Written by Roger Mccredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
George Vanderbilt didn’t do anything by halves. In preparation for building his 250-room “summer home,” he established a railhead in the little hamlet of Best, North Carolina, about eight miles from downtown Asheville. Then he bought up the hamlet itself and converted its buildings into mock-Tudor cottages—as well as adding new ones from scratch—to house the project’s senior artisans and give his estate a finished feudal look. (Every château needs a village.)
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday, of course, the neighborhood is Biltmore Village. The half-timbered houses on its leafy streets are pricey, trendy restaurants and pricey, upscale shops. The tourists who flock here year-round (it is, after all across the street from the Biltmore House entrance) are not the van-and-flip-flops variety; instead, they drive BMWs, Mercedes, and the occasional Rolls. The village itself has now expanded; a row (you wouldn’t say “strip” here) of shops in harmonizing architectural style has arisen across Brook Street, and that’s where, on a bright, humid August afternoon, photographer Anthony Harden and I are headed to meet somebody.
The old-brick sidewalks are crowded. A trio of golden-tan young ladies wearing short shorts and lots of bling crosses the street just as a battered pickup full of tools and good ol’ boys turns in behind them. There is an appreciative chorus of whistles and yells from the truck. The debs-in-waiting exchange mortified glances, put their hands to their mouths, turn becomingly pink and then burst into giggles and scurry onward—cultural interaction on a summer’s day in Biltmore Village.
AT FIRST IT’S DIFFICULT to locate our target because of her general resemblance to many of the women around her. She is small, blonde, tanned, wiry, dressed in khaki shorts and a fitted blouse, and sporting a single, attractive silver bracelet. The giveaway is that she is holding a large watering can and is engaged in sprinkling a spectacular arrangement of plants in a large clay pot.
“Hi,” she says, continuing to water. “Just let me finish this.”
This is Debbie Wood, mother, former bacteriologist and research chemist, and now professional plant person whose mission is to beautify commercial Asheville one flowerpot at a time.
“I need to finish watering along here, then come back through and deadhead,” she says. “You’re welcome to come along.”
That’s when we notice that similar tubs of mixed blossoms and greenery are stationed at intervals all along the strip—er, row—of Brook Street shops.
“These are all mine,” she says, “or rather, I created them for the business owners along here. No two are exactly alike.”
She pauses at the next pot. “See, here I’ve used this big coleus”—indicating a tall background shrub with maroon-and-green leaves—“for background, then I put a lantana in. Now, these are all from little four-inch pots originally. Except this nasturtium. I grew it from seed.”
The next pot: “Lavender. It’s always so pretty,” she says, examining the delicate blue-violet sprigs. “And here,” she says, plucking a piece of something green and familiar-looking and rolling it between her palms. “Smell.”
Something to do with roast pork.
“Rosemary,” she says. “What I want to do is get as many of people’s senses engaged as I can when they look at my arrangements—not just sight, but smell and texture as well. See this dusty miller peeking out next to the zinnias? That’s what I mean. Contrast. People tend to think solely in terms of blossoms, but you can get beautiful effects from anything, including veggies. I’ve got some cabbages in a couple of these pots. And kale.”
We reach the cornermost pot and Debbie Wood pauses long enough to be asked: Why do you do what you do?
“Creativity, I guess,” she says. “Creating something out of things that are in the process of creating themselves. Living things. Watching things grow. And,” she grins, “there is kind of a payoff when you notice somebody looking at something you’ve done and sort of going, ‘Wow!’”
Is this what you set out to do in life? Did you go to school for it, or—
“Hardly,” she laughs. “I grew up in Charlotte. I’ve got a degree in lab science and chemistry from Chapel Hill. I did graduate work at Emory, and I ended up staying in Atlanta and working with Emory for the CDC [Center for Disease Control].”
