Joe Kerzel is currently a salesman at our Lake Oswego Garden Center, and back in March of this year, he celebrated 40 years of service with Dennis’ 7 Dees! His charming demeanor, along with his extraordinary passion for plants and dedication to his craft, has made him quite the celebrity among our customers. Joe has held just about every position at Dennis’ 7 Dees Garden Centers over the years, allowing him to learn about every aspect and discover, first-hand, what he really loves to do. He has truly grown with our company; we would not be where we are without him and his unmatched work ethic. If you haven’t yet had the honor of meeting Joe, we highly suggest you seek him out—he is a wealth of knowledge and his love for gardening is quite contagious!
Check out this fascinating interview with Joe:
How did your passion for gardening begin? Did you always have a green thumb?
Early on, my mom would let us garden and do whatever we wanted in the yard. She was great. We had houseplants, we had fruit trees one year, we’d do pumpkins, we’d do tomatoes… she’d just totally give us the yard. And then I did neighborhood jobs for other people, and with the money I earned, I would go to Newbury’s in Eastport Plaza and buy houseplants. It was all I was ever interested in.
What was your first gardening “success”?
Just watering the plants and understanding what they needed. As a kid, I enjoyed a green lawn and healthy plants. It really made me happy when things worked out.
Tell me about your first year working at Dennis’ 7 Dees. Did you have any major challenges?
I was a customer first, going in, buying houseplants and buying seeds. An employee at the time encouraged me to come back when I was 16, and I had to wait like a year or something, so that was pretty hard to wait. I was hired on March 15th and 40 years later, that is still a special date when we hire people, when spring’s getting going. I was just so stoked to be doing anything—if it was carrying stuff out to customers’ cars, putting nametags on plants, watering, anything I could do garden-related, I was just thrilled.
Do you recall any especially memorable experiences at Dennis’ 7 Dees?
Just how things have gotten better over the years. In the old days, we didn’t have a forklift—we did stuff by hand. Plants came in metal pots, like coffee cans; that was scary to get them out of metal cans. And the products have gotten so much better and safer; we were selling some pretty scary stuff 40 years ago, to today’s standards.
What do you spend your time doing when you’re not at work?
I have my own garden at home that I love to nurture, so it’s either working outside or using my favorite chair with my cat, Squirt.
What are some of your other passions?
Those really are my two favorite things; no sports, nothing else… never held a golf club, I’d rather hold a shovel. I’ve never been to a gym, but I feel the gardening has kept me in great shape, so I just sort of do what I’m good at. I enjoy visiting other nurseries to see where we stand: Are we up to speed? Are we better than the next guy? I just like to know where we stand in the world and how we’re doing. I also love helping customers with their sick plants and concerns and finding the right plant for every situation.
Do you talk to your plants?
Yes, I apologize to them if they get too dry. When watering, I say, “Looking good, let’s sell today!” My favorite Douglas Fir at home is named Gus.
What was the inspiration for your garden?
It started as a very hilly, slopy, muddy, large lot, and I just had to figure out how to make it work. I’ve been doing this for a while, so I have a pretty good understanding of my favorites. In this yard, there is nothing that’s going to get too crazy big, so I don’t have to worry about a big tree or pruning something in my old age—I really thought about this yard.
I’m really into flowers, foliage, textures, and structure. My favorite colors are the goldens and chartreuse and variegated things, so my backyard is probably 75% variegated and 25% green, and it’s just a great pop of color from inside the house. Then I have some wonderful Adirondack chairs that we offer in yellow and orange, and all that color is what keeps me going in winter.
The other thing that’s really important to me in my garden is birds and wildlife. I have some frog houses and a little pond for frogs and tadpoles. I always have a hummingbird feeder out. I had 13 plants this season that were hummingbird attractors, so my yard is full of birds and hummingbirds and finches and neat things. And I can do all of this pretty much organically, which I am very pleased about because I think of these [creatures as my] little friends in my backyard.
Did you enjoy overcoming the challenge of building on a hillside?
Sometimes I feel like I’m a goat working at home and walking sideways, but yea, it’s just like our customers—everybody’s project of the day is so different, from slopes to swamps to dry, dry, dry. It’s just a challenge, and there’s a right plant for everything.
Do you have any future plans for your garden?
There’s always something to do. If I’m tired of one plant, then that one might be given to a neighbor. There is always something new and irresistible at the nursery that I must have, so that one might work its way in. Something might be overgrown, and I have to sacrifice “somebody” to make room for the other. We call it playing Tetris when you want every spot filled and every spot perfect; I’m always kind of mentally jiggling around what I can do better for next year.
So, do you get bored easily with your garden, always wanting to update it?
Well, I also enjoy sitting in my orange chair watching the birds—I’m very happy with down time.
What is the hardest plant you’ve ever tried to grow?
There are definitely some plants that need a little extra care, and there are a lot of little tricks, but if they’re too difficult, I really don’t have the time to mess with them. There are a lot of plants I can see at the nursery; I can see if they’re tricky, like certain annuals or plants that are extremely fussy about too much water or other things. I can have that experience at the nursery and I don’t need to bring it home with me.
So, you kind of get a head start at the garden center?
Absolutely, I can get my “touching and feeling” in with a lot of things at the garden center: I can clean geraniums, I can deadhead petunias, I can cut roses. There’s so much I can do there, so I don’t bring some of those varieties home because I get my fill and my love of it at the nursery.
Do you use edible ingredients from your garden?
