Following an emotional career-long battle with his customers’ shrubbery, Mark Ellis has begun to reconcile his relationship with decorative greenery.
This is an excerpt from Mark’s memoir, Ladder Memory.
I don’t care if your painter claims to have a green thumb, or claims to be Mister Green Jeans or the Jolly Green Giant. I don’t care if he or she has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State. If he or she is a real painter, chances are the relationship to plants is to tolerate/hate … at best. Most likely, it tips toward the hate side, or at least a strong antipathy. See, whether it’s a massive oak or a delicate little pansy, plants make painters’ lives more difficult, sometimes dangerously so.
Most people look at the flowers, shrubbery, and trees around a home and see nature’s beautiful adornment. Painters see an obstacle course. Plants can get in the way of, slow down, and bleed all the profit out of a paint contract. Any good estimator will account for dealing with plant life when working up the bid. It’s simple. It is quick and easy to paint a wall adjoining a vacant lot. It is another matter altogether to paint a wall that looms over a burgeoning crop of summer squash.
Plants have been the cause of most of my losses—though never quite enough, unfortunately, to meet my insurance deductible in any given year. Yes, I’ve broken windows from time to time, torn latches off gates, put kinks in screens. Stuff happens. But mostly, as I tried to coat the exteriors of myriad homes, I messed with the plants.
My very first run-in with a plant happened early in my career, when I was working for a young contractor who specialized in middle-income housing renovations. I was glad to see that most of the plants around the place were actually in movable planters, so I could easily relocate them before I pressure-washed. But I’d no sooner shifted three or four of them out of the way that the homeowner, a jumpy matron still in her bathrobe, came running from the house in alarm. Every one of those plants had a root system that, over time, had worked its way through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot and down into the soil. I had unwittingly pulled this woman’s plants out by the roots.
I apologized but apparently not sincerely enough. After holding off work for 10 minutes while the contractor met inside with the lady of the house, I was told that the customer relations well had been poisoned. I was let go, and another painter was brought in, a guy “who had more sensitivity toward plants.”
I realized then that a plant does not have to be a Venus flytrap to reach out and bite you on the ass. Did it make me more sensitive to plants? Yes and no. Sure, I took care as much as I could. But I also came to view plants as my job-site enemies, life forms that could be exasperating, encumbering, and even treacherous. The beauty of a commanding spruce that hugs the front of a Tudor or of a fresh primrose patch in lovingly tilled loam was lost on me.
My fellow painters often joked, even marveled at my ire toward our monoxide-absorbing friends. Various tales of how I’d lost it over plant issues—been rude, copped attitudes, whatever—circulated. Several times I purposefully lost a job because I was just too tired of plants and their owners. When one nice lady asked how to prepare her flowers for the paint job, I replied, “Stop coddling them.” I didn’t get the job. Most other painters understood my feelings, but they had made a forced peace with plants. Though I didn’t earn the nickname Plant Killer, I was seen as a reprobate, and everyone who worked with me shared a lot of laughs, and perhaps some grief, over my us-against-them mind-set.
I stepped on them, twisted and denuded them, even oversprayed them. They lashed back, roses tearing my flesh and oleander setting me on sneezing jags. Limbs I thought I’d secured whipped to life, jiggling my ladder at 30 feet. Obdurate trunks, rising to compete with the pinnacle of a McMansion, left little space for a ladder. Sometimes I wished I were Tarzan.
Plants are resilient, hardy, unforgiving. Fighting a sturdy tree is like fighting the onrush of a river. Those unassuming succulents I crushed with my feet? The slick mushiness could send me flying. Going head to head with a plant, a painter will lose.
A painter has to outsmart the foliage, which is rarely easy.
I once handed a set of garden shears to a new summer recruit. There was a large shrub very near the house that needed to be cut back. In the trade we call it selective pruning—tenderly and sensitively cutting just those limbs and branches that are actually rubbing on the house or otherwise prohibiting access to the surfaces, artfully preserving the integrity of the plant. But this newcomer had never heard of selective pruning. I didn’t realize I was unleashing a low-end version of Edward Scissorhands. In the time it took me to move a patio set out of the line of fire, he had given to this nice shrub what can only be called a buzz cut.
“What the hell?” I turned the corner, and the thing was a hacked shadow of its former self.
Another lesson was forthcoming. That night I received an irate call from the lady of the house. I hung up only after feeling like a butcher and assuring her that the plant would be replaced. The following morning I called a nursery and was relieved to find out that they had new shrubs of the kind I needed for 40 bucks, planter included.
But this missus was not interested in a new plant. She insisted on a fully mature one to replace the one my company had destroyed. The nursery had to special order, which meant two weeks, during which said customer withheld payment, for the 300-dollar full-grown forsythia. The homeowner didn’t trust me to plant the new shrub, which added a 75-dollar planting fee onto the charges. My property damage deductible was 400 dollars that year.
That seasonal worker cost me more with one plant than it would have cost to hire four of his compadres, but it was my fault again. File under management responsibilities. If I cared about plants, so the narrative went, I would never have left that poor bush in the hands of a novice.
