a couple of years and did not pick them up again until it became useful to me. I wanted to play in a 60’s rock band and that was the easiest way, playing Doors, Vanilla Fudge and Deep Purple (sorry younger folks) covers. This was great for the hippie days of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Then on a somewhat out-of-character, and very impractical, side path, when I went to college I wanted to take some music classes to help my rock career and ended up getting several degrees in classical music (composition and performance) where I was once again confronted with stage fright. Also, I was just not that interested in writing contemporary music that would not really have an audience. However, that journey brought me to New York where I rather quickly switched gears again and got into a New Wave rock band and discovered writing music for our specific eccentric trio. That was more or less designing music for a specific set of skills, instruments and within our style, and that really turned me on; it was writing music for a real purpose.

My life as an aspiring rock star did not pay the bills and I was very tired of waiting on tables, so I ventured into the world of technology. This was in the early 80s so I was in on the ground floor and enjoyed writing software. Designing software solutions is very gratifying when you get to see things work. It really is design and problem solving, but it is certainly not “beautiful,” and my part was generally hidden beneath the surface. Fast forward to November of 2003 (after 23 years in the biz),  I was at the peak of my software career, with an executive job making the most money I ever had, when I got “job eliminated.” I spent the next 6 months looking for a job and was totally miserable. Then my adventurous and supportive wife (very tired of me being miserable) suggested that we do something wild and crazy and move to our house in the Catskills (purchased in 2001) and choose what we love. After I lost my job, I was sent to an outplacement service as part of my “package,” and they strongly encouraged us to figure out “our passion” and what motivated us. Low and behold I honed my idea about “function and beauty.” Peg and I had already had a roof garden in the city and I was fanatically working on our garden in Andes, so with Peg’s crazy idea, it sort of all came together.

During the Summer of 2004 I went through the bulk of an intensive Landscape Design Certificate program at the New York Botanical Garden and truly fell in love with it. That Fall we moved to the Catskills full time and sold our apartment in the city. The next Spring, after going through the Master Gardener program at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Greene County, Zone4 Landscapes was born, and my most exciting and gratifying career adventure began.

Next month I am going to share more about my journey and why it is such a wonderful, under-appreciated and under-represented profession.

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate
Andes gardener.