March 24 • 09:57 PM

In the eye of the beholder

June 06, 2018
"Ugh! I'm so glad that ugly thing is finally outta here."

That's what my boss at the greenhouse I worked at in the 1990s is saying to me as a customer is leaving, hauling a plastic green urn that's brimming with overgrown potted plants.

I don't respond at all, and hope the look in my eyes doesn't reflect that I feel like I've just been poked in the heart.

"That ugly thing" she's referring to was planted by me.

The job at the greenhouse is the first "real job" I have since moving out to the country. I did a quick stint at the Super 8 in Imlay City, but happily turned in my mandatory orange bow tie when the then-owner told me my breath reeked of garlic and she was concerned it would offend the customers. Believe it or not, the garlic breath comment was easier to take than the greenhouse boss's glee that the "ugly thing" finally sold. I'm Italian, so I eat lots of garlic and furthermore, everyone gets garlic breath. But not everyone's creations are panned as "ugly."

A fellow Virgo with a birthday just days before mine, the greenhouse boss was a stickler for perfection and it showed in the beauty of the plants and houses she oversaw. I learned more from here in a season—about plants and their various personalities, and people and their various personalities— than I ever knew in an entire lifetime before meeting her.

When she finally trusts me enough to begin planting the combination pots for retail, I feel like I've won the Nobel prize or something. It's a high honor coming from her.

Of course, I'm given a strict tutorial: plant something for height—a spike. Something that drapes down—vinca vine or ivy—and something that pops with color—zinnias, pansies, petunias, coleus...

Awesome. I'm all in.

I'm fresh from the city, Royal Oak to be specific, where creating all sorts of art is as natural as breathing, and bucking the conventional norms while doing so was almost expected. I couldn't wait to dig into the high-end soil and plant that plastic urn. I loved its shape and its deep, hunter green color—which in my eyes saved it from looking totally cheesy.

I had a big idea. I always had big ideas when it came to creating things, and was always falling head over heels in love with them, absolutely, all the time. Falling in love is intoxicating, after all, and I just have to reach for it—good or bad. The "ugly urn" and my relationship status illustrates that this approach isn't always good.

Urn on the table waiting to be planted, I walk the greenhouses looking for just the right plants. I reach for a helichrysum, its furry, seafoam green leaves and willy-nilly stems will look great in the center. Who needs a boring old spike when you can plant a wild, untamable helichrysum?

For the drapey stuff, I think I'll try some white alyssum. Vinca's fine, but everyone does that. I love the little white dots of alyssum flowers and the potent fragrance, which makes up for their diminutive size. They'll look great against the deep green of the urn.

For the pops of color I choose deep purple petunias, mixed in with some lighter purple ones called 'Sugar Daddy.' I love the name as much as I love the spicy smell they emit when they're hot with sun.

When I'm done, I think the urn is beautiful. If it weren't so expensive—its 25 bucks—I'd buy it myself. But even with the employee discount, it's out of my range. I can buy a lot of other flowers with 25 bucks.

Days go by and the green urn flourishes. The plants swell with good health, the helichrysum wanders to and fro. It grows in a way that resembles arms rising up out of the center of the pot, reaching for the sun. They're slightly askew, but I'm liking the asymmetry of it all.

Apparently, I'm the only member of that club. All but a few of the made-to-order, perfectly pristine and predictably common combination pots get sold, and the green urn remains.

When it is finally purchased, the woman carries it out with a big smile on her face. But the boss's smile is even bigger. That "Ugly Thing" is finally gone.

A few days later I'm at the hair salon and I overhear a woman talking about a tree in her front yard. She's anxious for it to be cut down, and can't wait for the crew to get there ant get rid of it.

"It's so ugly and messy looking," she says. "I can't stand looking at it every day."

I almost cry when I learn she's talking about a shagbark hickory—among the favorite trees that grow on my property. To me, they look like a fairy tale tree and I'm in love with the idea of it coming to life and wrapping its arms around a frightened child who's lost in the woods at night.

Sort of like how I felt as a city girl trying to fit in in the country. In love with ideas, seeing beauty everywhere.

I won't plant another urn like the green one ever again. I will, however, continue to cook with and eat massive amounts of garlic.

Email Catherine at

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
  1. reply print email
    Fitting into the Country
    June 07, 2018 | 02:47 PM

    Just wanted to say HI, Catherine, and thanks for your article on your green urn and the feeling of fitting into country life. My husband and I just moved to Almont from Royal Oak last year, and I feel as if I am still learning how to fit in and stop looking like a city girl. Your article gave me a smile, and some hope that it's all possible!
    I probably would have bought your urn - it sounds lovely!

    Amy Seiferlein
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