When Norm Schilling was waiting to be fired from the city dump for selling salvaged goods on the side, he knew he was going to have to find another job. He observed trucks full of grass and plant materials making runs there and thought that landscaping was a job he could do. So he threw a mower, a blower and a weed whacker into the back of his truck and went into business for himself. After taking classes on lawn care and other landscaping matters, he soon developed a passion for horticulture.
In 1991, the Canadian native went to work for the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Within five years he was the lead groundskeeper at its Desert Demonstration Gardens. In 2000, he became the horticulture supervisor at UNLV. That same year, Schilling also became a contributor to Nevada Public Radio’s Desert Bloom, giving sage advice to listeners across the Valley. In 2003, he went into business for himself again, this time as Schilling Horticulture Group, creating sustainable, beautiful gardens—some of which have earned first place for residential design for the Southern Nevada Water Authority Landscape Awards.
What is the biggest mistake that Las Vegans make in their yards?
They mix plants with different water needs together in the same area and they don’t plan for the mature size of the plant. A lot of plants outgrow their space and they’re either hacked back or you’ve got to remove them. So, know the mature size of the plant before you plant it.
How can Las Vegans help their gardens survive the summer?
Part of the question should be, “What can the garden do to help us survive the summer?” That’s easier. Plant shade trees—or even shrubs that will get large, if you have a small yard—to the west and south of seating areas or anywhere you want shade. Just don’t plant big trees too close to walls or the house. As for how to get plants to survive, it comes down to a few keys. Water all your plants deep and wide. The larger the plant becomes, the wider, the more drip emitters it will need. If you grow non-desert plants, water them a little more frequently, and put down organic [wood chip] mulch instead of rock. Desert plants generally require less care and naturally do better here if they’re not overwatered.
So what’s your all-time favorite desert plant?
Shrubby dogweed. It blooms its heart out, it reseeds itself, it will bloom in the middle of the winter. When it reseeds, it grows up about an inch and then it puts up its first little flower—it can’t wait to flower. They’re really easy to take care of. It just kind of spreads through the garden and brings gold through the garden all year. And it smells good.
Is it challenging to make the radio show consistently engaging?
No, because gardening is engaging, plants are engaging, wildlife is fascinating. Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to get the mail because I go out the back and I wander through and check out what’s going on, and there’s always something changing and evolving and surprising you. Sometimes it’s a bummer and sometimes it’s amazing. I love doing the radio show because I can teach about how to garden well, while at the same time I can share how engaging and how exciting it is. I mean, I’ve been doing this 20-plus years, and I still get full-body goosebumps—from plants. One of the things I like to tell people is that I grow gardens, but the gardens grow me. It really changes who I am and how I look at the world. It teaches me patience and optimism and hope. I’m sure I’m a very different person for having played with plants and gardens all these years.
What other passions do you have?
Flying’s always been a dream of mine. I’ve only been in small planes a few times, and always loved it. Even in airliners, I have to get a window seat, because it takes my breath away to see the world like that, where mountains are bumps and I can see entire valleys and rivers. But in a small plane, or even better, a glider, the feeling I get is very liberating. The feeling in my body and in my spirit changes, and I feel so free of all limitation, even that of gravity. And, yes, I want to do that when I retire—and hopefully long before then.
What’s been the most unusual use of your plant knowledge? Have you used it to pick up a girl or anything?
Yeah, oh, yeah. When I worked at the Desert Demonstration Gardens I found that when I would talk to a girl, when I started expressing my passion for this stuff, I would see their eyes kind of light up and they would have a whole other level of interest. At those times in my life when I’m single, like now, sharing my love of gardening naturally allows me to show my sensual nature, and I find it can be very enticing to a woman. Yet it’s still an innocent, nonthreatening way of flirting. I’ve sometimes intentionally used it to forge that initial connection. And yes, my love of gardening, and my eagerness to share it, has led to dating.
After 20 years, what’s the turn-on with helping other people’s gardens?
It changes people’s lives for the better; it changes the community. If it’s done well, it can make a really significant difference for the environment. By the same token, I have a company I believe in. I want to run an ethical company that also takes good care of the people that work for the company. This is my way of making a difference in the world.