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Originally published Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Gardening coaches boost skills, confidence

An innovative cottage industry is sprouting up for people new to gardening or hoping to enrich their crop- or flower-growing skills. It's called garden mentoring...

For The Associated Press

An innovative cottage industry is sprouting up for people new to gardening or hoping to enrich their crop- or flower-growing skills.

It's called garden mentoring, garden coaching or garden tutoring, and it's a customized kind of training people can apply immediately to their yards, their lifestyles or the family diet.

Practitioners vary from people with vast academic training to veteran gardeners whose skills are on display from the sidewalk.

"It's often hard for people to get into gardening," said Susan Harris, a garden writer and mentor from Takoma Park, Md. "Most people new to gardening start by doing everything wrong. What that does to their confidence level can set them back a decade."

Garden coaches are there to guide the beginner — essentially, it's a formalized way of getting a helping hand from your more knowledgeable neighbor. Or they can take skilled gardeners into wow-territory. Rates vary from $35 to more than $125 an hour.

"I work with clients whose skills range from novice to master gardener," said Jack McKinnon, who runs a business called The Garden Coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Coaches are an option for people who are just starting, bought a new property or retired and joined the garden club and want to impress their fellow gardeners."

McKinnon charges $125 an hour, and he says about a quarter of his clients are men. Most aren't quite beginners, but aren't masters yet, either.

"Most want help in going to the next level. It's our job to help them achieve that," he said. "We grow gardeners rather than gardens."

Coaches are filling an apparent void. That familiar trickle-down method of learning about gardening from plant-savvy relatives or friends appears to be a fast-fading tradition for a new generation of urban dwellers or mobile, career-minded couples.

"I think there is a lapse between the opportunities to learn from a person's parents or grandparents as a child and the genuine interest [in gardening] that develops in one's 30s, 40s or 50s," said Tracey Crehan Gerlach, who lives, gardens, tutors and blogs near Charlottesville, Va. "For many, their 20s are a time to live in a more urban setting or focus on their career, and when they make the conscious decision to relocate to the country or the suburbs, they seek out learning opportunities to sustain that new lifestyle."

Young women and moms tending to a first yard are often those who approach Crehan Gerlach, who also hears from families who want to grow their own food and novice gardeners looking for an easy-to-tend landscape.

"I'll also get bursts of interest after, let's say, a long drought. Usually [from] people hoping to plan better for next year's dry summer with the correct plants and water conservation options."

Garden mentoring can be a year-round job. Many coaches take their cues from the seasons, teaching the proper pruning techniques in autumn, garden design in winter and seed growing and planting in early spring. Composting, fertilizing and efficient watering usually are part of the training plan.

Teaching children is a big part of the business, too, said Robin Haglund, Seattle-based owner of Garden Mentors.

"I have a young mother whose parents bought her quite a lot of garden stuff for Christmas," Haglund said. "I'll be working with her and her kids this spring to help put their garden together."

Haglund also finds herself serving frequently in the role of a working gift card.

"I've been given as a wedding gift, a new home gift and a birthday gift," she said. "I'm a huge fan of gifts you can use — gifts of knowledge. I love the sparkle that comes with learning."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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