Michelle Sutton

Compiled and edited by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy Noreen Riordan except where noted

Noreen Riordan lives in Henrietta and serves a greater Rochester territory as an arborist representative for Bartlett Tree Experts. Her territory includes Greece, Henrietta, Irondequoit, Webster, and some of Penfield and Brighton. Noreen is an ISA-Certified Arborist and Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional who has extensive experience with, among other things, Emerald Ash Borer. Noreen’s love of plants is informed by being an artist and her art is informed by her love of plants; she has a BFA in art and photography from Syracuse University. Here’s Noreen in her own words. 

Noreen calls this “a treasured place: Rocky Mountain, Inlet, NY. I’ve been climbing this mountain with family and friends for 50 years.” Photo by Deb Putman

When I got my first house, I really went bananas for gardening and haven’t looked back. I find gardening so gratifying in the way it allows me to bring in birds, bees, and other wildlife with the habitats I create. I’m grateful to my mom and grandmother for passing down the gardening gene! I’m especially into birds, and as I worked for nurseries and my own landscaping company for many years, I got more interested in trees and how miraculous and important they are. If you’re into birds, you’re likely to be into trees.  

I’m happy to say that both of my daughters, Molly and Emily, have gotten into birdwatching. We all have feeders, compare who visits them, and get jealous of each other’s birds. Eastern bluebirds are my favorite, but it’s my older daughter Molly who gets frequented by them. Meanwhile, I get all the chickadees, and my daughters are envious of that. It’s something fun to bond over. 

I had a home-based business retouching photos when my kids were little and did that while I raised them. When digital photography came into dominance, I made the career change to nursery and landscaping jobs. It was very exciting and a lot more physically and intellectually demanding than I thought—and so vast! Soils, light needs, native vs. exotic, spacing—there was a lot to learn. Around 2000, I achieved the Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional (CNLP) credential, my ISA Arborist Certification, and also became a NYSDEC Certified Pesticide Applicator.

Noreen has a BFA in Art and Photography from Syracuse University.

Beginning in 2009, I became intensely focused on Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) because it posed such a huge threat to our region’s many ash trees. I served on the Monroe County Emerald Ash Borer Task Force and did presentations to educate the public. Through my work, I did injections in ash trees; I became skillful in identifying which trees could be saved and prosper, and which ones weren’t worth treating—knowledge I use quite a lot to this day. It is gratifying to see ash trees that I injected thriving, beautiful, and providing all the ecosystem services they are capable of. 

That said, there are a lot of dead green ash (Fraxinus pensylvanica) trees near where I live now in Henrietta, which can be depressing. I worry a bit about the mature standing dead trees (snags) posing hazards to people. Woodpeckers do love the snags for nesting and food, but, over time, the EAB-decimated ash trees don’t stand up well. That said, where snags don’t pose a hazard to people or property, such as in homeowner woodlots, I think it’s cool when people keep them for bird habitat. 

It’s gratifying to realize at this point in my life that I know a lot about a lot of things and at the same time, I’m still learning. Through my job as Arborist Representative with Bartlett, I’m immersed in Plant Health Care (PHC) (see sidebar). If a client calls because they are having a disease or insect pest on a treasured plant, I have my knowledge base to look at everything and offer suggestions. But I also have Bartlett’s Diagnostic Lab at my disposal, which has been phenomenal in putting PHC into practice.  

What is Plant Health Care? 
From the International Society of Arboriculture: 
The objective of PHC is to maintain or improve the landscape’s appearance, vitality, and—in the case of trees—safety, using the most cost-effective and environmentally sensitive practices and treatments available. Plant Health Care involves routine monitoring, preventive treatment, and a strong working relationship between the arborist and the property owner.

Through PHC, I’m learning about the new diseases and insect pests and what treatments are available. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a critical component of PHC; IPM is all about proper timing for treatment. From experience with ash trees, I know that if an ash tree looks a certain way, I can tell it’s not going to respond to treatment so I’m honest with homeowners about that. But with other plants, I will frequently take a soil and foliage sample to send to Bartlett’s diagnostic lab at its Tree Research Laboratories in Charlotte, North Carolina to get highly detailed information about what nutrients and pathogens are in the soil and in the leaf sample. 

Why a leaf sample? The analysis of the foliage sample shows what soil components the tree is actually taking up through its vascular system. Sometimes a nutrient is present in the soil but is not available for uptake because of limiting chemical interactions. An example of this is manganese-deficiency chlorosis on red maples, which makes the leaves look yellowed. It may be that there’s not enough manganese in the soil, which means the addition of a manganese chelate is warranted, or there may be sufficient manganese in the soil, but the Bartlett lab may recommend we add sulfur to chemically free up the manganese to make it available for uptake. 

