Interview the Gardener: Tammy Sutter

Interview the Gardener: Tammy Sutter

We're incredibly fortunate to have an awesome team of plant-loving people here at Cornell Farm, and we want to show them off! That's why, every so often, we try to sit down for a one-on-one conversation with one of our team members so that you can get to know them better. In today's "Interview the Gardener" segment, we're excited to share our recent conversation with Tammy Sutter, who joined our Patio team earlier this year. Tammy is a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, and she has some wonderful thoughts to share about all of the above in today's interview.

So, Tammy, you work with annuals and perennials here at the Patio, but I'd love to know a little bit more about your gardening situation at home. How would you describe yourself as a gardener?

Well, I've lived in the same house for almost 30 years, and to me, my garden is like a record of my life. In that time, my family's grown, and I've lost people, and every plant in my yard has a story that reminds me of someone. There's the last hebe I bought with my grandma when we were shopping before she passed away, or the trees I planted right after the birth of my first son and my second son.

My yard is about half an acre — mostly perennials — and I have a good mix of sun and shade, so I'm really lucky there. I have these huge fir trees, and they're just full of history. Really there's history everywhere you look around the garden. I'm the third owner of the house, which was built in 1934 or 35-ish by this lady and her husband, and she wanted these particular lava rocks for her garden that had to be brought in all the way from eastern Oregon. They couldn't really afford them, so they shrunk the house plans down until they could afford the rocks. Every time I find even the smallest lava rock, I think of Minnie, the original owner, and how loving her husband was to give her the rocks she wanted for her garden.

I have done most of the yard work myself since buying the house. I planted all but four of the trees in my back yard, and now they're 30 foot tall firs and cedars and mountain ashes. I love how everything in the garden has a story. It's my happy place.

I imagine setting roots down in one garden and getting to watch a tiny sapling grow into a huge tree really informs your perspective on gardening. Would you agree?

Oh, definitely! I mean, the oldest plant I have is a tree peony that my mom had by her front door. After she passed, it moved with me to every apartment and house I lived in, and now I can't imagine ever leaving everything in my yard and moving. I mean, the trees that my sons used to climb — how can I move away from those? How can I move away from the blueberries that my lovely dog used to pick? I still remember how she'd spit out the green ones and only eat the ripe ones.

Gardening seems to be really tied to memory for you. Would you say that's what first set you on your gardening journey?

You know, gardening has always been really important to me. My whole family gardens. And when I was growing up, my grandparents had 17 acres outside of McMinnville, and they had a huge house — huge — and their vegetable garden was probably an acre-plus. They had fruit trees and everything, and we'd all get together during harvest time and shuck corn and make apple pies and help with canning and freezing. It was an amazing way to grow up, and I think it really gave me appreciation for all of nature.

I pursued a degree in apparel and textile design, and then my master's is in teaching and education, and that love of nature has really followed me through it all. When I was designing apparel for Columbia sportswear, I would make a blackberry print or one of trilliums. And as a teacher, I always tried to bring nature into the classroom, because I just don't think our kids get enough of it. So it's always been there. It's just kind of woven a different pattern now and then. 

It's kind of fun how my design and education backgrounds come into play whenever I help guests out with color and texture choices or help them understand how to care for a plant. Everything comes around.

Can you talk more about that — how your experiences in those other fields has helped you be a better gardener, or vice versa?

As an educator, nature provides so many opportunities to help children learn fundamental life lessons and talk about some really difficult subjects. There's so many obvious differences among flowers that are easy to talk about — you know, this one has a huge center and this one doesn't, this one has five petals, that one has six — and you can tie that back to diversity and how that can be applied to people. Why can't we all embrace our differences and get along? Flowers do.

One of the hardest things in early childhood ed is talking about death, but nature can make that so much easier. "You just picked a flower. Is that flower living or dead? What about the plant itself?" These questions spark bigger conversations, and I think there's something really comforting about seeing how the big picture fits together, and how we're part of these greater cycles all around us. There's life and death, pollinators and decomposers, and all these grand processes. Kids have this innate sense of connecting what they see in nature and in the garden to us as people.

That's really beautiful. So much of gardening is about looking and listening. Would you agree?

Oh, yeah. Listen to your plants. Listen to nature! Nature often has its own plans, just as life does, and we can either fight those or learn to work with them.

On the north side of my house, I have this little grove of native Oregon grape. And 30 years ago, it did fine, but for the last five years, it's been slowly dying off starting at one end. It was so frustrating, and one day I called my master gardener friend from down the street in despair, saying "I've tried everything for four years and I just keep putting more in the compost bin because it's dying off." And she just looked at me and she goes,"Tammy, just plant something that likes to live there!" And that was an aha moment. I had stopped listening to nature. So now I've shifted my attitude, and I'm trying something else.

That's funny. I was going to ask you about the best piece of gardening advice you've been given, but I think that's probably a pretty good one!

Absolutely! Sometimes, you just have to live with imperfections. Dealing with die-off, diseases, and deer — that's nature! And you have to learn to coexist. I think I really found that out when I had kids. I wanted them to enjoy the yard as much as I do, and I didn't want them to be afraid, like "Oh, we can't go into mom's garden." So there was this one year when my red hot pokers were really gorgeous, and before I knew it, they were turned into swords for a sword fight. But you know, I just had to coexist. And just think of the memories that were made from that! I still think about that sword fight every year that my red hot pokers bloom, and I smile. It's all worth it.

Would you say those red hot pokers are one of your favorite plants? Or is there another plant that evokes a favorite memory that you'd like to share before we go?

All of the plants that I have in my yard, I give away freely to neighbors, and I love getting to go down the street and see how my yard has multiplied. I see forget-me-nots at almost every school I've taught at, because I've taken them in for kids to sprinkle around on our walks. I just love how they spread by these little seeds stick to dogs and kids. It's kind of fun. I've given rudbeckia to three or four neighbors, and whenever I see it growing in someone else's garden, there's this instant feeling of community. I've even given away some of those red hot pokers! And maybe that gets to be a piece of my legacy.

What a beautiful parting sentiment. I think so! Thank you so much, Tammy.