Melinda Myers MS’86: Turning Black Thumbs Green
For Melinda Myers MS’86, there’s something special about helping people grow their first tomato. Or pepper. Or, really, any kind of plant.
Myers is a horticulture expert who has written more than twenty books and hosted nationally syndicated radio and television shows. Though she writes for all levels, Myers is especially interested in helping first-timers get their gardens up and growing. Her latest Getting Started Garden Guide series provides advice and recommendations tailored by state.
However, Myers didn’t set out to become a prolific writer. The Ohio native moved to Wisconsin more than thirty years ago to work with garden programs at the UW-Extension office in Milwaukee County. She earned a master’s degree in horticulture along the way and still maintains close ties to her former UW colleagues and instructors.
Myers next became a city forester in Milwaukee and then an associate professor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Media outlets began tapping her expertise, and eventually she was approached to write a book. Her first led to several more and to an eponymous company that she’s run for almost ten years. “My job is not only to share my knowledge, but to pass along what people have shared with me,” she says.
One element that sets Myers apart from other gardening experts is her willingness to talk about failure. “I meet a lot of people who say they have a ‘black thumb,’” she says. “But people with green thumbs have killed plenty of plants along the way — they just don’t mention it. You’re dealing with nature, and you’re not going to have 100 percent success.”
Myers is excited by the national interest in sustainability. She’s seeing people in their twenties and thirties learning to garden for food and entertainment, and doing so in urban contexts. Her advice to new gardeners is to start small and match plants to growing conditions, including soil type, sun exposure, and seasonal temperatures.
She also warns that it’s important to keep in mind how plants will grow over time. “Those tiny shrubs in the pot can eventually get five or six feet wide,” she says. “One of the things I try to do is inter-planting with perennials so you can thin them out as the shrubs get bigger.”
Myers became the first woman to be inducted into the Green Industry Federation Hall of Fame in 2012, and she’s committed to helping other women expand their skills beyond their own back yards. She founded the annual Women in Horticulture Conference to provide support and training for women who are interested in transitioning from hobby gardening to professional positions in horticulture, which remains a male-dominated field.
“When I turned fifty, I wanted to make a difference,” she says of starting the conference. “Gardening is one way I can inspire people to make something positive a part of their lives.”
Published in the Spring 2014 issue