Linda Plato '90: Learning to grow

By Ivey Slowoski

One of the reading assignments that struck a nerve with Linda Plato ’90 when she put herself through college at Puget Sound was the book Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow by Marsha Sinetar.

“It seemed like a fool’s errand at the time, because I was starving and facing a mountain of student loans,” Plato remembers with a wry smile, “but it turned out to be right.” After graduating with a degree in English and a penchant for English poet “Bill” Wordsworth, Plato was unsure what to do next. She ended up working at Microsoft as an editor and multimedia program manager, a job with good pay and great benefits, but found herself working hard for a product that didn’t matter to her. She found consensus-building dull. She just wasn’t the corporate type, she realized, and started thinking about how she really wanted to spend her time.

When Linda’s mother died at only 64, she began to think about the importance of spending life doing something you care about. She quit her job, taking time to travel (one of her passions) and search for a direction. One day it came to her. At a time when many of her friends were in grad school, she enrolled at Edmonds Community College (ECC) for an associate’s degree in landscape design. She had found her perfect work.

“There’s no prestige and not a lot of monetary reward, but it’s an awesome gig,” Plato says.

She soon developed a career writing and teaching others how to apply English and French garden principles to their own yards. In 1999 she launched a garden design business, specializing in European-style gardens. She approaches her work with a literary sensibility, explaining that gardening, like literature, is a reflection of culture, fashion, history, and politics. “What I do is a great amalgam of liberal arts applied to horticulture.”

Plato shares her philosophy and know-how in classes at ECC, at garden shows, nurseries, for master gardeners, and for members of the Northwest Horticulture Society (NHS). She worked for the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle as the first project manager for Great Plant Picks, a directory of plants recommended by local experts to grow well in our climate. She developed Web sites for the project (www.greatplantpicks.org), as well as for the Miller Garden (millergarden.org), and for NHS (www.northwesthort.org). The nonprofit world tends to be “non-techy,” Plato notes, and she enjoys being able to bring her technical skills to the volunteer work she does in the gardening community.

She’s also the garden editor for Seattle Homes & Lifestyles magazine. This year she makes her television debut on Gardening by the Yard, a program for backyard gardeners produced by HGTV. In the segment, Plato explains how to grow “standards,” a classic topiary form that features a pouf of foliage on a tall slender stem.

Viewers of the episode will notice that her hair is a lot shorter than usual. Last October she finished chemotherapy to combat breast cancer, and the show was taped just a month later, at her home in Kirkland. She had been diagnosed in January 2004, just before the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, for which she had spent months building and preparing a display garden. With typical humor, she had developed an entry that was a parody of the idealized tranquil and relaxing garden.

“That’s an illusive ideal created by marketers, and it’s wrong to perpetuate it,” she laughs. “All the gardeners I know can’t sit still in the garden.” Her display, a fortress garden where computers and cell phones were banned, featured a moat complete with a topiary moat monster. She was recovering from surgery when the time came to install the garden in the convention center, so her husband, Bruce, and other family and friends set it up.

Since then, Plato has temporarily ratcheted down her blooming career, taking time to get well. She still writes and lectures, but has postponed any design projects. An adventurous soul, she travels about once a month, visiting gardens and enjoying life. She was in the stands in Arizona for Mariners’ spring training and on the sidelines at the Tour de France this year, harkening back to her student days living in the Bike House, when she used to explore the Tacoma area and lower Kitsap Peninsula.

Taking to heart another lesson she learned at Puget Sound —that of humility—Plato says she learned in college that nature is a great teacher. She feels fortunate to have found so broad and comfy a niche. “Horticulture spans so many spectrums,” she says. “Very few careers fulfill you in so many ways.” She’s taking life as it comes now. “I’m not very responsible,” she claims, “and I enjoy that. I like seeing how it will turn out.”