I’ve been flooding Bartlett’s diagnostic lab with samples! Reading those diagnostic lab reports is a great education and of course, I pass the reports along to my clients, along with my recommendations. Among many things, I’ve learned that lacebug in Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica) shrubs is almost a given, but that it can be treated. I’ve learned about how vulnerable boxwoods in our region are to spider mites, leaf miners, and psyllids—so much so that several different appropriately-timed treatments are necessary if the plants are to thrive. I can help the homeowner decide if that’s the course they’d like to pursue.  

In 2020, our region wrestled with a huge infestation of gypsy moth (see photos), with Irondequoit as the epicenter and oak trees most affected. Injections for gypsy moth kill all caterpillars, not just the gypsy moth larvae. The bird-loving part of me thinks about how chickadees are so closely connected to oak trees, which have 249 types of caterpillars that feed this bird species, and how a chickadee needs 6000 caterpillars just to feed their first clutch of babies. I think about how valuable that caterpillar food source is. 

However, if the trees are decimated by gypsy moth year after year and the trees die, they’re not much good to the chickadees for nesting, cover, and other food sources, and they no longer provide shade and beauty for humans. Whole forest regions can be cleared by gypsy moths, which doesn’t serve anyone. So it’s a complicated line to walk. Also, I’m sympathetic to homeowners who have oak trees above their decks and are experiencing the unpleasantness of gypsy moth frass (excrement) falling on their patio and outdoor dining furniture. 

My experience with EAB comes to bear with the trees infested with gypsy moth. For instance, I had a client in Irondequoit who had 30 oak trees at risk, but she couldn’t afford to treat them all. I helped her prioritize which ones to keep based on those that had the best possibility of recovery and a long healthy life. I enjoy this work greatly, and I love getting to know the clients and getting to visit their unique properties. I’ve met so many nice people, many of whom are also into birds and are concerned about trees. The social aspect of my job is terrific. 


The most important accomplishment of my life is helping raise two intelligent, independent, empathetic women. My daughters are best friends. One is a school psychologist and the other is an immigration attorney. Both believe passionately in equality and civil rights. We attended several marches and protests together pre-COVID, and they continue to do so in their respective cities.
—Noreen Riordan


Noreen at Charlotte Pier on Lake Ontario last winter. Photo by Deb Putman
Cedar waxwings

On my property I’m enjoying taking out invasive plants like buckthorn and plants like privet that provide meager ecosystem benefits, and I’m replacing them with native plants that provide maximum services to wildlife. I put a rain garden in front of the house where there’s a swale—that’s doing really well. My yard is fenced in, high enough to deter the deer most of the time. I’ve left a snag tree up where it’s not a hazard, and that’s been home to tons of woodpeckers. I’m growing vegetables all over the place. 

My favorite movie is Moana, because it’s about a strong female character who is concerned for the environment and for her people. I find very poignant the lyric, “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me.” I love the ocean, the beach, the Adirondacks. We are stewards of this beautiful planet and we need to do all we can to help the earth and one another, whether that be eating less meat, getting solar panels, reducing waste, being kind, or wearing a mask!  


Noreen Recommends 
By Doug Tallamy: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants and Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard 

By Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness

By Richard Powers: The Overstory


Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, editor, and writer.

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Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy the Plant Shack except where noted

Rachel Stepien is the owner of the Plant Shack in East Aurora, southeast of Buffalo. With two locations and a third being planned, she is offering things people need more now than ever: community, creativity, the people-plant connection, and—soon—cocktails!  

Did you grow up in a gardening family?
Rachel Stepien: I grew up in Niagara County, in Youngstown. My love for nature started there and with going to nature preserves with my grandparents. My dad always had a garden (and still does), and helping him pick tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer is definitely something I will always remember. I would help find toads in my gad’s veggie garden or move spiders off the tomatoes before he watered. He had the knack for growing veggies and herbs, and inside the house we had cacti and small trees. One cactus got so large, we had to donate it because it wouldn’t fit in the house anymore. 

How did your plant interest evolve from there? 
Throughout my life, I’ve had a fascination with all types of forests. I always wanted to go explore the Amazon rainforest; I remember being a kid and having this cool pop-up book where you could add different plants and animals to a rainforest backdrop. It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, that I started collecting plants and really getting into the houseplant hobby. 

