When Nellie Gardner looks at nature, she perceives it in all of its complexity.
She remembers species’ evolutions. She thinks about how each plant interacts with their environments, and she imagines the potential for certain plants to cohabitate with each other.
“I want to understand everything about nature,” she said. “It’s like a sociology experiment with plants.”
Part of Gardner’s fascination with the natural world comes out of her unique childhood. From the age of 12, she grew up on a self-sufficient farm on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, with her parents and three siblings.
With little electricity and contact with the outside world, they were entirely self-reliant. If they needed soap, bread or clothing, they had to make it themselves.
While growing up this way has had its drawbacks — including strained familial relationships and difficulty with social skills — Gardner said her upbringing on her family’s farm has made her acutely aware of how nature works.
“I am plugged into it because I grew up in the woods,” she said. “I always feel it around me.”
Gardner said very few people truly understand how the natural world works; most people are not able to identify underlying problems in nature.
“If it’s green, they think it’s OK,” she said. “They’re not as discerning. Unless there’s devastation everywhere, they’re not going to notice.”
Gardner has used this awareness throughout her career, which has included work with Cornell University’s New York State Integrated Pest Management program, giving tours on Erie Canal and running her own cut flower business at Flower Fields Farm in Spencerport. Gardner will speak about her life journey and give tips for gardeners during her Bird, Tree & Garden Club Brown Bag lecture, “Purpose In The Landscape,” at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, August 13 in Smith Wilkes Hall.
With no formal education and no high school diploma, Gardner talked her way into acceptance at the two-year Nova Scotia Agricultural College. While in college, she was on the cattle judging team, and won at the international cattle judging championship.
She then went to Cornell University, where she graduated in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science in agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production.
For the next few years, Gardner worked as a specialist at Cornell’s Integrated Pest Management program in Geneva. IPM uses a variety of techniques, including biological control, habitat manipulation and insect-resistant species, to more naturally minimize issues with pests.
She later worked as a regional vegetable specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension program.
When Gardner had her son, she quit her job and founded Flower Fields Farm in Batavia, where she grows cut flowers, and has been hired for thousands of weddings.
“It was 1992, when nobody cared about locally grown anything because the internet had come along,” she said.
Her farm has since moved to Spencerport, and she currently works as a consultant for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed estates of the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, and the Graycliff estate, which was also once owned by Martin, in Derby.
In preparation for her job at the Martin House, Gardner said she studied the archives at the University at Buffalo to learn more about the history of the Martin family and the property. She now gives tours of the grounds to visitors of the estate.
“I’m interpreting the landscape for people,” she said. “It’s not about the plants, it’s about how they lived in it.”
She has also worked with the Richardson Olmsted Campus, the site of the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, which has been in restoration since 2006, according to the campus’ website.
Gardner has advised the campus about how to maintain a healthy, sustainable landscape around it.
“They’ve lost a considerable amount of their plants,” she said. “We have an obligation: If using public money, to use it wisely and put in a healthy, sustainable landscape.”