We had a successful year this year! We had 5 tomato plants, and I think we were almost at 200 pounds, which I can’t believe. I used a formula we recommend at the store with chicken manure and worm grow and great soil and organic fertilizer and lime… and I love Epsom salt, so we have a little recipe that we like to suggest for awesome tomatoes. And with our Tomato Tasting, I’ve been able to pick favorite varieties, like an Early Girl, a Goliath, certain ones like that… I can narrow down what I like so I’m not wasting time or space on anything.
What are some of your favorite tools or equipment?
I can’t go out in the yard without my pair of Felcos—my professional pruning shears with red handles (they also make them for small hands and lefties!), and I like my little leather sheik that it goes into. I’ve never lost a pair because I put them back on my waist in this little leather holder every time. The other product I love is my Hori Hori knife. I can divide something, I can scrape weeds out of a crack, I can cut a slug in half… there’s nothing I can’t do with it.
Do you like to cut slugs in half?
Well, if I have to. I try to use our iron phosphate product to naturally kill them, so they just “go away”.
What are some of your favorite products to use?
Things like our Soil Conditioner or our Harvest Supreme. I just love dark soil and organic matter, always planting with 50% new compost, always topdressing things. I love organic fertilizer, also. Portland Rose Society makes a nice organic rose food. Our teacher Nicole would say, “plants can’t read” so I can use this bag of organic rose food on my shrubs and perennials and everything, and it can last for a couple months.
What advice could everyone use in the garden?
Divide your garden budget so some of the money goes towards soil and fertilizer. I help lots of people that just want to take a new tree or plants home and have no intent of planting with compost and natural fertilizer, and the difference in results is so huge. I have some plants that are 5 years old that are just amazing. I gave the same plant to a neighbor since I had a couple extra, and theirs have barely changed in 5 years because of poor soil, no food, and no water.
What tips would you give to a new gardener?
Gather information on walks and take pictures of plants you see and like. Then, bring me 10 pictures of your favorites and we can start looking into them. If you tell me you have a shady backyard and you’ve taken pictures of everything sunny, I’ll show you our 2 large shade sections. And from magazines, clip out pages that you really like of a border or something like that. You’ve just got to be real; some of these things on the internet or Pinterest really don’t exist; it’s too impossible to get what a computer can do for you.
Fragrance is really important to me. I have star jasmine on all sides of my house, I have a gardenia, I love my daphne—every house has to have a daphne, or for a housewarming present or to welcome a new baby, a daphne is wonderful. When I pick a rose, the fragrance is the most important thing for me; fragrance and disease resistance, and that’s all on the tag, so that’s easy to accomplish.
Do you enjoy houseplants as much as your outdoor garden?
I haven’t done a lot of interior plants. Over the years, I’ve had different cats and I know there are pet-friendly lists that I can pick from, but I really haven’t. My love is outside and again, at the nursery, where I can water indoor plants, I can nurture, I can sell, I can pick a leaf… so I can get some of that “touchy, feely” at work and I don’t really need it at home.
What’s your favorite season?
My favorite season would be late spring/early summer… May, Mother’s Day, when I’m able to plant flowers again and the chance of frost is over, and I can get going in the garden.
Do you have a favorite plant?
One of my favorite plants that I’m very happy with this year are my fig trees. I have a Brown Turkey and an Oregon Prolific, and they’re just wonderful with how much food I’m getting from them. I have them mingled in with my roses so they’re not taking up a lot of space. If you compare the price at a grocery store for fresh figs, I’m going to make money on my trees. I can just go out there and pick a few [figs] when I’m gardening… it’s pretty cool.
What about a favorite flower?
There’s this Cuphea firecracker plant (Vermillionaire, a Cuphea hybrid) with a little orange tubular bloom. The hummingbirds just love orange; they love the shape of the bloom. The flowers bloom the entire summer with no deadheading, no fussing, so I can have those things blooming from like May to sometime in November. They even take a little bit of cold weather. That’s my hummingbird magnet, so if I could only have one plant, I would have that.
Who is your biggest inspiration in life?
My first boss and the first owner of Dennis’ 7 Dees, Dennis Snodgrass. He was just a great man and would help us with everything; I mean, he helped me with public speaking, he helped me with eye contact, he helped me with customer relations and a proper handshake, learning all the plants properly that we sell at the nursery and not complicating things with technical stuff that the customer doesn’t care about. These were huge things for someone so young and nervous. He told me to let him teach me for 4 years, which was perfect because I did much better at the nursery than I would have at school.
Dennis would be double-booked with an Optimus meeting or a rare vacation in January, and he might need somebody to take over one of his college classes. I was horrified at the time, but I can very easily do it now and would be very willing to speak to anyone on any topic that I’m good at. So, he is just someone I think of often, all the time, of how he helped me, and I hope that over the years, I’ve helped other young people half as much as he got me going.
What’s your theme song or favorite song, if you had to pick one?
“I’m So Excited” – Pointer Sisters
What major change would you like to see in the world?
Planting of trees… Lake Oswego is the city of trees and they’ve planted the most trees for the most years. They have strict rules: if you take one down, you have to replace it, so I think more things like that… any new project has to have trees, helping neighborhoods understand street planting of trees. Our family’s always given a tree for Father’s Day, or for any pet we’ve lost, we would plant a tree. When I lost my mother, I have a beautiful Magnolia and Dogwood in her honor that are very special to me in my yard. We always think of plants as living gifts, so just giving more things planted in the world is something I’d like to see.