Welcome to the fourth installment of Patch's weekly feature, called Meet the Owners. In this feature, Patch will highlight business owners from Westhampton, Hampton Bays and Quogue.
This week, we interviewed Suzanne P. Ruggles, the Barefoot Gardner.
How did you get started?
My grandfather was an organic popcorn farmer in Iowa, but by the time I knew him he had sold the farm and had a house on Long Island with no lawn – just vegetables growing all the way around the house. I was his protégé. After college, I tried working in offices, but I was constantly yearning to be outdoors. So, I got a job at a local garden center, where very quickly I became a crew manager. After a few years there, I struck out on my own.
2. What is the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is hands down finding the right employees. There are a lot of people out there who know how to mow lawns and trim hedges, but there aren’t many people who know native plants, nor are there many who can handle the intricacies and the demands of both the science and the art of fine gardening.
3. What do you enjoy most about your job?
I am in bliss when I see a garden actually work, and by that I mean when I see the butterflies and the hummingbirds actually sipping the nectar from the flowers that we planted just for them; when I see songbirds eating the berries or the seeds from the plants that we have planted just for them; and when I see that the native plants actually thrive without fertilizer or irrigation.
4. What are the trends in your business or what is your most popular item?
My business is into ecological restoration for the sake of the air, the soil, the wildlife, the water, and of course, the humans. When I started doing this it seemed like I was one of the very few - to the point that those of who were using all organics and natives were outcasts. Now, thankfully, native plants and organics are trending. I am very, very thankful that this is the case, and very proud to have been doing it for many, many years.
5. What do you plan to do in retirement?
I don’t know if I ever will retire, honestly. I love what I do. I hope to always be involved in it in one way or another… maybe when I am unable to do the physical work, my lecturing schedule will take on more importance.
6. What advice do you have for someone starting a business? Or what is the best piece of business advice that you have ever received?
Do what you love. Then, your greatness will flow out from there.
7. Do you have any future plans for your business?
I am designing and planning a clothing line for female gardeners. Men have all the work clothes right now. But the world is changing, and women in gardening and farming need practical, working, functioning clothing without glitter and lace. I am also writing a book based on my lectures called, “The Tyranny of Landscaping” that I hope will bring my message to a wider audience than the garden clubs and civic organizations of the east end (to which I have been lecturing for twelve years.)
8. What makes your business unique?
We don’t tend lawns. I have always found the monoculture of the lawn an exceedingly boring enterprise, especially when there is such abundance and biodiversity in nature. In my lectures, “The Tyranny of Landscaping” I also point out how destructive to the environment the lawn paradigm is. So instead we undertake an ecological restoration that embraces all of the inhabitants of a native ecosystem including the plants, the beneficial insects, the birds, the turtles, the fox, the gopher, the rabbit, the butterflies, the bees, the bats, etc… and we install all of the plants and the features that encourage rather than threaten their biodiversity. We bring properties to life rather than sterilizing them.
9. What do you like the least about your business or what would you change if you could?
Basically, it doesn’t seem that most people realize that the landscaping choices they make affect so many other species.
Firstly, I would change the idea that when you buy a property, the first thing you do is bulldoze it and leave nothing but bare sand. In this paradigm, all of the creatures that depended on this land for shelter and food are decimated.
Secondly, I would eliminate at least 50% of the lawns. There are over 50 million acres of turf grass in the United States alone. If everyone gave back a portion of their lawn, just think of how many millions of acres could be given back to the creatures who are in severe decline due to the destruction of their habitat. If we were to reduce lawns, we would also reduce emissions ( lawn mowers have no emissions standards and are thus major air polluters – one hour of mowing is equal to driving approximately 250 miles by car), and less lawns would mean less pollution of our waterways due to the nitrogen run off that causes algal blooms and kills aquatic life. We would use so much less water if we reduced our addiction to turf grass, water that is much more crucial for the food supply and drinking water (the Sea of Cortez has actually dried up because of, in great part, all the lawns up river in the United States).
Thirdly, I would stop the practice of raking the leaves. This is a radical concept, but leaves are a major part of the soil food web – where insects and creatures in the soil actually create fertility for plants to then take up. Furthermore, creatures need leaves for shelter and camouflage (that is why box turtles are the color of fallen leaves) and many, many creatues depend on leaves to build their nests. And insects who live in the leaf litter provide food sources for birds, possums, and many other creatures.
10. What book are you currently reading?
I’m always reading several books at once:
- American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits by Alexander C Martin, Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson
- A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy
- Plant Invaders of Mid Atlantic Natural Areas 4thEdition by the National Park Service U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
If you know of a business owner that Westhampton-Hampton Bays Patch should feature, e-mail the Erica.Jackson@Patch.com.