The Constant Gardener

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Pat Welsh As a student at Hollywood High, Pat Fisher-Smith Welsh ’51 had a brainstorm that would eventually make her the undisputed expert on Southern California gardening. That she took more than 40 years to bring the idea to fruition proves a point: gardeners are, by necessity, patient. Except for Jack and his beanstalk, nothing matures overnight.

Her background set the stage for her grand idea. Born in Yorkshire, England, in a family of mill owners and garden enthusiasts, Pat and her parents came to the United States in the late 1930s. During the war years, they settled on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Pat’s interest in the arts and writing was inspired by local Bucks County writers such as James Michener and Pearl Buck. In 1944, the family moved to Hollywood, where Pat’s stepfather worked as a photographer in the motion picture industry and her mother opened an antique shop on the Sunset Strip.

Wherever she has lived, Pat has kept a garden. In high school, Pat discovered she could grow vegetables and flowers year round in Southern California, unlike her earlier homes in Yorkshire or in the eastern United States, where the family had a victory garden. She became intrigued with the arid western climate and how it affects plants. She looked for reading material on the subject with little result, and then began asking questions of experts, collecting notes and clippings on what to do and when to do it in Southern California gardens. “Someone should write a book on this,” she said, never thinking that eventually she might be that person.

Attracted by the humanities program and stunning gardens, Pat went to Scripps College intending to study sculpture with Albert Stewart. However, she became steeped in English literature and soon changed her major from art to English. Art, and learning all about local gardening, remained unfinished dreams.

While at Scripps, she met her future husband, Lou, a trial attorney for the Santa Fe Railroad, on a blind date. After a one-hour conversation, Lou said, “Shall I propose now, or wait?” Pat said, “Now is all right with me.” They married five weeks later, on the afternoon of her commencement, proving patience is sometimes overrated.

Calling herself a “typical 1950s wife,” Pat focused on raising two children and being a helper to Lou, who became a Superior Court judge in San Diego. “I tried so hard to have a career, but had no success,” she said. Her designs for greeting cards were lost in a flood; her plot for a children’s book was stolen. She threw up her hands: “I guess I’m not meant to have a career. So, I’ll devote my life to helping others.”

Pat continued to garden. Her garden on a hill overlooking the ocean in Del Mar became a local standout in an area of natural beauty and keen botanical interest. Because she adapted her gardening to the specific requirements of the Southern California climate, her reputation grew for having a green thumb. In 1975, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, told her, “You need to teach gardening at the University extension.”

“I’m not a botanist,” she said. Yet she gave the opening lecture to rave reviews.

Then, San Diego Home Garden magazine caught her attention. She thought, “I think I could write a column for them: ‘What to Do When in Southern California.'” Lou encouraged her: “Why don’t you do it?”

Readers loved it. “It was just what people wanted,” Pat said. And, she was helping people.

Her career took off. The column focused exclusively on Southern California gardening, including seasonal planting and maintenance. She also became the magazine’s first garden editor. Pat’s expanding reputation led to more lectures and more public exposure. She was told she was like Julia Child and should be on TV.

San Diego’s NBC station asked Pat to do a short segment on planting peas, followed by one on cymbidiums. The programs were unlike anything else on television at the time and filled a clamoring need. The station wanted more, but they wanted it on the cheap.

With strong support from Lou, she held out for appropriate payment.

“I will sign when they give me what I want and need,” she said. Recognizing they had a winner, the station capitulated. When she eventually signed the contract for two shows a week, Pat says the station sent her two dozen red roses and a case of white wine.

Starting in 1981, the NBC station hired Pat to host an evening news segment called “Newscenter 39’s Resident Gardener.” She performed more than 500 gardening segments, which she also planned and wrote. These were the first regularly scheduled garden news segments aired on the evening news by a network station. Viewers were invited to write in and request further information and detailed techniques, which the station then mailed to them. This innovative follow-up resulted in a loyal following and the resulting media attention brought new focus on responsible gardening.

One day, she happened to meet a book agent on the beach near her home. The agent said, “Why don’t you write a book?” Pat claimed the TV show kept her too busy. The agent said, “After you’re no longer on TV, come see me.”

In 1988, the show ended, and Pat realized the time had come for her idea from long ago: a Southern California gardening book, month by month. But the agent said her sample chapters were too chitty-chatty.

Pat revised overnight with bulleted lists and sidebars, and the book sold immediately. At the time, this was a relatively new way to present gardening information.

“The first book is the hardest,” Pat says. “It took four years of work.”

The result was Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening: A Month by Month Guide, published in 1991 by Chronicle Books. It was the first major gardening book of encyclopedic scope written for the unique climate and conditions of Southern California.

It has been a best-seller, revised every few years, and continually in print. The 2010 edition focuses on organic gardening.

Today, Pat lives in the family home where she and Lou, now deceased, raised their family; she has five grandchildren, each of whom she took on an exotic travel adventure, and seven great-grandchildren (soon to be eight), whom she hopes to travel with someday. Pat continues to sculpt and paint, as well as write, lecture, and answer gardening questions on her blog, www.patwelsh.com. In 2002, she helped create a 92-foot multimedia mural project, in collaboration with graphic artist Betsy Schulz and 80 volunteers, in front of the Del Mar Public Library. It continues to draw attention from visitors to the beach town and is a point of community pride.

Currently, Pat is immersed in writing a novel inspired by the life of her grandmother. “My dream is to stop writing books at age 91,” she says with a warm smile. “Only paint.”

Why at 91? “The new edition of my book will come out when I’m 90,” she says. “So I can’t retire until I’m 91!”

 

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