Just Add Water

I’m ungrounded in Florida. I’ve come to Sarasota, a spot I picked off a map, to forget a marriage that came apart, to put distance between me and what I’ve left behind, to escape the smoky, airless kitchens that have become my career. I want a job where I can breathe again. I have few friends here, no family. I have no idea how long I’ll stay, no plans at all, really. I can do what I want, so I take work at a plant nursery in Myakka, 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. I get paid dirt, but I’m in the sun all day. I’ll be able to breathe.

New arrivals in Sarasota want their yards to look like the pictures of Florida they’ve seen in magazines and on postcards. This means palm trees and iridescent foliage and manicured front lawns. To make way for new houses, the land is cleared of native Sabals, ground palmetto and all other indigenous plant life, then replanted with ornamentals from somewhere else, Chinese fan palms and hibiscus. My job as a landscaper and nursery worker is to make sandy lots into postcard lawns in as little time as possible. I comment once on how quickly it all happens. “Yeah,” jokes my boss, Allen, “just add water.”

Allen’s nursery and landscaping business is a small operation, the core crew consisting of his son, Jake, a young woman named Amy and me. Amy is in charge of the nursery, the 10-gallon potted plants and everything smaller. Jake and I work the tree farms.

Jake lives with Spot, his Dalmatian, in a ramshackle cabin behind the nursery. He raises hogs and keeps bees on the side. I’m interested in everything he knows about plants, and he seems to like my stories about working in restaurants. But I’m wary of Jake at first, because what I want out of this job is solitude, a chance to figure some things out. It turns out he would just as soon be quiet as talk, so we get along fine.

My first day on the job in late September, I drive out to the Davis tree farm with Jake. It’s planted mostly in southern magnolias and laurel oaks. One long line of tall Podacarpus trees rims a freshwater pond, cutting off the tree farm from the orange and lemon groves we pass through on the way in. Jake spends most of the morning showing me around, naming the trees. On our lunch break, I walk through high grass into the sandy lanes of the citrus grove and pick an orange for my dessert. It’s sweet and filled with warm juice.

Allen has four farms, but I spend most of my time at the farm on Old Myakka Road. It is the oldest, home to an oblong grove of mature queen and Washingtonia palms and a couple of smaller sections of Ligustrum bushes and bottlebrush trees. When I’m lucky Allen sends me there on my own to pull out a couple of small queens or to fertilize or to trim the Ligustrum. Lucky because I go by myself, with no one to bother me, no one to watch me waste my time as I stand around watching the sky.

It’s dead quiet in the heart of the palm grove, perfectly calm but for the occasional rustle of a palm frond in the wind. The air is heavy. I often stand here, motionless as a tree myself, for l0 or l5 minutes, walled in by gray trunks and flat, green leaves. It feels good to be here, hidden, surrounded by only my thoughts.

I don’t get to hide as often as I’d like. Jake and I work with the landscaping crew when they get big jobs. Instead of walking through a dark, hot grove of palms by myself, trimming and thinking, I work the planned communities of suburban Sarasota and the outer islands with a crew of drifters. My co-workers yell out the truck windows at women on the street, talk about engines and exhaust systems. I’m often uncomfortable; no one ever brings up Dostoyevsky or hollandaise sauce.

The Sabal is also known as the cabbage palm, for the tender, edible heart of the tree. In Myakka they call it swamp cabbage, but in the country-club restaurants of Long Boat Key, it is heart of palm. More than 20 miles separates these two worlds.

We work mainly with shrubs and trees, but sometimes we’re contracted to do a whole yard, grass included. This means laying sod, which is even easier than laying carpet. It’s the finishing touch on a newly installed yard. We take 2-by-2 slices of grass, cut them to fit, and piece them together around the newly planted shrubs and trees. No glue, no tacking down—just drop and water. Within a few weeks, the pieces grow together, and there’s a yard. Sometimes a slice doesn’t take, and the homeowner calls to complain about a perfectly square spot of brown spoiling his otherwise golf-course-green yard.

