GARDEN THERAPY: Continuing to Grow – November 2022

By Mel Bellar

It was in the Spring of 2005 that I embarked on a new profession as a landscape designer and gardener. Armed with great enthusiasm, excitement, ambition, a little trepidation, and plenty of impractical training, I charged forward. At the time, I “didn’t know what I didn’t know,” and yet I was surprisingly confident and fearless (which incidentally is not my usual state). I had no doubt that with my taste, knowledge, and technical design skills (I could make really pretty design drawings with the computer), that Zone4 Landscapes would be able to create beautiful and functional landscapes.  It couldn’t be that hard, right?

While that turned out to be true, I went through a long, and at times, painful learning curve on the more practical side of the endeavor. And as such, my confidence went through some shaky periods. My training at the New York Botanical Garden taught me a great deal about hardscaping and big picture design concepts, and I learned how to identify a lot of plants. However, my design instructors didn’t share the down and dirty stuff…. no one warned me that certain perennials will live for only 2 or 3 years, or that one is going to spread all over the place via rhizomes. There were no cautionary lessons taught that one plant is going to reseed everywhere and make you crazy or that a pesky shrub is going to get leggy and flop if you don’t prune it. I could go on and on . . .  It took years to learn what makes landscapes really work in the Catskills, both functionally and aesthetically. As a result of my many trials, successes and failures, my plant palette has distilled down to a much more reliable set of choices. However, I still strive to keep it fresh and interesting, and I enjoy trying new things constantly (mostly in my own garden at first).  And yes, there are always lessons to be learned.  When it comes to nature there will always be surprises, and new mistakes to make.  She is beautiful but fickle.

While this may seem obvious, it took at least one full season for me to figure out that we needed to try using a tractor with a backhoe. If you can believe it, the first year we did sizeable projects using pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows. Sheeesssh!  That was a misery!  However, in my novice state, the backhoe seemed intimidating and expensive with our bootstrap financing. When I first rented a backhoe from Hubbell Brother’s Catskill Rentals, I was quite concerned about just hopping on and having at it. I asked Cheryl (the nice lady at the rental place) if I needed a lesson and she said “No, it is easy.  It is just like using the joysticks on a computer game”. Off I went, and later at my house I tried it and was just amazed.  Nat (my business partner at the time) didn’t love it, but I did!  I was able to create a new bed in 30 minutes and cart the rocks and roots up the hill and out of sight without struggling with a wheelbarrow. It was a game-changer!  After that, for many years, I just rented equipment when we needed it. But the downside was that I stressed over how long we had it, trying to lump the “tractor” work together so that we could stay on budget.  It was also renting machines that led me to using boulders in nearly all of my designs (it is so much fun to make use of the abundant big rocks on our clients’ properties to do cool stuff). Finally, after almost 10 years, I purchased a tractor for the business. Now Zone4 Landscapes owns two.  Having the right equipment is a key to success.

Now, I am not suggesting that everyone must buy a tractor, but those of you who own them know exactly what I am talking about. What I am suggesting is that if you are going to make a big bed or some other ambitious DIY project you should consider renting one. You will thank me for years to come.

At this point in my journey, after 18 seasons and with hundreds of projects under my belt, I think I finally “know what I know” as well as what I don’t know. It is a nice feeling to have the experience and successes under my belt, and to feel confident again. Education is no substitute for experience, though it has its good points. My suggestion to folks considering the profession would be to apprentice or work with someone you admire, someone with some large-scale experience. I know this would have eliminated much of the “school of hard knocks” I went through.

I am always grateful for my profession.  Even when I am grumpy, freaking out over new and challenging projects, dealing with the elements, or counting the minutes till the season ends, I still feel extremely lucky to have such a cool gig. How many folks have a job where you get to make the world a more beautiful place, in a tangible way, almost every day?

I feel that this article would not be complete without mentioning Nat Thomas. Nat, my dear friend, is a fantastic artist, quiltmaker, gardener, and real character, who was my business partner during the first two years of this endeavor.  He decided to move on for numerous reasons, but he was instrumental in helping me get Zone4 off the ground.

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