Anne Jaeger loves to garden, but it took a life-threatening illness to force her to truly pursue her passion.
Anne was working as a television reporter when she was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of lymphatic cancer. Facing possible death, Anne decided she could not live with regret inside of her and, with the support of her employer, began to do the work she always dreamed of. Changes in management left her facing possible unemployment, but Anne would not be deterred. She picked up her show, and her sponsor, and took them to a different network. Instead of unemployment, she now faced a primetime Saturday night television show, hosted mostly from her own garden.
Recently 49, and glad to have made it, Anne is a correspondent for Smart Gardening, a PBS gardening show broadcast around the nation. A beautiful woman, who at one point lost her hair and faced a very uncertain future, Anne now does what she has always wanted to do, and glows with excitement when talking about it.
To arrive at this point, the most difficult step, she says, is overcoming fear. “Fear keeps us in some pretty tight boxes,” she says, suggesting that younger people find a job that satisfies them. “Have fun,” she says, “Take time to enjoy life.” It is a good reminder to anyone stuck in a rut; life is too short to be lived in a rut.
The angle here: fear. Why is it holding you back, when you have to wait until you’re on your deathbed to take action. The Charles Manson story would be crazy.
We are in her backyard. It’s a huge garden. Her mother is inside having a cup of tea with a friend. Her 16 year old daughter is inside. It’s not like any garden you would find in a backyard. She shows us photo albums of it’s progression.
I moved in my house 1988. One thing I didn’t do was keep track of what the backyard looked like before I started. It was so ugly that I didn’t want anyone to see. I didn’t want to be reminded of it. So really, my garden has been here since ’97.
Z: Is it mostly on a drip system?
No. I always did all the watering by hand until this last year. I got an extraordinary system to go in. During the winter I dug it all up. See those posts right there? That is a sprinkler head like they have at the golf course. And it’s hooked up to a weather satellite. So it never goes on when it’s raining. It takes into consideration what plants are there and how much water they need. It considers the condensation and humidity. So I’ve been able to have a life now besides watering my plants.
J: It takes the gardener out of gardening, almost.
Z: But you still weed it and stuff, right?
Yeah. Well you consider different times of the year. Like Christmas time, if you came back, that’s all basically mulch. What I have to do at different times is wait for it to bloom. Then I’ll start cutting it back and cutting it all the way to the ground and make it look nice. Mulch it twice a year. You can just imagine what it’s like.
I’m amazed to not have a mulch pile right now. I feel kind of naked without one. Everyone needs a mulch pile.
None of this used to be here. These rocks were just a big mound. I had to plot it all out to see what I wanted it to look like.
B: You ever have weddings here?
You know, I’m having my first one this year.
B: Is it someone you know?
I’ve been a single mother since Haley has been about two years old. When I was doing the work, anchoring and reporting, I had to be at work at 3:30am. I wanted to make sure to take those jobs so that I could be home with her for most of the day. So I’d go to work, be there at 3:30am, and I’d have this girl named Laura live upstairs. I transformed the upstairs into a little apartment. She would come down and take care of my daughter. Over the years she said that if she ever got married, she wanted to get married in this backyard. So she came back this last year. She’s like, 27 now.
Okay. So this is what it looked like when I got rid of all the berry bushes. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what the heck am I going to do?’ Look at that:
(It might be really cool if Anne could send this picture to us…)
I had some really good, what they call, ungardening focal points. So you can see what I’ve done here is I’ve taken a some ideas. ‘What’s it going to look like if I move all these rocks over here and along there?’ And you can see how darn dry it is. That’s that tree, right there. And it looks lush, doesn’t it?
I didn’t dig any of this up or anything. I put pasture grass in here for a couple years so I could try to get the roots of the great big blackberries out, because they were narly. They’re huge. Put pasture grass in there for awhile and kept mowing and starving them for light and water. And I left it kind of fallow for ten years and then I started this garden.
I didn’t dig the grass up or anything. I just put down cardboard. I laid it out how I wanted it and put cardboard down. Then I put five or six inches of mulch on it. Then in the spring I put five or six inches of mulch on it. Then every year, twice a year, I go through and put about an inch or two inches of mulch on it. Now I can dig down and stuff looks like that!
Z: You said it took you ten years of prep just to get it ready though?
Yeah, because of the berry vines. Here’s how bad it was okay. You couldn’t even walk out as far as we’re sitting. It was just a blackberry hole. By the time my dad and I made it all the way back in the corner, we found a baby blue VW Bug. We fixed it up and sold it for $750. It was sweet. That paid for a CAT to scrape the land.
I’ll tell you that I’ve done all sorts of things I never would have done. I’m really good with a chainsaw now. I’m great with a wheelbarrow. It keeps you out of trouble and in pretty good shape.
Z: So when you bought this house you knew you wanted to put a garden in the backyard?
No idea. No one in my family gardens.
Z: But you said you wanted to kill all those bushes first though?
Well, I had an all consuming job. I worked 24/7. And I had a small child. No, I really never thought about this. And then over the years, I started becoming consumed by it, and then my passion became my life. It became a job for me.
But it’s not very often where you go to the news director and say, ‘I know you really want me to do hard news, but I think I want to do gardening on TV.’
I still remember it. The boss was picking something from underneath his fingernail with a paperclip. And I thought, ‘Well, he’s gardening.’ He goes, ‘Well, you’re really good at storytelling and we’ve been looking for some franchises. Maybe we can do it. What do you know about gardening?’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God. That’s like, the question ‘Do you know how to write?’ No matter how good a writer you are, you would never say that you’re a really good writer because you can always learn more.
I said, ‘Well, I’m an award winning crime reporter and I never murdered anyone. It’s all in how you tell the story.’ He’s goes, ‘That’s a very good point!’ And he let me do it.