It’s easy to plant trees in Florida. The earth is loose and sandy, and I can dig myself in chest deep in an hour. It isn’t often that I go so far, though—we’re mostly concerned with the surface, with making things look good on top. Yet I like to see the world from this perspective, with just my head and neck aboveground. Maybe this is what I want, to be in the middle of things instead of on the surface, to be grounded, holed up, not always moving.

Our four-person-crew plants 450 Crotons in the entryway of Whispering Pines, a gated community on Long Boat Key. It takes us 10 hours to dig the holes, plant the Crotons, mulch and water everything. The next morning the president of the homeowners’ association calls the nursery to say the Crotons are no good; they’re too colorful and clash with the pastel Whispering Pines welcome sign. We go back, pull out every Croton, repot them, and plant a juniper parsoni in each hole. I cross my fingers, hoping the unassuming, pale green of the juniper will be acceptable. Planting so many small plants is tedious work and hard on the back. I guess they like the juniper, because the guy never calls back.

Whispering Pines, like almost everything else on Long Boat Key, is a haven for wealthy retirees. It has a golf course and a clubhouse and a few well-kept tennis courts. These “communities” pop out of the sandy earth, it seems, overnight. Somebody designs the golf course, builds a few white stucco ranch or villa homes, then we plant the whole place with bushes, shrubbery and queen palms.

I wonder about the people who live behind the gates. What would I think if I drove past the guardhouse Wednesday evening in the garish blaze of half a thousand purple-and-yellow Crotons, then again Thursday evening through a tranquil sea of green? Would I notice? You couldn’t blame me if I didn’t, because the welcome sign itself is 20 feet long and 15 feet high. It grabs your attention. Besides, most of what I’m taught at the nursery about plant installation involves blending and hiding, making the yards we build seem natural, as if they’ve actually grown there. You’re really not supposed to notice them.

Palm trees grow toward the light. If you plant a small queen palm at an angle instead of perfectly upright, it will grow at that angle for a while, but it will eventually straighten itself out and grow toward the sun, resulting in a crooked tree. Jake tells me these are in great demand. I’m not sure who demands them, because we have a lot of crooked trees on the farm, and we’ve never sold one. Our customers want straight, clean lines, perfectly matching palms to line the driveway—symmetry, nothing aberrant. Unassuming perfection that doesn’t call attention to itself, that fits the mold.

The Washingtonia palm is a brutal tree. The trunk is armored with overlapping layers of fibrous husk, row upon row of thick, living shell that must be trimmed back with a lopper. The trees can grow to 20 feet or more, but most of the ones we harvest are between 8 and 12 feet tall. The trunk is fat and thick, narrowing only slightly as it makes its way to the head, where the branches begin to snake outward and upward. The leaves of the Washingtonia are broad fans, with tips that can slice your finger open. The branches are flattish, lined with razor-sharp thorns curving upward. When they catch the soft underside of your arm, you jerk involuntarily, and the thorns often break from the branch, lodge in your skin. It hurts.

I harvest Washingtonias by cutting a circle around the base with a long, flat, very sharp spade. As I slam the shovel into the sandy earth, it slices through the outer edges of the tree’s root system. Often the roots don’t want to give way, and I balance myself on the shovel, both feet on the spade, hands clasped near the top of the long handle, working my body, and thus the blade, back and forth, slowly forcing the spade through the roots.

From the back of my pickup, I haul out an immense, iron chain with a hook at each end. I loop one end around the tree trunk, about a third of the way from the base. I hook the other end to the upturned bucket of a 1979 John Deere front-end loader piloted by Jake. When the chain is fastened, Jake raises the bucket, literally ripping the tree from the ground. Washingtonias are tenacious; they want to stay put, and often Jake has to work the tractor back and forth, pushing and pulling, ramming the bucket into the trunk to shake the thing loose. The strongest roots snap, and a huge clod of soaking-wet sand and soil pulls loose from the surrounding ground as the tree comes free. The hole fills immediately with murky water because Florida is almost underwater to begin with.