The worst plant fiasco I was ever involved in came courtesy of the richest of rich hill-dwelling mavens. The entire front of her magnificent old manse had become home to a decades old, foundation-rooted ornamental bush. The thick vine trunks and expanse of leaves ran rampant over the façade, dappling the taupe stucco, and clinging imperviously with a network of tentacles. Gardeners had meticulously groomed around the windows and fabulous arched portico, but every other square inch was covered in a beauteous green that recalled impressions I had of Ivy League colleges. At her massive arched pine front door, after she got her attack poodle under control, we talked.
The back three sides, I told her, would be standard operating procedure: spray, back-roll, trim, and go. The front, well, I assumed she would just want the windows and the alcove painted. No. My plant karma had come home to roost. If there was a circle in Dante’s Hell for those who were indifferent to God’s greenery, it would be something like what I was about to face.
“Whenever we paint,” she said, as her poodle barked incessantly from an anteroom, “we have the gardeners cut back from the stucco so we can at least freshen up the front.” Looking at the tenaciously entwined monster, I didn’t see how it could happen.
“The other painter said he would include that in his bid,” she informed me, no newcomer to the art of handling home improvement contractors. My inclination was to humor her. The accessible surfaces had clocked in around 4,500 dollars, and I needed the money. I figured it wouldn’t take two guys much more than a day to touch up where the gardeners would do their selective pruning and bid accordingly.
She called a few nights later and said she had spoken to her husband, and if I thought I could sensitively handle her beloved vine tree, the job was mine.
I rounded up my current painting buddy, Jeff, a former licensed painter who had fallen on hard times due to a divorce, and off we went. When I pulled up, I felt the pit of my gut drop. The gardeners had barely thinned the leaves that I was bound by contract to paint around.
We slammed through the back three sides, escaping with only one cracked windowpane. All week long the vine stood in mute obstinacy, as if knowing I was saving the worst for last. On the fifth day, I put Jeff on the windows while I banged out the portico. The next morning only that behemoth vine stood between me and my 3,600-dollar final payment.
Wielding two-and-a-half-inch sash brushes, we dove into the jungle. The leaves kept moving, brushed by forearms, and were smeared with taupe. Each leaf splattered had to be trimmed and thrown in a garbage bag. Ladder placement was treacherous, as certain boughs that seemed stable suddenly bowed inward. At least a dozen times I started up the ladder only to go right back down. Due to the impossible limbs and vines, it was next to impossible to hook my paint pail to the ladder rungs, so I was constantly in need of three hands. Jeff, no shrinking violet in the swearing department, heard me call that plant names that shocked even him.
After lunch the sun hit the vine wall and added to an already horrible situation. By four, it was 90 degrees and the paint was turning to chalk on our brushes. More than a few bugs got terminal paint jobs, and one got me. There was a wasp nest up under the overgrown eaves, and the insects kept angrily buzzing and swooping as I reached through the vines. Soon I felt a sting on my stomach and crawled down the ladder, nauseated by venom.
There were a few patches up high that were open to our brushes but not accessible by ladder due to the trunk configuration. At one point, to his eternal credit because I never would have done it, Jeff actually climbed out onto and up the vine to hit a spot that no ladder could have reached.
Finally the sun fell behind a stand of elm. On one of my last stretches to reach a spot, I brushed some higher leaves against the soffit, and we were startled by the cranky flutterings of an awakened brown bat. I had a Judas Preist head of hair then and had heard that bats sometimes mistake big hair for their nests.
We loaded our ladders and tools. Only Jeff, me, and the rich lady behind those massive, carved-pine front doors would ever know that the wall behind the vine tree had not been fully painted. The blending had been successful.
I think Jeff and I lost about 12 pounds between us that afternoon. It’s been 20 years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that mythically-proportioned vine still encases that old mansion. Nor surprised to learn that it had outlasted its owners.
I wish I could say that I gained more sensitivity toward plant life in my later years, but the truth is my last financial hit over the issue came very late in my contracting career. My customers were leaving town for the duration of the paint job, and the lady of the house asked me if, since I would be at her house every day, I would deep water her plants. Of course she offered to pay extra. Long story short, I made a perfunctory effort, but it was not enough; one or two of her more sensitive shrubs died that week. The man of the house paid up, minus a substantial deduction, and closed his front door on me like I was a baby-killer.
I’ve learned to spot plant lovers right away and have even developed a disclaimer I add to some of my contracts, like a pharmaceutical manufacturer who discloses that the treatment for osteoporosis may cause diarrhea and vomiting: “While reasonable care will be taken with plants and shrubs, an exterior restoration requires that all surfaces be safely accessible, even if such access may damage said plants and shrubs. Homeowner may wish to consider a landscape assessment before painting.”
Another way of saying it is that a ladder has to go where a ladder has to go, and I have to climb around a building to paint it.
For the record, I don’t hate plants, though they make my job harder. I “get” the appeal of a rose bush in full bloom. When the flowering maple in my yard blossoms each spring, I notice. And by the way, I recently bought an indoor plant, my first, which I keep by the kitchen sink, a nice little prickly cactus.