To Paulette Kenley, plants are a lot like photographs.
Each of the flowers, herbs and shrubs she has growing around her home reminds her either of the person who once gave her the greenery, or of the chapter in her life when she first buried it into the soil.
In the nearly 30 years since she's been gardening, all kinds of memories have come to take root, either as houseplants in the home she and her husband built in The Harbour, or around their beautifully landscaped acre yard overlooking Lake Norman.
"That's something about plants," said Kenley. "You remember people who gave them to you, every time you see the plant."
Some came from the gardens of friends who couldn't resist sharing the beautiful gem they raised from the ground. Others came with a twinge of sadness after a funeral. Many came to her more like strays, from people who were tired of watering, and asked Kenley to take them in.
At one time, she tended to more than 60 plants in her house, all thriving.
This is ironic for a woman who remembers working in a neighborhood greenhouse as a child, and not liking it. From the big water puddle that always greeted her at the entrance door to the monotonous task of filling pot after pot with soil.
"It was cold and it was wet," said Kenley. "It was messy and it got under my fingernails. And I hated it."
She watched her mother happily toil during most of the daylight hours, tending to her roses and other flourishing perennials. She watched her brother's thumb turn green, too. Today he owns a wholesale greenhouse business in Indian Trail.
To them it was always soil. To her, it was just dirt.
Then everything changed with a philodendron. Given in memory after her infant daughter's passing in 1983, she watered the leafy plant and then let it rest on her mantel. It lived for days, then months, now years.
That same philodendron, which continues on today, also grew a love for gardening in Kenley.
"I like seeing things come up from the ground. That just gives me a good feeling all over," she said. "It makes me feel close to God."
Now, as a master gardener since 2005 in Iredell County, she helps others who see soil where they once saw dirt.
It's not hard to start a garden, said Kenley. The first step is to have your soil tested.
A simple kit from the county extension office contains a little box for gardeners to fill with their soil to have tested.
"You will receive guidelines for soil amendments," said Kenley, 58, who lives on Cedar Bluff Lane in Mooresville.
North Carolina soil is notoriously hard, but don't give up on it, she said. "The clay soil is full of nutrition. It's wonderful soil. It's just compacted."
Raised garden beds are also an option, but do dry out faster, so require more watering.
"But it would be excellent soil because your putting everything in it yourself," she said.
Kenley recommends making the garden area 3-4 feet deep, so you can reach from both sides to pull weeds.
If you're worried about pests and pesticides, find plants that are more pest-resistant.
"You have to be careful with pesticides. You don't want to treat a whole bunch of pests, because you're killing good bugs. You might be killing bees."
Kenley keeps a jug of soapy water under her trees for Japanese Beetles, a popular nuisance in North Carolina.
"If you shake the tree they fall, and they just fall right in my soapy water and die."
Pay close attention to the guidelines on plant tags as well, she said. Following the information they give on the amount of sunlight, watering and spacing needed betters their chances for success. Make sure the area where you plant them can satisfy those conditions.
The new plants and new varieties constantly introduced will forever keep a gardener from becoming bored.
"It's like you're going into a candy store," said Kenley, of her trips to the greenhouse. "You walk in, you go, 'Oh, I want some of that. I want some of that.'"
Planting something that will bloom in every season keeps a garden exciting, she said. "If you plant a good garden with different seasons of interest, it's always interesting."