Originally created 08/04/98

Growing love



Sitting on a stone bench surrounded by her beloved herbs, trees and flowers, Mary Alice Mathis jerks her feet up from the ground, revealing the one thing she doesn't love about the natural world: ants.

"I hate getting bites," she says, as she gracefully crosses her legs atop the bench and away from the insects.

Ms. Mathis, a nature lover since childhood, has made a career out of her passion for gardening. She is employed part time, designing displays and assisting customers at two area garden centers -- Nurseries Caroliniana in North Augusta and Garden Magic in Augusta. She spends the remainder of her work week as a free-lance garden consultant, creating lush landscapes for other people.

She has worked at the North Augusta nursery for about nine years, she said, and has been consulting for about five. But her start in gardening began years ago -- before she was born, she believes.

"My family's been farmers for generations," she explains. "I guess I just have kind of a genetic feel for it. It's just in me, and I'm nurtured by it."

When she was a child, she and her siblings did most of the outdoor work, and she said she loved spending days in the yard, digging, pruning, basking in the sunlight.

"It's always been just a way of life, just something I did. It's a therapeutic, soulful, nurturing type thing that was just sort of an inner peace," she said.

Her lifelong love of plants has provided informal training that, over the years, has made her an expert.

"I think I just know so much because I've screwed up so many times in my own garden," she says with a laugh.

Paired with her training as an artist -- she attended college on an art scholarship and spent many years creating pottery and blown glass -- her plant penchant leads to artistically inspired arrangements of foliage and flowers.

"Most people I work with in their landscapes get very tickled because I'm so into it. I'm very descriptive," she says. With arms flailing, she demonstrates her demeanor when she's planning a landscape:"This will do this, and we'll get a splash here, and this is gonna do this and it'll look great with this. . . . "

Ms. Mathis talks with new clients to find out whether they have any favorite plants they want to include in their landscape and whether they are dedicated enough for a high-maintenance garden or would do better with low-maintenance plants.

Then she looks at a plat, a blueprint of the lot, to get her bearings on size, the amount of sunlight different areas receive, the size of the house and its location on the lot. She also likes to know what plants are already there for her to work around.

Most of her clients come to her through word of mouth, she says, and a small percentage are people she meets through her work at the nursery.

This summer has been difficult, she said. Because of the unusually dry weather, she has lost several of the plants in her own yard to drought, and the nursery and landscaping business tends to fluctuate with the weather.

Combining the elements of design, color and texture with the science of knowing which plants will flourish in which locations is one aspect of the career that Ms. Mathis enjoys.

"I think it's an art all the way through, from the outline of the flower beds to the type mulch you put in, to the plant material when it blooms, the whole flow and rhythm -- it's like a big orchestra pit of all these wonderful sounds, but it's all greens and shapes and motions and movement and color that just work, just like music does," she said. "The science is in the planting. You've got to be sure it's planted properly for the site. You have to heavily lime everything and know all the aspects of the plants."

On the job

•  Subject: Mary Alice Mathis, garden consultant

•  Time in field: Nine years

•  Training: Bachelor's degree in art, a lifetime of working with plants

•  Best part of job: "The people I meet doing it. It's been a great opportunity to cross paths with some really nice people."

•  Worst part: "If there's a downside it's that I have to make a living at it. I have a real hard time charging because I love to do for other people, I love to help people, and it's very hard for me to ask them to pay me for it."