Marie Venable: Ace Gardener

Marie Venable has been an ace member of the Department of Public Works’ traffic engineering and loss mitigation division for years. But when she’s not thinking about traffic and blacktop, she likes to completely off-road it.

As in, she heads to her gardens, where she’s also an ace — a “good steward” of the half-acre of property that she and her husband call home.

How much of an ace is she? Last month Venable was recognized for having the most beautiful, water-conserving garden in Lemon Grove, winning the Helix Water District’s California Friendly Landscape contest. In addition, the National Wildlife Federation recognizes Venable’s gardens and landscape as a Certified Wildlife Habitat,  friendly to birds, bees, butterflies, etc. (not lions, tigers and gophers, oh my…).

When you talk to Venable, you realize a few things very quickly. She likes to smile and laugh — a lot. She likes the phrase “you know.” And that anytime she talks about gardening, the environment, the Earth and doing what we can to save it through conservation, she’s earnest and passionate.

She eagerly talks about the importance of using mulch and worm-castings (earthworm manure, a natural fertilizer), and about using rain barrels to cut water use (she has four 250-gallon rain barrels under her house’s deck). She says gardeners should not use pesticides, because they can poison wildlife’s food supplies and the water they add to our watersheds. She’s also quickly adds that gardeners should grow plants that suit their local environment, but that doesn’t mean you can grow only cactus and succulents to be water-wise.

Venable said she uses drought-tolerant and native plants, because they adapt to and live better in our environment, rather than non-native plants that require lots of extra water to survive our hot, dry summers.

Her own gardens include sages, lantanas, geraniums, grasses, mallows, lavender, rosemary, buckwheat, lion’s tail, birds of paradise, and yes, a variety of succulents — flowers and plants of different colors, heights and textures.

Venable said she works hard to conserve water to garden the right way, which she said also includes composting, sharing plants with friends and family, propagating new “babies” from her existing plants, and using the Internet to find or create natural ways to control pests.

But Venable is humble when asked about winning Helix’s landscape contest. She quickly credited others for their help: her husband for building their sloping property’s retaining walls and rain-barrel system, and a couple of DPW co-workers, Patricia Johnson and Nannette Encarnacion, for sharing plants, artistic vision and water-conservation ideas.

Venable said she only entered the contest at the last minute, after seeing the announcement for it in her water bill and being encouraged by her husband.

“I couldn’t believe I won,” Venable remembered with a smile. “I was like, ‘I won?!’”

InSite caught up with Venable last week to ask a few questions:

InSite: Have you always been a gardener?

Venable: Yes, I learned the love for gardening from my Dad. We lived in L.A. — San Fernando Valley. We had a medium-sized subdivision lot where my Dad would grow tomatoes, basil and cucumbers. And we always had a full garden, fig trees and orange trees. So I was born and raised in it.

Even when I lived in an apartment when I first started out, I grew patio tomato and basil plants. Being environmentally sensitive… even if you start with one plant, you’re conserving by limiting the amount of store produce deliveries (less traffic means less air pollution). You know, you can start small and just work on it.

InSite: Why a water-conservation garden? Lots of gardeners would love to have rose gardens or exotic gardens.

Venable:Yes, but we don’t live in that kind of environment. We don’t live in Canada, we’re not Butchart Gardens. You have to adapt to your environment. You really do.  If you don’t then you end up fighting with your plants! I don’t want to fight with my garden! I want to enjoy it.

For example, I love hydrangeas. They’re one of my favorite flowers. But I can’t grow them here! I’d fight with them all the time. It’s just not worth it. Plus, I don’t want a huge water bill. My landscape, fruit trees and veggie garden need watering to be beautiful and fruitful; but my water bill averages about $80 every two months!

InSite: You said in your contest entry application that having a garden was being a steward of your own little piece of the Earth. What do you mean by that?

Venable: (taking a deep breath) I look at my little land as my little area to take care of. Think about it. That’s the only footprint you own. You need to be a good steward of it. You need to respect the Earth.

InSite: So what does it take to have a green thumb?

Venable: Oh, I don’t think I have a green thumb (laughs). Again, it’s just about being patient and having fun. Being patient and being a good steward. You know, if you’re good to your plants, your plants are going to be good to you. It’s true, right? You’re good to your body, your body’s going to be good to you. You feed your body bad stuff (laughs mischievously) … you know?

InSite: How many hours do you spend in your garden?

Venable: I don’t really spend a lot of hours. Some weekends, I don’t go out in my yard to work. I might just — maybe every day — pick this weed or do this or do that. I would say I give myself at least three to six hours a month, maybe to really go out there and do what I want to do. But again, it’s my hobby.  I’m always thinking about my garden and creative ways of changing it.

After a few weeks of not working in my yard I’ll tell my husband, ‘OK, I need a day.’  Being in and working in my garden is my stress release, my creativity outlet, and my exercise. So it’s like I’ll say, ‘Ehhh, I need at least a couple of hours in the yard!’ And then it will end up being four-plus hours later. I’ll be out there, pruning this plant, tweaking this area, sitting for a while. You know, just messing around! And my husband will be like ‘are you coming in anytime soon?’

InSite: How can a person make their garden more wildlife friendly?

Venable: Provide food, via plants like sages, lantanas, grasses, mallows, lavender and buckwheat, and with bird feeders. Provide water via bird baths and ponds. And provide a place where wildlife can raise their young: dense brushes/trees, bird houses and owl boxes. Also, you can make your garden more wildlife friendly by planting more native plants and plants that are more appropriate to your environment.

Lastly, don’t use pesticides; or choose to use environmentally friendly pesticides.  Because when you use pesticides, your plants consume the pesticides, and you can poison the food chain. Then our bunnies, birds, butterflies, bees and insects eat the plants or seeds and take the flower pollen. It’s a wildlife/environment cycle of life we need to nurture and respect.

InSite: When you’re choosing plants, how do you do it? And where do you find your inspiration for design?

Venable: I always build; build on texture, color … height. You know, like if a plant has a round type of leaf, then I put a grass or narrow straight-leaf plant behind it … then maybe a smaller leaf, then a bigger leaf, you know? So you kind of have to build a plant area.

InSite: Do you consciously pick plants that bloom at different times of the year?

Venable: Yes. Definitely you want to do that. I wouldn’t group plants that bloom at the same time. That doesn’t make sense because then you only get color at one time. I have orange flower bulbs that pop up during Christmas time and “naked ladies” that are green during the winter then in the summer they’ll spike with pink flowers. Variety creates surprises in the garden.

InSite: What’s the thing you love most about gardening?

Definitely the sense of peace. I can go out there and, it’s my thing.

I mean, we all need some place to go for peace. That was my most important thing when I created my gardens; I want peace. Plus, I have dogs. So, you know, it’s fun to be out there with them and watch them chase the butterflies and do stupid crazy things.

InSite: Any final thoughts for all the gardeners out there?

Venable: Just that I think gardening is about being a good steward to our Earth and our watersheds, and that water conservation is important. And, that even taking baby steps toward those goals is better than not taking any steps at all. Like I said before, you can start small and work your way towards a beautiful garden.

Editor’s Note: Venable suggested a couple of County links to help gardeners: the Master Gardener Association of San Diego County; the Department of Public Works’ San Diego Sustainable Landscapes Web page, which features links to the San Diego Sustainable Landscapes Guidelines and a list of free landscape design seminars.