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  • By Dana Casadei

Nancy Szerlag

Master gardener Nancy Szerlag has some advice for those who think they don’t have a green thumb: all gardeners kill plants.

“Death happens in the garden,” she said. “I know an international horticulturist whose motto is, ‘You have to kill a plant three times before you really know it,’ which I think is a good motto.”

Szerlag has been advising the gardening community in metro Detroit for over 20 years through her weekly Detroit News column. And for the last three years, she’s been overlooking the garden at the Older Persons’ Commission (OPC) in Rochester, which was recently named part of this summer’s garden walk for the Rochester Garden Club.

How Szerlag ended up overseeing the garden at the OPC – like most things she’s done – has an interesting origin story.

She had been living on 20 acres by herself in Grosse Pointe when she decided to move closer to friends. One day while house-hunting a friend told her he had to show her something. They ended up at the OPC’s garden.

“Most people don’t know about it. Even a lot of people who go to the OPC never look out the windows – they don’t know it’s there either,” she said.

After seeing the garden – and the weeds that were beginning to overtake it – Szerlag spoke with Renee Cortright, the OPC’s executive director, about putting together a volunteer group to work on it. Cortright agreed. Soon after, Szerlag got to work.

First though, she went to England and took a week long symposium at Great Dixter, the former home of gardener Christopher Lloyd. There, she learned more about display gardens, which is what the OPC has.

“So it’s on display for the public, it needs to look pretty good all the time,” Szerlag said. “It needs to look good from say, 150 feet away, two stories up, as well as walking through it.”

She ended up creating a color blocking design for the OPC, which has over 200 different plants. Szerlag said she likes to combine newer plants with more old-fashioned ones. For some people those plants bring back memories of when they used to garden with a parent.

There's one thing Szerlag doesn’t like to have brought into the garden when working though: cell phones.

“I think it’s a place where you should be focusing on nature and not on your phone,” she said.

Plus, phones would probably distract people from how therapeutic gardening can be, which it has been for Szerlag from the start, 25 years ago.

After her husband had a heart attack – and while he was in the ICU – she began doing research on garden therapy, which at the time was starting to become a serious way of helping people heal. This led to Szerlag redoing her backyard, taking a master gardener course, and writing some pieces for her local newspaper.

She was also reading The Detroit News, which was running articles from the Washington Post about gardening. The Washington D.C. area is in zones seven and eight on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map – a standard by which gardeners can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. Metro Detroit is zone five.

“I contacted the editor for the Homestyle section and said, ‘You’re actually publishing this information that if people follow it they aren’t going to have success. I think I can do a better job.’” Szerlag said.

So the editor gave her a shot, and loved what Szerlag had written. Since she started 20 years ago, Szerlag said she’s missed maybe two columns.

“I really enjoy it. It’s a labor of love,” she said.

Photo: Laurie Tennent

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