Before starting the Plant Shack, I had worked at the Buffalo Zoo in the rainforest exhibit (I have a degree from Canisius College in Zoology). After seeing how much my mood improved in the winter because of being surrounded by plants at work as well as at home, my love for them really took off. 

Anna’s cat, Billy, keeps an eye on things.

What was your initial business spark? 
I always had an appreciation for cozy, locally owned coffee shops, and when I was drinking coffee last fall in my home, surrounded by plants, I had a vision of creating a botanical café. I thought, “How cool would it be to actually create this kind of space for other people?” I knew this would be a big endeavor, so I started with plants—getting my name out there, spreading the word and excitement, etc. My end goal is still to become a botanical café: coffee by day, craft cocktails by night—all surrounded by green!

What do you see as your overall business mission and vision? 
This is so hard for me to answer, as I have at least ten missions! Overall, though, my mission is to be a place for the community to gather. My vision is to be a business that supports the community that supports me. To be kind. 

How have you used social media to grow your Plant Shack community? Social media has been my number one place for getting out news and information, advertising events, and gathering a following of fellow plant people. It’s been amazing! We’ve done giveaways with expensive plants so that people who may not be able to splurge to buy one have a chance to win one. I have used our social media to help a foster dog find a home. 

I want people to know there is someone just like them behind the Plant Shack name. I like sharing behind-the-scenes things on social media so it’s more personal. I want people to know that they can come to me for advice or just to chat. I also use social media to provide exposure to other small businesses in our region and to encourage folks to check them out. 

Could you tell us about #TheShackGivesBack and your areas of giving? This comes back to my mission and vision. I want to be a place for the community, to help make our community and world a better place. Animals and nature are my passion, so many of my give-back efforts are related to that. For instance, starting last November, for every ten plants we sell, we plant a tree through the nonprofit organization called One Tree Planted. We have planted 445 trees around the world so far! We’ve also raised money to help those affected by the Australian bushfires.

We have covered the cost of transportation fees for animals who are being transported to our region by plane, and we’ve sponsored cages at the Niagara County SPCA. One of the dogs we helped transport stayed at the Shack during our open hours to greet customers and gain exposure; because of this, she found an amazing new home! Once we get back to normal, we hope to have more “shop dogs.” 

You’re starting a scholarship for college or trade school students. What inspired you to do that?  
I was on a business trip with my other job, and my shuttle driver to the airport was a high school student who was applying to colleges. He is the first of his family to go to college, and he really wanted to go to a certain one that is very expensive. He had this plan laid out, that he was going to go to the local community college for two years, then another college, and then finally transfer to the expensive college so his diploma would be from there. 

I told him that the name of the college wasn’t everything, but after him telling me his plans, how he was saving money, etc., I tipped him very well and said it was for his college fund. I got such a great feeling that I was able to help him out, even in such a small way, that I decided that I would use my business to help someone go to school. We were going to start this year, but due to the coronavirus, we instead donated over $500 in gift cards and Easter dinners to local families who were struggling because of income loss related to the pandemic. 

Speaking of the pandemic, how have you been adapting your business in this strange time? 
We essentially closed for a full month, but after talking to my employees, we came up with a plan to safely open with curbside pickup. We transferred everything to a new website that’s equipped for online purchases. We did that for about a month, and once phase three of reopening came around, we opened to the public but with restrictions (masks, capacity limits, etc.). We have two locations, both in East Aurora. Our seasonal location at Knox Farm State Park will remain closed this year—as it’s just easier with everything going on—but our Main Street location is open.  

Are you still hoping to open a botanical café in the future? 
Yes! We are in the planning phases of opening a separate (different location) botanical café, complete with coffee, patio, indoor seating, and cocktails. I can’t wait to fulfill this goal/vision.  

What kinds of events and classes did you have and plan to get back to? Will you be adapting them to online? 
We had everything! We had introductory German classes, jigsaw puzzle nights, local artists teaching botanical drawing, macramé hanger making classes, succulent arrangement workshops—I can go on! We aren’t adapting these to online, but we are working on having some outdoor events before winter hits. 

The cloth plant pouches are intriguing—can you talk about those? 
The cloth pouches are made by Amiga Wild, a business cofounded by two friends in Venice, California. The pouches have plastic liners in the bottom but the friends thought it would be a fun and different way to display your plants. The safari-themed cloth pouches are the most popular.

