Rose in bloom: Laura Lee Rose spreads the joy of gardening

January 5, 2010 

Laura Lee Rose's life is a product of time and nurture and patience and the proper use of tools. Her career has bloomed as vibrantly as the plants she holds dear.

Rose, a Clemson Extension horticulture agent of consumer education, might have been born with a green thumb, but if she was, she did not use it for the first few decades of her life.

She laughs when she thinks about the talks she gives to kids these days about a possible career in horticulture, realizing that, if she had been given a similar talk at their age, she would have not heeded it. "There's no way anyone could have talked to me about this."

Now, Rose is one of the area's foremost advocates of horticulture. She teaches the Master Gardener curriculum, oversees county-wide horticulture projects, speaks to schools and community groups, and has been active in organizing and promoting the downtown community garden.

"I wasn't born knowing how to plant a bush," Rose said. "Someone showed me how to do it.

"So I think it is important for adults to engage with children and teach them some of those life skills."

PLANT LOVER

Rose was born and reared in Columbia. Her grandparents were avid gardeners, and Rose remembers hanging out with them in the garden.

But when she hit her teen years, her interest in the outdoors waned. She definitely had no interest in pursuing horticulture as a career or a hobby, for that matter. Instead, she went to a small women's college in Virginia, Mary Baldwin College, for two years, and later to the University of South Carolina for a few years to study nursing.

Rose came to Beaufort in 1977 with her first husband, a shrimper, and never left. She loved the water, settling on a marsh on St. Helena Island.

She spent the next couple of decades pursuing various interests, from commercial crabber to leading the E.C. Montessori School aftercare program in Beaufort for five years. She was also, primarily, mother to her son Sam, who would help lead her to her real calling.

When he was 10, she purchased a riding lawn mower, and mom and son decided to start their own landscaping business called My Momma Drives a Lawn Mower. She did basic lawn care: mowing, pruning, mulching. But the part-time business soon lead to bigger possibilities.

"One day, one of my clients asked me if I could do a landscape design plan for him," she said. "He had some commercial property he wanted to develop downtown, and he needed a plan. I said I didn't know how to do it but that I would go take a class. As luck would have it, they were just enrolling a landscape design class at Technical College of the Lowcountry -- they used to have an associate's degree in it there. I took the one class and just fell in love."

One class led to another and another. Rose would go on to earn her associate's degreein horticulture from TCL. From there, she took her new passion to Clemson, where she got her bachelor's degree in 1997.

"When I had my lawn care business, it was really educational to me," she said. "But I was also able to educate my clients: 'Maybe we don't need this much fertilizer,' or 'Maybe this isn't really the right time to prune those bushes.' There was a lot I brought to the table. Once I started learning it, I wanted to go out and teach other people."

The more she learned about her new field of study, the more she realized how much her previous education came in handy. The three years she spent in nursing school, for instance, fit nicely with plant life.

"The science and biology I had learned in nursing school kind of made sense to me -- the plant physiology and especially plant propagation," she said. "It was like a light went on when I was taking plant propagation. That was exactly the thing I had watched my grandparents do, sticking the cuttings in the soil and all that."

MUSIC LOVER

Rose started at the Clemson Extension in September 2006. Her position is not funded by Clemson but, rather, is paid for by local contracts by groups like the Beaufort Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, the Beaufort County Stormwater Utility and the Beaufort County and Colleton County school districts.

"The Clemson Extension office here is pretty big," she said. "We have leadership classes through community development, we have a lady who works with the fisheries, we have expanded food and nutrition, we have 4-H, we have pesticide regulatory -- it's a pretty big office. We have a lot of bases to cover."

She said her work with Clemson is divided equally into three parts: education, research and extension. The education, in particular, is of interest, as she had always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

"That's one of the cool things about this job: No two things are ever the same," Rose said. "I get to do a lot of continuing education myself, going to workshops and different programs. I belong to the Southeastern Palm Society, so I get to travel around and visit other plant nerds."

Despite her "plant nerd" status, she has other interests. Music and singing, for interest, has always been a big part of her life.

"I grew up in a musical family," she said. "My mother was a piano teacher, we all sang in a choir, my dad and stepmom met each other singing in the choir, we love show tunes and just singing."

Her mother taught her the ukulele when Rose was in high school. She later moved on to guitar. And although she took several years off when raising her Sam, she's returned to the stage in recent years after having taken up the banjo, playing with several local groups. She's also teaching herself to play the mandolin.

At 61, Rose's life has taken several unexpected turns in recent years. It makes one wonder how her life would have been different had she started learning horticulture in her 20s instead of her 40s. "Wouldn't that have been wonderful? I might know a lot more plants," Rose said. "Horticulture is one of those things where you are always humbled by how much you don't know."

When asked if she has a garden at her house on St. Helena, she laughs. "My whole property is a garden. It's very well-tended, though.

"I can walk around my property just about any day, and I can find interesting things, colors, textures, smells -- something I can put in a salad. There's a lot going on."

Rose is evidence that life can continue to be an unexpected ride. Her appreciation for the joy of discovery is a major teaching point in her classes. For the students who admit they do not have a green thumb, she has a response:

"My answer to that is that not everyone can sing or dance, but we can always appreciate singing and dancing," she said. "Sometimes it's not just growing the flowers, but you can go and see someone's garden and appreciate the work that went into it."

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