Tallahassee gardener advises listening to your plants

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When I asked Kathy Carmichael what she loves most about gardening, she said, “It’s being outside with the plants and sharing knowledge with others about how best to to occupy.

A longtime elementary school teacher in Leon County, Kathy continues to teach anyone who wants to learn more about gardening through her work with the Tallahassee Garden Club, Gardening Friends of the Big Bend, Leon County Master Gardeners and the Tallahassee Orchid Society.

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Kathy grew up in Samsuela, a farming community in Volusia County, Florida. In his small community of mostly first-generation Slovenian immigrants, everyone owned a farm and grew vegetables and/or flowers for local central Florida grocery stores and markets.

Gardening was a way of life, and her grandparents and parents shared their knowledge and love of gardening with Kathy and her siblings. She smiles as she remembers working row after row of cauliflower plants as a child, wrapping cauliflower leaves and securing them to ensure the cauliflower heads remained white for market and picking peppers in a bathing suit during the summer as a teenager so she could get a tan.

Kathy Carmichael enjoying the blooming azaleas.

From gardening to teaching

Gardening was such a way of life in her community that most young people participated in local 4-H youth programs, and she fondly remembers 4-H summer camps. As she learned to garden from her parents, from 4-H, she learned self-reliance.

Through 4-H, Kathy learned skills to function as an independent adult. This included growing, harvesting and delivering produce from the garden and learning how to cook, can, preserve and freeze for later use, as well as many other skills.

When Kathy graduated from high school, she headed to Florida State University where she earned her teaching credentials and spent 30 years in Leon County teaching elementary school.

She taught in several different schools, and in each of them she always had a small garden for her students. The garden was a mixture of flowers and vegetables which the children cared for and enjoyed eating the produce.

A reward for students

They grew peppers, carrots, green beans and tomatoes. Kathy laughed as she remembered being told by parents that “their child absolutely would not eat a certain vegetable at home”, when she had seen that same child eat it raw straight from the plant in their garden. Once a child grew it themselves and was so proud of its success, they were much more likely to taste it and eat it.

Kathy said working in the garden for her students was not a chore or a lesson, but rather a treat or a reward. Working in the garden, the children learned a lot of basic science, including how to identify vegetable plants, weeds, friendly insects, and what compost and mulch are and how they are used.

Most importantly, students learned to work together to achieve goals and they learned patience. In the eyes of a child, it takes a long time for plants to grow and produce fruit, and these children looked forward to the harvest while taking care of their precious garden.

After Kathy retired from teaching, she completed the Leon County Master Gardener Volunteer Program and began joining local garden clubs. She said that after attending the first master gardener classes, she was so excited because she found people who loved plants like her. I met Kathy after winning the State Master Gardener Plant ID competition for the second year in a row.

Kathy Carmichael admiring the competition at a Garden Club flower show.

master of identity

In the Master Gardener Plant Identification Contest, UF/IFAS staff place any part (seed, leaf, bud, root, stem, flower, etc.) of a plant (fruits, trees , nuts, annual or perennial ornamentals, shrubs, etc.) listed on the Florida Plant Identification Specimen List as a specimen to be identified by entrants within a specified time period.

I’m still impressed that Kathy can do that. His favorite thing to do with the Master Gardener Volunteer program was working in the demonstration beds that surround the Leon County Extension Office and mentoring others for plant identification contests.

The Tallahassee Garden Club in Rutgers House.  The Tallahassee Garden Club Plant Extravaganza will take place on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Gardening groups

Kathy is heavily involved in two gardening programs: the Tallahassee Garden Club and the Gardening Friends of the Big Bend. Kathy has been involved with the Tallahassee Garden Club for almost 20 years. She joined before she retired and found a garden club circle that met at night so she could work and continue to attend meetings.

She has served as President of the Tallahassee Garden Club, District III Director of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, and is currently Landscape Chair at Rutger’s House. When the Garden Club’s various circles come together to work at the Garden Center on North Calhoun Street (the home of the Rutgers), she helps coordinate the work that needs to be done that month. She is also known for giving tours of the gardens.

The Gardening Friends of the Big Bend works with researchers and scientists working at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) in Quincy. This research center receives plants from growers and researchers who want to know how their plants are doing in North Florida.

Volunteers help plant and maintain the trial beds of these plants. Some volunteers even act as citizen scientists and help count flower buds and insects that visit flowers.

Members of the Iris Circle tend to the plants at the Tallahassee Garden Club.

Propagation and tips

For 10 years, Kathy has been helping to propagate these plants which are not patented and which are good for the region and biodiversity. The Gardening Friends of the Big Bend hold plant sales twice a year and sell the plants they propagate. Funds raised are used to expand the public gardens on the site off Highway 267, just north of Interstate 10.

The best advice Kathy gives her friends when they ask how to keep plants alive is to try something different. “Plants want to live,” so if you have a plant and it doesn’t seem to be doing well, try something different.

If you have it in full sun, move it to full sun or partial shade. If it is in the shade, give it some sun. Ditto if it is too wet, let it dry before watering it again, do not let it soak in water, or on the contrary, if it is too dry, water it more frequently. If the plant tells you it’s not happy, change its location or growing conditions.

Kathy loves where she lives in downtown Tallahassee. She said many of her neighbors are converting their front yards into vegetable gardens or landscaping with edible plants. She would encourage the people of Tallahassee to take advantage of our long growing season to plant the seeds of those vegetables or fruits that you love and want to eat.

If you need help getting started, contact the Leon County Extension Office, the Leon County Library, or a local garden club. If you have children who might be interested in 4-H, contact the Leon County Extension Office.

Also, if you see Kathy at the Spring Plant Sale (online shopping begins May 7) for Gardening Friends of the Big Bend, be sure to say hello and she may be able to help you identify a mysterious plant.

Brenda Buchan

Brenda Buchan is a volunteer master gardener with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an equal opportunity institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at [email protected]

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