Packages ready for curbside pickup last spring. Now folks can shop the Plant Shack in person (using safe protocols).
Houseplant chic: “plant pouches” lined with plastic. The Shack seeks to support as many small businesses as possible. 

What are some other innovative products you’d like to highlight?
Not so much individual products, but I would like to add that many of our gift items are made by local or international small businesses; we seek to support as many as possible. Our candles, cards, jewelry, macramé hangers, and embroidery are all from small businesses. Most of our store furniture was custom-made by Black Dog Wood, based in Niagara County.  

Where do you turn for creative ideas and inspiration? 
When I first started, I would scroll through Instagram for inspiration from other plant shops. But when employees Erin and Anna came on board, they quickly became the source of creativity! Both of them love interior design, so they are always changing the shops around and arranging everything in the most pleasing and unusual ways. 

What interests do you have outside of the business? 
I love traveling with my boyfriend—two of my favorite places to go are St. John, USVI and Wengen, Switzerland. I also love reading and playing video games. You can find me down by our pond looking at bugs and other animals. I’m on the board of Knox Farm State Park right here in East Aurora. 

What’s an interesting fact about you that your customers might not know? 
I served in the USAF reserves for six years. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

Connecting with The Plant Shack 
theplantshackwny.com
info@theplantshackwny.com
facebook.com/theplantshackWNY
instagram.com/_theplantshack_

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My pathway through community gardens

by cathym on July 3, 2020

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton 

For about ten years, the author did garden design, installation, and maintenance in greater Rochester. Courtyard gardens were especially fun and rewarding.

I have a community garden to thank for getting me into horticulture in the first place. I was twenty and living in an egalitarian community (secular commune) of about 100 people in central Virginia. Tom was a rare visitor my age who’d come from Northern California for a three-week stay. He was super fired up about growing vegetables. The first crop we bonded over was spinach. Tom was very, very excited about spinach.  

I was fired up about Tom, so I followed him into the fields, and as we spent time tending the rows and talking, his enthusiasm for the vegetables sparked something in me. I had hoped Tom would become a member of the community and provide the romance my life there was missing. Devastatingly, he decided not to stay, but I nursed my broken heart by throwing myself deeper into vegetable cultivation.  

The community’s garden and grounds manager, the lovely Jake, was very kind to me during that time when I felt so raw. Jake, who grew up on a working farm, moved three times as fast as anyone else. He decided what to grow and he delegated tasks, but owing to his superior energy and efficiency, he also did the lion’s share of the work. Because of his dominance of the gardening realm there, I could see that I was only going to advance so far in my horticultural knowledge and opportunities. Also, I really needed to be around more people my age.  

In the summer of 1990, I got a position as a gardener at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. We were given room, board, access to some workshops, and $200/week. This seemed like a dream for twenty-year-old Michelle. A woman named Sue headed things up, and she and I and one other seasonal person divided the work. 

The author in 2019.

I made compost with scraps from the institute’s kitchen. I learned how to build a three-bin compost unit (fun side note: when my husband and I went to the Omega grounds to walk around more than twenty years later, the bin was still there). I tried not to fork snake eggs when I pitchforked leaf mulch into the first of the three bins. I gave tours of the garden to well-heeled and gracious New Agers from New York City. In late summer I loved to give them raw corn to shuck and taste, and sometimes there’d be a corn husk completely filled with the black spores and white goo of the corn smut fungus. That was reliably a graphic and fun gross-out for everyone involved. (I’ve since learned that corn smut is called huitlacoche in Mexico and is eaten as a delicacy there. Also, you gotta love how plant pathologists name things so forthrightly, a là nipple gall, butt rot, scabs, and cankers.) 

Even though there were dozens and dozens of staff and several hundred participants coming through every week, I was lonely at Omega, too … lonely in a sea of people. I was a member of a community, but I never felt like I belonged. That wasn’t Omega’s fault. There was actually so much going on all the time there that my introverted nervous system was overwhelmed. I remember a lot of therapeutic crying in the garden shed in the evenings, until my roommate left her internship early and then, praise heaven, I had my own rustic room to cry in.   

In the fall I headed back to my home state of Virginia and got hired by an organic vegetable farm in metropolitan Washington, D.C. There, a community of mostly Bolivian workers had established themselves in affordable living arrangements and would remain year-round. Within a few minutes of being hired, as I was being given a tour of the operation, I saw this really handsome tall fellow stand up and look my direction. That was the sweet jack-of-all-trades Oscar, who loved babies and animals and Bolivian folk dancing. To my parents’ shock, he and I got married after knowing each other for six weeks. I don’t recommend that. Nonetheless, we continued to date for several years after the annulment, and he was extremely kind and helpful to me and my family during some very stressful times.  

