Root Awakening: Advice From Veteran Gardeners

Seasoned green thumbs dish dirt on what they’ve learned while tending to some of Indy’s most visible plots.

Gardening can be one of life’s most rewarding pastimes. How fulfilling is it to see a plant blossom or carrots peeking through the dirt after hours of toil? But even with the best intentions, sometimes our efforts can wilt faster than a bouquet of flowers on a humid day. To help sow some seeds of inspiration, we sought out pros who maintain five popular spots around the city.


Matthew Jose
Founder and owner of Big City Farms

If it falls under the umbrella of “vegetable,” it’s probably growing among Matthew Jose’s two acres, one downtown and one on the northwest side. He tends to 100-plus varieties of veggies, including more than a dozen types of tomatoes, and lots of fresh herbs.

“Basically, a wide enough variety of vegetables to keep things interesting for my customers throughout my growing season,” Jose says.

That stretch lasts from April through December and fulfills Big City’s CSA (community supported agriculture) clients; its farm stand downtown, open Saturdays May through October; and orders from local restaurants, like Bluebeard, Milktooth, R Bistro, and Recess.

What he plants at home

“My son loves cherry tomatoes, so I try to have a couple of those plants growing at our house. And it’s always nice to have flowers nearby to pick—zinnias and poppies are a couple of my favorites.”Red tomato on white background

What he’s learned on the job
Jose cautions against taking on too big of a project, which can set you up for frustration, he says. Also, “focus on tending things you get excited about, whether it’s flowers, vegetables, or fruit trees. The work of home gardening is most enjoyable when you’re able to walk out your door and admire something that makes you feel good.”


SusanMicksSusan Micks
Interior horticulturist with Indy Parks at Garfield Park Conservatory

Even if the weather outside is frightful, it’s always the perfect temperature inside the Garfield Park Conservatory, where Susan Micks cares for hundreds of tropical plants, including the popular Theobroma cacao, or chocolate tree.

“We have one of the nicest ones I’ve seen,” she says. “It’s by far the tree we receive the most comments or questions about.”

Micks also chooses which insects to release into the conservatory to keep pests at bay—essentially, good bugs to eat the bad ones, she explains—and pitches in to help keep the 3½-acre Sunken Gardens in tiptop shape.

What she plants at home
Micks keeps it simple. “I have one African violet and some orchids on a windowsill.”

African_violetWhat she’s learned on the job

Editing is important. “That may mean pruning a tree to allow more light to the plants under it, or finally pulling a plant that doesn’t perform well in your garden,” she says.

She credits her former boss, Duane Martin at White River Gardens, for teaching her to have a critical approach, looking out for plants, leaves, and flowers that are more eyesore than eye candy.

“When I walk through the conservatory, my mind is always thinking, what needs to go so that this will look better?”


IrvinEtienneIrvin Etienne
Horticultural display coordinator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Before gazing over the IMA’s framed portraits and landscapes inside, take time to check out Irvin Etienne’s exterior works of art. He designs and maintains several areas in front of the main museum building, such as the Sutphin Fountain and parts of the Sutphin Mall, the William and Lucy Wick Cutting Garden, and Nonie’s Garden, a circular bed just off the entry pavilion. In the latter, Etienne adds seasonal color throughout the year, such as tulips and pansies for spring, cannas and lantana for summer, and ornamental kale and cabbage for fall.

This year, he’s introducing Croton ‘Zanzibar’ and Aglaonema ‘Pink Valentine’ to the IMA grounds, two colorful plants that Etienne first test-drove in his personal garden.

What he plants at home

“Tropicals. Lots of tropicals. But they’re combined with hardy perennials, trees and shrubs, and vegetables—everything from cannas to eggplants to magnolias co-exist in a lush jungle. I like lots of intense color and fabulous foliage. Life without cannas is pointless.”Yellow Canna flowers

What he’s learned on the job

Try one new plant every year—minimum.

“Even if it’s simply a different version of what you usually plant,” Etienne says. “You learn something every time that makes you a better gardener.”

New in his garden this year are three colors of double-flowered Brugmansia with large, downward-hanging, trumpet-shaped blooms.

“Everybody I know loves the fragrance of Brugmansias,” he says.

As for edibles, he’s trying out lemon drop hot peppers, whose bright-yellow color hints at their citrusy heat, and he’s revisiting an amethyst-hued sweet potato called Molokai Purple.

“My first attempt was not overly successful, but that should never stop one from trying again. They’ll make very colorful fries.”

For tools, he suggests a weeding knife.

“Once you use one, you’ll wonder how you ever managed to garden before.”


RachelWhiteRachel White
Eskenazi Health Sky Farmer and farmer for Growing Places Indy

Rachel White tends the Eskenazi Health Sky Farm, a 5,000-square-foot garden on the roof of the Eskenazi Outpatient Care Center. Its bounty of various vegetables, fruits, and herbs, which includes a lengthy list of the usual suspects, plus fennel, kohlrabi, and tomatillos, is used by the hospital to create healthy meals to patients. Seating areas allow employees, patients, and even the public to soak up fresh air, sunshine, and views of downtown from seven stories up—scenery that you’d be hard-pressed to find from a traditional garden. The Sky Farm is starting its second season.

What she plants at home

“I only grow edible plants [vegetables, herbs, and some fruit] that feed me and a number of my neighbors.”Studio shot of kohlrabi on white background

What she’s learned on the job

When your initial idea starts wilting, there’s no shame in conceding defeat and changing courses.

“Planning your garden is good, but it won’t ever go as planned, so be okay with that,” she says. “Plant something else and keep going.”

If you have a small space, like the Sky Farm, which is just over one-tenth of an acre, grow produce that you know you’ll enjoy.

“Plant what you like to eat, and learn to share it,” White says.


MikeStockmanMike Stockman
Horticulturist at the Indianapolis Zoo

Mike Stockman’s focus is tropical gardening in the Hilbert Conservatory, home of Butterfly Kaleidoscope. He also maintains the Wedding and Sun gardens, the Indianapolis Garden Club Heritage Garden, and a small pollinator garden. He started the latter a few years ago with mostly native plants that provide nectar for bees and butterflies, as well as host plants for food and reproduction.

“It’s an example of what you can do in your backyard to attract wildlife, but more importantly, help endangered and threatened species,” Stockman says. “This garden serves the institution well in our efforts to promote conservation for wild things all over the world.”

What he plants at home

The list is long, but common milkweed is probably the most important. “It’s a critical host plant for the monarch butterfly, and because Indianapolis is in the middle of the monarchs’ annual migration route, planting it makes a huge difference.”monarch butterfly

What he’s learned on the job

Most everything has a story to tell, Stockman says. “Try to do a little research and plant something with an amazing history. Add a few fragrant plants into the mix. If you can find a plant that is beautiful and has two or three other qualities, you can talk your friends’ ears off all day about it.”


This article appeared in IM Home, a 2015 special publication.