Our #GrowInspired series features our innovative and creative garden partners. Whether they’re working with two acres or 200 square feet, we are constantly in awe of their hard work and kick-ass gardens. These are some of our favorite growers and gardeners who inspire us to get out and play in the dirt.
Toni Gattone is a motivational speaker and author of the book, “The Lifelong Gardener, Garden with Ease & Joy at Any Age.” After being in the corporate world, Toni had an “aha” moment that made her quit her job and start working in the garden industry. Along her journey she’s become an expert in adaptive gardening and motivates people to get out and garden at any age or with physical limitations. We had the pleasure of speaking with Toni about her story, what adaptive gardening means to her, her own garden, and some of her favorite tools that every gardener needs. Enjoy!
How Toni Got Into The Garden Industry
I spent quite a bit of time in corporate America and I just got burned out. I think the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake kind of forced me out the door — it made me realize that I didn’t want to work in downtown San Francisco anymore. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I got an equity line on my house and as soon as it went through, I quit my job. I sat on my patio saying, “Now what am I going to do,” and all I could think about was that I really loved to garden. So about six months later I started going to trade shows, wholesale trade shows, and finding gardening products to sell. And then I started driving all over Northern California selling them. I eventually ended up with 12 reps helping me sell the products. We started doing trade shows, you know, the whole nine yards.
I was going to do that until I figured out what my next thing was and I know this sounds very California-esque, but I said to the universe — if you would illuminate my new path, I will follow it. And sure enough, I became a master gardener and my chronic back pain got so bad that I had to give up the territory that I had kept. I couldn’t keep getting in and out of my car ten times a day and one thing led to the next and I discovered adaptive gardening. So the path that was illuminated for me was painful but I’ve always had a love for gardening so it just made sense.
What Is Adaptive Gardening?
Everyone has their own way of defining or looking at adaptive gardening, but I describe it as a practice in growing your resilience so that whatever life challenges you may have, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, financial, or whatever, you can find another way to get something done so that people can develop what I call bounce-back ability. Maybe it's a bad back, maybe it’s simply that people are aging in place these days and they realize that they can't keep gardening the way they have been. What can they do? How can they adapt? How can they make changes? And it doesn't even need to be about seniors, people of all ages have challenges. So I came up with some creative ideas that maybe they hadn't thought about before, that can help them to keep doing what they really love to do.
In my seminars and in my book, I divided up in three ways. The first is the gardener and how the gardener can look at how and when they garden and what can be changed along those parameters. And then the second part is the garden; how they can modify their gardens so that they can have comfort and safety. And then the third, because for all those years as a rep I sold tools, I talk about how people can adapt their favorite tools to work for them as well. Maybe they've got decreased muscle strength or arthritis in their hands, so I also recommend a whole slew of new quality ergonomic tools around the market.
Toni’s Favorite Tools For Adaptive Gardening
I have a storefront on Amazon and then I have an online store at my website. My top three basics would be a good soil scoop, a good tool sharpener, and a reversible kneeler bench. Also, a pair of really high-quality pruners because pruners are one thing you’re going to use 95% of the time.
On Toni’s Home Garden
When you live in California you don’t really get a sprawling piece of property, but in my small yard I have a number of elevated, raised beds, a lot of containers, and terracotta, concrete and ceramic containers that bring a visual punch to the garden. They also raise the garden up so I don’t have to bend over because I’ll do anything to not have to bend over!
My garden is primarily flowers that I can cut and bring into the house. We have a tree gardenia that has always been near and dear to my husband and I which is quite lovely. We just had our last blooms on it about a week ago, but we had four months of amazing gardenia blooms this year. The variety is Mystery Gardenia and it’s florist size — it will knock your socks off.
We also grow a lot of veggies: lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, from both seed and starts. It’s a real labor of love to be able to eat the food that we grow.
Something Toni’s Learned This Year
I think the thing I’ve learned the most from living in a drought environment is to eliminate some of my smaller containers. I used to tell people not to bother using pots any smaller than six inches, and I've been rethinking that advice and now I really don’t think people in drought environments should use pots less than 10-12”. It just doesn’t make any sense when our water company wants a 40% cutback to keep watering containers because they dry up so quickly.
Toni’s Advice For New Gardeners
The biggest realization that I've come up with this year is how to keep plants alive with less water. It’s been a huge learning curve for all of us, not just here in California, it's all over the Western United States. So I think about all these new gardeners and if I were to advise somebody what to do, I guess I would try to tell them before they jumped in with both feet to really think about where you will be in a few years and what you can manage. I came in and immediately built my garden beds and then my back went out and then my husband needed to have a knee replaced and I felt well, this isn't working. So now I suggest to people that they really think about what they can manage physically and potentially raise their beds up waist-high because that will make all the difference for the future.
On Toni’s Favorite Plant To Grow
It used to be roses but now with the water shortage, I look at my roses and I see that they're not doing well and I'm wondering if I shouldn't take them out because they are water hogs. So I've switched over and have a lot of succulents — I love succulents. I love their colors and I love the fact that they're just so resilient. They can just get by with very little water.
Toni’s Advice For Handicapped Or Older Gardeners Just Getting Started
As I mentioned earlier, think about tomorrow. Don't just think about your garden for this season, but spend the time to put in something that is going to work for you in the foreseeable future. Whether that means an elevated, raised bed or a really good quality tool, you want to make an investment for all the tomorrows instead of just today.
For people’s first gardening season, I would suggest starting with something like herbs which are low maintenance, low water, and something that they can eat and enjoy. Lettuce is also a really easy vegetable to grow as long as the birds don’t eat them (like my recent batch that I just put out). Edible flowers are really beautiful and you can add them to your salad and dishes which can be a lot of fun. Also, succulents are also really easy. You definitely don’t want to jump in with more complicated plants like roses or things that are going to need more maintenance. Start with something easy and set yourself up for success!
On Toni’s Book: The Lifelong Gardener, Garden with Ease & Joy at Any Age
Enjoy hundreds of adaptive gardening tool tips, solutions, resources and gorgeous photos that will inspire you to garden for life!
This book celebrates gardening at any age while also being an information-rich resource about resilience, not giving up, and how an adaptive approach to gardening can remove barriers, and create new opportunities for senior and boomer gardeners.
You’ll find helpful guidance for starting and maintaining container gardens, edible landscapes, along with tried-and-true methods to help eliminate the physical strain of gardening, recommendations for ergonomic tools, using elevated raised beds, and dozens of simple ways to make gardening more comfortable, easy and joyful.
Toni’s 2021 Holiday Gardening Gift Guide
From being in the tool business for so long, Toni has some great recommendations for what to get the gardener in your life for the 2021 holidays. Although C-BITEs aren’t on the list, we think they’re a great gift idea too!