We start back down the row of plant creations as Debbie begins the process of deadheading, which for her consists of pinching spent blossoms off their stalks and discarding them. It’s a simple process, which may explain her spic-and-span appearance and the fact that she is not wearing or carrying numerous dirt encrusted gardening tools.
She resumes the narrative. “That was in the ’80s. I was at Emory working with the CDC when this spooky new virus showed up. At the time, all we knew for sure was there was a really dramatic increase in people reporting pneumonia-like symptoms. But it didn’t respond to pneumonia treatment protocols. People were getting sicker. People started to die.
[quote float=”right”]“Eventually, of course, we were able to isolate the virus and put a name to it—HIV—and the condition it brought on as AIDS. It was a scary time because those were early days, and we had so little knowledge about the thing’s behavior, how it was spread and so on.”[/quote]“Eventually we noticed a correlation. This thing seemed to track through gay communities and for lack of anything else to call it we started just referring to it as ‘gay-related syndrome.’ Well, that thesis was blown when it started showing up among heterosexuals as well. Eventually, of course, we were able to isolate the virus and put a name to it—HIV—and the condition it brought on as AIDS. It was a scary time because those were early days, and we had so little knowledge about the thing’s behavior, how it was spread and so on. But it was also a very challenging, rewarding time because we had a very clear cut mission to focus on, and we were using all our resources and brain power to discover as much as we could.
“After CDC I stayed on in Atlanta. Worked as a health consultant for a while and did some medical writing. I was raising kids by then. I tell people I had to do a whole career before I could get to where I wanted to be—mainly because I didn’t even know where that was,” she laughs.
She pauses to pluck a spent snapdragon blossom. “I love snapdragons,” she says. “You plant them and they come up where you plant them—the first time. Next time, they just pop up wherever.”
She returns to the thread of ‘How Atlanta-based Research Chemist Debbie Wood Became a Plantswoman in Asheville, North Carolina.’
“So I was just being a mother and doing my consulting work when my sister moved to Madison County. I came up to help her move, and of course I just fell in love with the country. I kept telling myself I had no intention of living here, though—I was doing what I was doing and it seemed like moving just wasn’t part of all that.
“But then I came upon a farm for sale in Madison, and the idea came back to me. I couldn’t forget about it. I had four kids who by then were in their teens and they were horrified at the very idea. But in the end I did it.” She laughs again. “I literally bought the farm.”
We have worked out way back to the opposite end of the shops, and Debbie pauses long enough to remember. “The farm had three greenhouses. Three. I didn’t know what on earth to do with them.” She loved growing things, she says, but had never progressed beyond the house plant stage. “Yet here the greenhouses were,” she says, “like a challenge. So I bought a few plants and started getting my feet wet.”
The scale of the greenhouse and farm operation proved daunting, however, so it was necessary to devise a Plan B. “My parents retired, and they actually moved up from Charlotte and took over the farm, which had already been named ‘Herbs of Grace’—isn’t that a great name?” With her parents in place, Debbie bought a house in Asheville. She opened a tearoom at Herbs of Grace and commuted to Madison County, running the tearoom successfully until 2008, when another opportunity came along.
“I became friends with Renee Fisher,” she recalls. “Renee had a container gardening business she had named Sprig. So basically I went to work with her at Sprig, and that’s really what I’ve been doing ever since.” When Fisher eventually decided to leave the business, Debbie took it over.
“Renee had built up a good customer base, mostly by word of mouth, and we later added a website, sprigasheville.com. We got the contract for Grove Arcade. That was a biggie. Still is. I haven’t even had time to update the website yet, but at least it’s there. I haven’t even had a chance to order new business cards.”
Debbie produces a wrench key and locks the building faucet she used to draw her last batch of water. “I need to do my stuff across the street,” she says. ”Let me refill my water supply and I’ll meet you over there in a minute.”