As the Washingtonia hangs in midair, Jake dismounts, and together we wrap the root ball in a burlap diaper sewn together with inch-long nails. We drop the swaddled tree on its side, and I tie a length of heavy twine around the largest available branch, looking out for the thorns and the stinging saddleback caterpillars that can balloon an arm to twice its size in minutes. Once my branch is secured, I wrap the twine around the entire crown, winching and pulling, closing the branches together. Tying the head like this prevents the branches from snapping on the long drive from the farm to a golf course on Siesta Key, where this tree is headed. In 45 minutes I have a clean, trim, tightly wrapped package, ready for delivery.

One morning I go to work, and there is a new hire, Mark. We don’t exactly hit it off; he’s always telling me I am doing things wrong. He’s proud that he has done this kind of work his whole life and has a better way to pot saplings or weed the Ilex or dig a pygmy date palm. Finally I tell him I don’t know, really, how to do any of these things in the first place, but I like the mornings best because they are so quiet. He doesn’t take the hint, just keeps on talking. Mark does show me a black widow, the first I’ve ever seen, in the bottom of a 3-gallon pot. It could kill you, he says, then smashes it.

Mark works at the farm two weeks, and on his first payday, catches a ride into town with another new hire, Dave. Mark steals Dave’s car and the $400 cash from his paycheck, then gets arrested trying to rob a Publix cashier at knifepoint. Dave gets his car back, but he’s bitter about the 400 bucks. Allen hints darkly about drug use, and we all chuckle. Almost everyone I work with uses drugs; that’s no reason to steal someone’s car.

We specialize in moveable trees. A palm is hearty, able to withstand the shock of having its roots sliced. Yanking a palm out of the ground and slamming it down somewhere else doesn’t kill it. That’s why we traffic mostly in palms. We work with southern magnolias and laurel oak, too, but they die as often as they live, withering from the trauma of severed root systems or the shock of new soil. An instant landscape requires rugged plants, trees that take abuse and mishandling and still grow. Landscapers admire magnolias, but they respect palms, because palms make a profit. I crave ruggedness in myself as well—I’m trying to learn how to grow something that will live even if I decide to move it. I’m tired of starting from scratch.

Steve, our designer, is meticulous, and landscapers in general want things to “look right.” I’m just not sure what this means. The diagrams that Steve draws are precise, and we are expected to dig the holes exactly where he draws them. Sometimes he marks holes with orange spray paint right on the grass, not trusting us to follow the plan.

We’ll work for an hour making sure a tree is perfectly straight, planted on the level. What strikes me about this is not the difficulty of the task but the irony of it. Trees tend to grow straight on their own when planted as seedlings or saplings; only because we deal with fully grown trees is all the leveling and eyeballing necessary. We wrench the landscape into place, force it to submit to the blueprint.

Sometimes people want to pick out exactly what goes into their yards, but more frequently they leave the details to Steve, because he knows what looks best with what and where it should go and how much of it is too much. Occasionally Steve chooses a fishtail palm, and we stick it in the ground, and the client decides she’d rather have a loquat tree. So we pull out the fishtail and stick in the loquat. If Steve thinks we can resell the fishtail anytime soon, we don’t replant it, just leave it on the edge of the nursery, head tied, roots wrapped in burlap, looking ridiculous on the ground instead of in it.

Twice a year Jake sprays Roundup all over the edges of the black plastic tarps on which our potted plants sit. This kills weeds to their root systems, entirely eradicating them, leaving the tarp edges littered with withered, brown leaves and stems. It also leaves the ground barren for a long time, which is why we only have to spray every six months. One day I half-heartedly voice my concern about the safety of Roundup, and Allen explains that it’s completely harmless to humans—you could drink a water glass of the stuff or take a bath in it. He read it somewhere. You go right ahead, I think. Bottoms up.