The author’s most successful community garden plot year owed to a confluence of factors: going no-till (therefore, not churning up weed seeds), procuring the region’s most lovingly produced seedlings, mulching beds and paths very heavily, staying on top of the few audacious weeds that poked through said mulch, abundant rainfall and moderate temps that summer, and not being on the board at the time.

Spanish filled the air in that farm community, and I delighted in that. Thanks to beloved early childhood neighbors who were from Ecuador and spoke Spanish while I played with their kids, I had a good ear for it and was able to join in conversations. However, on the occasions when Oscar and his sister and brother-in-law didn’t want me to understand what was being said, they would speak Quechua, their third language. Sneaky. 

Oscar and I went to a lot of parties hosted by Bolivians where everyone danced—I mean everyone—there were no chairs around the room. That was fun, although I did have to learn the ways in which our cultures were different and stop centering my own. Arriving at one party, the host greeted me smilingly with, “Hello Michelle! You are fatter than before.” I slinked off to the corner to cry, but Oscar gently explained to me that in his culture, observations of fatness or thinness carried neutral weight. They weren’t insults. (American culture would benefit greatly from getting on board with this.) 

I joined my first official community garden—a grid of plots in a field—in Reston, Virginia. 

My garden neighbor said, “I can tell you know what you’re doing.” The garden did start out swimmingly, with a pretty mandala-like design, but ironically, since I’d started going back to school to study horticulture, I stopped going to the community garden regularly. All of a sudden, the weeds were horror-movie tall. 

Oscar helped me clean the plot out, and I came away with a miserable case of poison ivy. That’s when I knew that there were limitations on my gardening freedom. I could/cannot afford to wade around in bleeping poison ivy. I am very careful about this. So imagine when my surprise when I got it a couple of years ago in January—JANUARY!—from snuggling with my friend’s newly adopted husky. SNUGGLING WITH AN ADORABLE DOG! It’s just so unfair. 

The author’s favorite sunflowers (‘Chocolate Cherry’) from her erstwhile community garden plot.

My first long-term experience with community gardens was after moving to the Hudson Valley in 2010 to be with my then-new husband. We marveled at how at this community garden seemed to be deeply inhabited, with semi-permanent structures like pergolas, sculptures, elaborate fancy-rustic fences, and even a swing! We got a plot and found out that the reason people had settled so thoroughly into their plots was that unlike most community gardens where the entire area gets plowed every spring, in this one, folks could keep their same plot year after year. 

That was cool, since it seemed to generate all this creativity, but it turned out to have a major downside: entitlement. The longer people had their plots, the more inflexible they became. Especially in cases of people like the board member who was an inveterate hoarder. His board member status served as a cover for his gradually filling plot after plot with junk. 

“Snaps“ to these snaps! ‘Rocket Red’ (left side of the bouquet) is the author’s favorite annual.

He was a good-hearted person who truly liked to be helpful to other people—and I felt for him, because he seemed powerless over his illness—but the garbage accumulation was really hard to deal with. When the board finally started to present him with a timetable of “This plot has to be cleaned up by x date, and this other plot has to be cleaned by x date (repeat several times over) or you have to leave,” I was ending my service on the board. Selfishly, I was relieved, because I knew the situation that had come to a boil was going to scald people, and it did. I did very much admire the tenacity of the board president and the board in seeing things through … as I jumped ship.     

Being on the board, I learned about how many long-term squabbles neighboring gardeners were carrying on (if you weren’t on the board, you’d be blissfully unaware.) 

Based on observing those dramas, I can offer some specific advice on how to be a good community garden member: 

  • Keep your fence lines extra clean of weeds, as a courtesy to your neighbors.
  • Research plants first so you don’t plant something invasive that everyone has to deal with for years to come.
  • If you can’t keep up with your plot, ask the board for help rather than letting things get really overgrown. 
  • Don’t build berms that are five feet high at their apex and provide a den for rats. If your garden neighbors say they are seeing rats, don’t deny their reality. 
  • Don’t leave the community hoses on when you leave, flooding your neighbors’ gardens. One wouldn’t think this would need to be said. 
  • Leave your adorable dog at home. 
  • Don’t install an industrial metal fence that is so tall it makes your plot look like a mini penitentiary. 
  • Don’t camp out or get drunk in your plot. 
  • Most importantly, never, never join the board. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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