I’ve been a Master Gardener (MG) for almost a decade and had years of hands-on gardening experience at my Dad’s knee prior to the 9 months of MG training classes and my 100+ hours of required volunteer service hours. I know what I’m doing in the garden. And if I’m unsure? I consult with my MG friends. That’s what experts do. And you know what? I’m an expert.
For the past 12 years I’ve been the recipient of advice and commentary from dozens of random people who have walked by my very public front hill garden while I’m working in it. This past weekend was no different. I was pruning the dead canes out of my hydrangeas. They were hit very hard by the crazy winter weather and all seven shrubs had basically died back to their roots. New growth was coming up from the roots, but the brown stalks with blackened buds on them were an ugly distraction. I knew I needed to prune the dead stalks out or I’d be unhappy with my garden all season.
As I was pruning, two people stopped and offered me their expert opinions on what I was doing. The first woman, a neighbor who once invited me over to her home so I could give her free expert garden design advice (which she subsequently implemented) told me it was the wrong time of year to prune. Shaking her head and speaking with authority, she said that I should wait until fall to prune or I would ruin my garden. I stared at her, shocked that she, a self-described brown thumb, would feel qualified and confident enough to offer me gardening advice. Briefly, I explained that I would choose no blooms over looking at dead stalks all summer. Her parting shot: “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
I went back to pruning, but as I worked I worried that perhaps I’d made a wrong decision. I worried that maybe she was right. Have you ever had something like this happen to you? Here I am, an expert in my field, and I was concerned I was wrong and that an admitted brown thumb could make a better decision for me and my garden. What was it that made me doubt myself? Was it her self-assured tone? My lack of self-confidence? What makes you doubt yourself?
Not too many minutes later a second woman stopped and told me that her mother never pruned in the spring. She said I was pruning away future blooms. And then she said that she would miss my “once-beautiful” garden. Her message was loud and clear: “You need to listen to me. You don’t know what you’re doing. You are ruining a perfectly good garden.”
She was blunt, to the point of rudeness. And I wondered why she felt so qualified, so confident to give me advice, unsolicited advice. So I asked her, “Do you tend a garden?”
“No,” she replied, “I live in a condo.”
I persisted, curious to know what compelled her to speak to me. She spoke in an authoritative tone and was clearly sure of herself and her advice. I asked, “Are you a gardener?”
She said with a laugh, “Oh no! But my mother was.”
I was astonished. She wasn’t an expert. She wasn’t even a gardener. Yet she was so sure she was right and I was wrong. She was self-assured, cocky even. It blew my mind. How could she think she was qualified to give advice, any gardening advice with no practical or professional training?
I did something I don’t typically do when “experts” tell me what I’m doing wrong, in this case gardening: I explained to her that I am a Master Gardener, an expert in my field, and that I made the conscious choice to prune the dead stalks now. If I pruned them later in the season I would have to work around the new taller growth, which would be much more time consuming than the 7 hours I’d already been pruning. It was an easy choice for me. I also mentioned that I consulted with other MGs prior to making my decision to prune. And I told her that given a year or two, the garden would be as stunningly beautiful as always.
Do you know what happened next?
She sniffed at me. Sniffed. Then as she walked away she said, “Well, I hope you know what your doing.”
As I continued to prune I thought about the two women who offered me unsolicited gardening advice. Both were convinced I was doing something wrong. Neither had any professional training or expertise as a gardener, yet both spoke and acted like experts. Their tone and mannerisms made me feel, well, unsure. What separates an expert from a poseur? What makes one person (me) an expert? Training and practice. What makes another person an expert? Nothing but her tone of voice and her belief that what she says is golden.
Even though I’m not an expert in psychology, may I offer you a piece of advice? Don’t spend time listening to non-experts tell you how to garden. Or how to live your life. You may not have as much self-confidence as the next woman, but you are knowledgable and an expert in your field … trust yourself enough to know that you make great decisions.