We help her load her equipment—a short hose, two five-gallon jugs, and her watering can—into her car, and then walk across Brook Street to Kitchin Place. Here, in the block leading towards the Cathedral of All Souls, is another row of large clay pots full of spectacularly arranged flowers and greenery. A couple of these flank the entrance to men’s clothier Jos. A. Bank, half a dozen paces from the entrance to the Capital at Play office.
I write for Capital at Play and, if I’m feeling solvent, occasionally visit Jos. A. Bank. I have never taken notice of these arrangements. I suddenly feel like an utter clod.
My self-chastisement is interrupted by the arrival of Debbie. We help her unpack her equipment. Out comes the watering can again. “I’ve been worried about some of these guys all day,” she says, indicating the contents of a tub receiving the full force of the afternoon sun. She explains that she chooses plant varieties for overall hardiness, but “if they get too much sun without relief, they’ll get droopy. They won’t be harmed—I wouldn’t let that happen—but they won’t look their best. Then, too, some pots have to go under awnings or roof overhangs where they don’t get wet even if it’s pouring rain all around them. I have to remember them especially.
[quote float=”right”]What she loves most about her job, she says, “is the freedom. The businesses I contract with give me carte blanche about my choice of plants and the overall look of what I do for them. My hours are my own; I make my own decisions.”[/quote]“Generally, I’ll do two plantings for everybody,” she says, “one in May and the other in October. I don’t have a big staging area or anything like that, so in spring and fall I just go to plant wholesalers, buy up what I think I’ll need and stake everything out in the backyard until I can get on site and start assembling, pot by pot. You see the sorts of plants I use for warm weather. In winter I’ll plant bulbs for next spring, and some hardy stuff to keep color going through the winter—pansies, mums, even some little evergreens. The whole idea is to keep things looking lively all year round. I’m constantly surprised, in this job, about how things grow, about how plants can work together. I learn from those surprises.”
What she loves most about her job, she says, “is the freedom. The businesses I contract with give me carte blanche about my choice of plants and the overall look of what I do for them. My hours are my own; I make my own decisions.”
And of course there’s the same downside to all this that there is to any entrepreneurial situation. “The responsibility is all on me, too. Plus, I freely admit I don’t like bookkeeping, billing, the ‘business’ parts of being in business.” She nods at the pot she’s watering. “It takes me away from this.”
There’s plenty of room in the landscape gardening industry for operations like hers, says Debbie. “Not everything is a huge project that needs a huge team of gardeners,” she says. “Smaller operations and individual businesses want somebody they can interact with—somebody who can help them express their image, only with foliage. It’s like marketing in a way.”
She turns to the two pots flanking the entrance of Jos. A. Bank. “Look,” she says. “See how the plants soften the lines around the doorway, how nice this looks against the old brick. It’s welcoming.”
When she isn’t working with plants, Debbie Wood spends her time—well—working with plants. And networking with people who do likewise, both professionally and as a hobby. “I want to get in a plug,” she says. “I want to say what a great organization the Master Gardeners [Buncombe County’s Master Gardener Extension Program] is. They’re all volunteers, and they do so much to beautify and educate.” (See sidebar at the end.)
“Why did you get up this morning?” I ask. I’m hoping for an end-of-interview zinger and am not disappointed.
“To water my plants?” she says . “Of course” hangs in the air as plainly as if she had uttered it.
She waves, hoists her watering can and heads off up Kitchin Place. Shortly, she disappears among the tourists.
Extension Master GardenerSM (EMG) Volunteer Program
EMG is a national program of trained volunteers who work in partnership with their county Cooperative Extension Service office to extend information throughout the community. The first EMG program was started in Washington State in 1972. Forty-six states now have EMG programs with over 15,000 people participating nationwide.
What does it take to be an EMG Volunteer?
Have you ever:
– Had a vegetable or flower garden?
– Grown roses or houseplants?
– Planted and maintained a lawn?
– Planted or pruned trees and shrubs?
For more info, contact firstname.lastname@example.org