Life Lessons From a Landscaper

On January 1st, 2015, after a courageous battle with cancer, Bruce R. Warila passed away.

My father was a successful businessman who built an auto recycling empire. Despite the fact that he spent his days amongst a sea of wrecked cars, bent metal, and burly men, my dad went home each day to his beloved trees, his blossoming flowers, and landscape designs. He was a junkyard dog with a soft spot for pansies, pine mulch, and asparagus.

It was there among the thousands of trees he planted, pruned, and watered that he shared the wisdom he had acquired through his keen observation of nature. He wasn’t exactly a philosopher, but if you read between the vines, his life lessons often delivered as landscaping advice were real and important. Here are just a few:

• Think long term. It takes fifty years to grow a majestic tree. Some people don’t see the point in investing in trees. You will be amazed how fast time goes by. Someday, the trees you planted will be more valuable than your house.

• Have a plan. Plants and trees takes years to grow. You have to account for size and proximity now and many years into the future.

• Plan carefully. It takes fifty years to grow a majestic tree. If you cut it down, you ain’t getting it back.

• Mark change. When you walk around your yard, watch how things continue to change from season-to-season, and year-to-year. Nature has the capacity to split rocks, carve canyons, and blanket the sun. You can see it happening if you open just your eyes and take inventory of your surroundings.

• Respect the things you can’t control. Nature will have more impact on your land than you could ever have.

• Start small. Don’t go out and buy the biggest tree you can afford. Get a younger tree that hasn’t been pumped up with fertilizer and care for it yourself; you will end up with a better plant.

• Pull weeds. Weeds will choke anything. If you don’t attend to weeds quickly and frequently they will overrun your garden.  

• Make sacrifices. Sometimes you have to cut down an older, misshapen tree to let a younger tree flourish. 

• Prune the deadwood. By cutting away the branches that no longer affect the health of the plant, you are giving what’s left a better chance to survive.

• Old plants need attention too. Everyone knows that you should water recent plantings. However, those trees that have been providing shade for the last ten years…they need hydration too.  Nothing keeps a tree happy like ongoing attention.

• Initial conditions matter. When planting trees and shrubs, dig extra large holes. When trees are rooting, don’t make them do extra work; they need all of their energy to adjust to new surroundings. 

• Diversify. Don’t plant too much of the same thing. Insects, blight, and extreme weather can kill off entire species. Make sure you plant a diversified portfolio of plants and trees.

• Inclusive trumps exclusive. The best landscapes are the ones that you can share with the community.  

• Don’t overdo it. If a little fertilizer is good, a lot must be great. Wrong. Too much food and drink will kill anything.   

• Buy local. Look for plants and trees that were grown locally by people you trust. It’s going to be easier to establish plants that are used to the local environment.

• It’s OK to make mistakes, that’s what chainsaws and shovels are for. Try new things and plant stuff every year. You can always rip it out or move it later. 

• It’s not work, it’s exercise. My yard is the best gym in town.

• Real men plant flowers. Planting is a great escape, and it gives you a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

This list could go on and on. I am sure that I learned more about life from our tree talks, than anything else.   I am going to miss our yard safaris, but I am looking forward to seeing what he has planted in heaven.