Starks’ passion for plants gives her purpose in retirement

By Steve Irvine | Living 50 Plus

Can you imagine a life without gardening?

Philda Starks doesn’t need time to ponder the question. It takes her about as much time to respond as perhaps it did for her to begin falling in love with gardening as a young child.

Starks, 62, grew up in Somerville, spent part of her adult life in Alpharetta, Ga., and moved back to the Decatur area to be closer to family. Much of her adult life has involved a focus on gardening.

She spent more than 21 years in the plant nursery business, with 17 of those years coming at three different Lowe’s stores, before retiring two years ago. She was certified as a Master Gardener in 2018 and is a member of the Morgan County Master Gardeners.

“I will say, there is no person who has more faith than a gardener,” Starks said. “You believe it’s going to work and you have faith it will grow and thrive when you plant it. Sometimes you get disappointed, but not always.

“Those rewards are what keep you getting at it. You’re so rewarded by your successes that it’s almost addictive.”

Truth be known, Starks said, she didn’t fall fully in love with gardening until her early adulthood. The seed was planted, though, during her childhood.

“We had vegetable gardens,” Starks said. “My grandmother had roses and flowers. I was always intrigued by their beauty. My mom had lots and lots of perennials and flowers. I would water with my mom. She would go out, usually late in the day, to water. I would help. I can see a thirsty plant, even when I was a child. I think I had a lot of empathy for the dry plant.”

Starks first got into the nursery business in Alpharetta. For the next four years, she got a world full of experience.

“When you work for a small family-owned business, you learn everything in the business – from the growing, the watering, the purchasing, taking care of inventory, dealing with clients, just pretty much every aspect of it,” Starks said.

That opportunity ended when the owners closed the business to sell the property. Starks contemplated her next move. She decided to pursue a job at a Lowe’s being built nearby. The plan – at least her original plan – was to stay there for a short time. The reality was she spent the next 17 years as a nursery specialist with Lowe’s before retiring in March of 2019. She eventually arrived back to Decatur to be closer to her mother.

Envisioning mature garden

But by then gardening had become a way of life.

“Experience is really valuable in gardening,” Starks said. “What happens is you see things differently. I remember when I couldn’t envision what it looked like after maturity – all grown in and complete. … I tended to put too much in (a garden). … Chaos Garden, a lot of people love that.

“Sometimes you start to see your mistakes when you get overcrowded. Things compete with each other and things don’t thrive because they are being crowded out by something else. I think, now, I have a little bit of perspective of seeing the outcome of certain plants.”

A big part of being a Master Gardener is sharing the information – and the love for gardening – with others. Master Gardner certification, which is offered by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, comes after completion of an extension program. It’s a statewide organization and Starks is one of about 150 members of the Morgan County chapter.

Volunteer work is a vital piece of the organization with a wide range of opportunities. It could be cleaning up an overgrown park, helping a neighbor clean up a garden or starting a garden somewhere. It could be taking flowers to local hospitals.

“Just walking in with a pot of pretty flowers, everybody in the room lights up,” said Aileen Russell, a Huntsville resident, who was part of the same Master Gardener class as Starks. “It doesn’t matter if they’re getting them or not. It’s just a different kind of language, there’s a happiness to it. Philda, she’s so great at always being happy. I think that’s one of her favorite parts – to bring joy to others through plants.”

Fulfilling retirement

The beginning of retirement wasn’t easy for Starks. She enjoyed the extra time but felt like she needed more.

“I did not have enough to do in the plant world because that’s what I love and I really missed it,” Starks said.

The remedy for that was opening Philda’s Flowers in early 2020. Last spring, she sold planters at the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market and Greene Street Market in Huntsville.

“The thing that I love about her most is she’s very artistic and she has this great eye,” Russell said. “She can put plants together, like if you’re making a mixed pot and it looks good. Her greens and her other colors and textures all go together. That, to me, I think is one of the most important things for a gardener.

“Anybody can just go put plants out in the yard. But, to make them all go together and work together is an amazing feat.”

While the timing wasn’t ideal, her business did well last spring.

“I actually had a good season, in spite of the pandemic last year,” Starks said. “I already had everything set on go when we found out everything was going to be shut down. I’m like, ‘I’m ready to do this and got everything I need, so I’m going to do it.’

“It worked out. It was a great year and I met some great people.”

She offers a vacation watering business to take care of plants, flowers and gardens while residents are away from home. It’s just another way to fulfill her passion.

“It’s my home, it’s my hobby, my passion, what I find myself doing impulsively without even planning to,” Starks said. “You know, you’re out there piddling around and then you’re in a project. I can’t see myself without having some dirt under my nails.”