Once a month I sprinkle everything with an herbicide that requires me to wear a little white mask over my mouth and nose. It comes in 50-pound bags with warning labels identifying possible side effects and suggesting preventive measures. I don’t like handling the herbicide, but this stuff really works, and it will drastically cut the time I have to spend weeding. I’m beginning to give up on the future; I’d rather take my chances with God-knows-what kind of cancer than stoop over the plants in two months, pulling weeds.

I talk to trees. When I’m having trouble getting a bottlebrush out of the ground, I curse and wonder why it is giving me such a hard time. I tie the head of the tree into a tight bundle to give myself room to find the one, stubborn root that holds it in place, and a branch snaps loose, slapping me across the face. I react in fury, as if a person had hit me maliciously, it’s a good thing I often work alone, because I’d be embarrassed to be seen slapping a bottlebrush in anger. Or perhaps this is why I do it, because I am so often alone, and I want to people my own landscape. It’s odd: I’ve come here to be by myself, taken this job for the solitude, yet I talk incessantly to things that can’t talk back. I need artifice as much as the people whose yards I build.

At the end of July, the rains come. Every day we track black storm clouds as they race in from the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly the sky cracks open and dumps water on us. These downpours never last more than 10 or l5 minutes, but they come two or three times a day, leaving the farm half-submerged and dripping. We spend as much time getting the tractor out of muddy holes as we do digging trees. We’re always soaked. The cab of the truck is the only place to take respite from wetness, and we spend too much time there, smoking cigarettes and listening to Tampa radio stations. The water starts to sour me on working outdoors. It will be like this until early October, Jake says.

By mid-August the tree farm is a swamp, the landscapers are idle, and I lose my partner. Jake has had a bad back since I’ve known him, and one day something snaps. For a month I work alone, slogging through standing water, mostly trying to do work that doesn’t require the tractor. I spread a lot of fertilizer. I try to decide what to do with myself—I’ve grown dissatisfied ending every day in soaking-wet clothes and boots full of fertilizer. And I’m no farmer. I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. I’ll go back north, I think, get a “professional” job, maybe go back to school.

One day Jake shows up with a cane and tells me he’s going to go to culinary school because he likes to cook, and all our conversations about restaurant work have convinced him he’d be good at it. Tree farming is just too hard on his back. Surprised, I say good luck and goodbye, thinking it’s time for me, too, to make a change.

My final days on the tree farm are wet and unhappy. My mood, like the sky, is black. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’ve decided to go back to Pittsburgh, convinced myself that the frozen wind blowing across the Seventh Street Bridge in January is somehow better than all this hot, suffocating rain. And a monkey could do what I do here, digging holes and pulling up trees.

It rains nonstop from 8 in the morning until noon on my last day, and I decide to call it a day. Allen is grumbling, because he needs this last day of work out of me. He tells me to move all the 30-gallon date palms from one section of the nursery to another, where the rain won’t drown them. The rain isn’t going to stop, I say. It always stops, he replies. I just want to be done and dry. When Allen makes a run into town for fertilizer, I sneak into the office, ask his wife to tally up my hours and pay me. She does, but I meet Allen on my way down the dirt driveway. “Looks like it’s gonna clear up,” he suggests.

I don’t know about that, and I give Allen a look that says I really don’t care if it does clear up; I’m leaving. “Well, see ya,” and I drive away, glad to be done with it.

Before I head north, I want to see everything one last time. Driving through the golf courses and subdivisions that have sprung up around Sarasota, looking at the instant landscapes I helped build, I think I understand the desire to have freshly made surroundings. This is why I came to Florida, after all—to escape an old life, to forget my busted marriage, to surround myself with a different landscape. And this is why I’m leaving, too. Things haven’t worked out as I hoped, and I’m too impatient, after all, to stay and grow a life from scratch. I want to go somewhere else and find one. I want a better life, ready-made and seamless, handed to me, installed while I’m at work.

About the Author

Scott Belan

Scott Belan is a staff writer for the Nature Conservancy in Durham, N.C. His work has appeared in Wellspring, Indigenous Fiction, and Canoe & Kayak.

View Essays