How gardening became a life-changer for one Charlotte woman

08/21/2014 5:12 PM

08/25/2014 10:19 AM

Mae Lin Plummer’s philosophy on gardening is identical to her philosophy on life: Use what you have. Work with what you’re given. Let go of any need to control.

The 41-year-old Plummer used to believe she was in control. She had a thriving career in banking, made a good salary and was able to take several big vacations each year. But she says she felt she was losing her soul. The garden she was working to create – first in the backyard of her Merry Oaks area home but now encompassing her front yard, too – offered solace.

In those days, she kept a journal and would jot down a summary of each day. One night she wrote, “This work is so draining.”

She calls that April 16, 2013, journal entry an epiphany. She quit her job and spent time with her beloved grandfather, who has since died, in Taiwan that May. Then she enrolled for the fall 2013 semester in CPCC’s horticulture program as a full-time student.

“My career gave me a lot,” she says. “I don’t regret those years I worked (in corporate). I paid off my student loans, and I gained a lot of confidence. But I felt like I had taken every lesson I could from the experience.”

She took what she could from being a student at CPCC, too. But she felt her horticulture certificate prepared her for a career in the landscape industry – which she says can be focused too heavily, for her liking, on pesticides. Having been stuck in an unfulfilling job once, Plummer says she never intends to be stuck again.

So she enrolled in UNC Charlotte’s biology department, and starting this fall, will work toward a second undergraduate degree – this time focused on ecology. At UNC Charlotte, she also interns in the botanical garden and teaches children’s programs.

Let it be

“We all have this deep belief that we need a plan,” Plummer says of her wandering path. “But you don’t have to have it all figured out before you act. I’m in my 40s now, and I’m in classes with college freshmen.” It’s exactly where she wants to be.

Her instincts guide her in the garden, too. She developed a plan for it, but she veers from that plan when nature intervenes. And nature always intervenes.

“Those black-eyed Susans there,” she says, pointing to a colorful patch. “I intended them for that one spot. But they jumped to the other side of the path, so I let them grow there, too.” A volunteer sunflower popped up, and she let it bloom.

The yard used to be dominated by an elm tree that was killed by English ivy. “My yard went from having shade to being full sun,” she recalls. “You learn to adapt.”

And while she will use a product like Roundup sparingly and in isolated spots, most of the weeding she does is by hand. “I don’t fertilize and I don’t use pesticides,” she says.

Just as she works with nature, she worked with what she found on her property. The chain link fence she’s never liked is now camouflaged by flowers and shrubs – and she didn’t have to pay have it removed.

A chain link gate has rhododendron wood woven through it. What had been an eyesore is now a work of art. A basketball goal cemented into the back patio? She removed the net and hung lanterns from the rim to create a makeshift chandelier.

She is especially happy that for the first time she has tree frogs – which munch on mosquitoes. (The federally protected Venus flytrap, indigenous to North Carolina, also helps keep pesky insects in check in Plummer’s garden.)

And she loves bats. “My garden is a buffet for them,” she says.

It provides a buffet for humans, too. Among the native plants, flowers, birdhouses and feeders and a Buddha statue – to honor her Chinese heritage – are tomatoes, cucumbers and other veggies. There’s even an Asian pear tree. “There’s a little (food) for me, a little for the creatures that visit,” she says.

She calls it her Laughing Garden, and it’s a favorite gathering spot for friends. It’s the site of frequent parties – and that is exactly as she intended.

A garden sustains life, she notes. And Plummer says her garden saved hers.

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