From then I had my own show on the NBC station here. For a couple of years it was called Your Northwest Garden with Anne Jaeger. The great thing about that was they usually put gardening shows on Saturday or Sunday mornings. But that’s when we’re gardening. My show was on Saturday nights at 7pm. In prime time, so you could work all day and come in and have a ‘refreshment’ and get ideas for Sunday morning.
That show is gone now, but I’m on one called Smart Gardening. It’s on PBS across the country.
Z: Very cool. Do you host it out of your garden?
Your Northwest Garden was almost all done here, except when we would visit other people’s gardens. The great thing about the other job is that they have the budget to send me all across the country. I’m just a correspondent on that show, so I’ve been to some great places. It’s like doing what you’re doing. Are you in college?
B: We all graduated from the University of Arizona.
Oh my gosh. What a fun school. My daughter is thinking that she wants to go to UW, or Santa Barbara. I’m thinking that those are two very different schools. Party school.
B: Santa Barbara is a lot of fun. Beautiful down there.
Isn’t it amazing. I was just down there last year. I just got back from Italy and France. I went and saw a lot of gardens. And I couldn’t wait to get back to my own.
B: So gardening has kind of taken you everywhere.
Yeah. It really has. It’s opened up a lot of different doors for me.
Z: So how good a gardener are you now?
I say the only thing that makes me an expert is that I’ve killed more plants than you have. I don’t think you can ever be really good at gardening or writing or any of those things. There’s people at Oregon State who spend their whole life studying acer*. That’s just one genre of the plant world. Maples? Not me, I don’t want to know that much.
B: So you mentioned that you were never really into gardening and you mentioned in the story you submitted that it was more out of a ‘what should I do with my life’ type of thing, but a ‘what did I do with my life’ type of thing. If you want to explain your motivations to get into gardening and your whole background of what led you to ponder that question.
About which part of that?
B: How you got into gardening. You mentioned that it wasn’t ‘What should I do with my life,’ but ‘What did I do with my life.’ When you came down with your illness and everything. I just wanted you to elaborate on that.
I had a life threatening blood disease that was pretty rare. That was when I was trying to make the transition into gardening. I thought that I may lose everything now. Not only may I lose my life, because the doctor said, ‘If this doesn’t work, what we’re going to do with you…’ at this point I had already had surgery and chemotherapy and radiation made me lose my hair, he said, ‘If it doesn’t work you’ll be gone in a year and a half.’
My daughter is 10 years old. At that point I’m thinking, ‘Wow. I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to do this. If I don’t try now, I will look back and I will say, ‘You had this chance and you were just too afraid!’ Fear keeps us in some pretty tight boxes.
B: What was the name of the disease?
It was a form of lymphoma. It’s called Burketts. The funny part about that, which there’s nothing really funny about illness, is that only kids and people from Africa get Burketts. I’m in neither of those categories that I know of (laughs).
B: So you took this risk to be in gardening despite being on medications? Or was it after?
At that time, the television station I had been a hard news and anchor at said they would let me do it.
Z: That was while you were sick?
Yeah. Didn’t have any hair and I wore a wig.
Z: It was right during that that you decided to go in and ask for the show?
There were two phases. There was the phase of wanting to have these segments that were on the news. I was telling you that story of how they’d never go for it and then they did. Then, the next thing was they stayed with me the whole time I was sick.
Then, someone new took over that station. It was the CBS affiliate here. He was like, ‘Who are you?’ I thought, ‘Uh oh.’ I was still recovering. They said, ‘We really like your work, but we don’t want to pay you anymore.’ I’m thinking, ‘Well that’s not going to work for me.’ So I marched down the street to the NBC affiliate where I’d worked before and said, ‘Hey, I have this idea. Let’s do this gardening show.’ Serendipity. They wanted to do it too.
B: Wow. So they just went for it?
They just went for it. Of course I did bring a sponsor with me, so that was good. That always talks. You got to have a financial backing to your plan as I’m sure you’re aware of.
But here I was thinking I was going to lose it all. It was definitely a possibility. But financially, that was my best year ever.
Z: If you hadn’t gotten sick, would you have had the courage to go out and do this? Would you have felt the necessity to make that change?
Gosh. How do you know? How do you know? I would say it would depend on how many roadblocks I found and how many I thought I could take. Now after you’ve been sick, roadblock? What’s that? There’s only the final ending. A roadblock is something you work around now. It’s not an ending point.
I would like to say that I would have been stubborn enough, but I don’t know. If I couldn’t pay for my daughter and me, and the financial necessity, I probably would have gone and worked at McDonald’s and done what I wanted anyway (laughs). Do you want fries with that?
B: So what’s your favorite flower?
It depends on what day it is. You can see I’m nutty about lilies. Those are those great big tall things. Aren’t they awesome? And at night when you’re sitting here, the smell just wafts.
Remember the old cartoons where the wolf would be around the sheep and he’d be wafting on the scent and be seeing lamb chops? That’s what it’s like. I just feel like I waft on the air on the scent of those at night. So right now I’m really excited about lilies.
Z: So are you bummed out now? Because this was such a big project and now you can’t say it’s done, but it can’t be where it used to be.
Oh no. It’s never done. Oh my gosh. That’s what’s great about it. There’s always stuff to dig up. There’s always stuff to move. If I don’t know where I’m going to put something, I just put something in and say, ‘Plants like shovel rides.’
The other thing that’s great is the newspaper in town, The Oregonian, I’m a freelancer for them now. I’m on their home and garden website. They have an award winning publication that’s really great called The Oregonian Homes and Gardens of the Northwest. So if you go online, you can see a lot of my articles. It’s kind of like an online gardening school. I can send you a couple of those if you want too.
B: A question we like to ask is, since we’re 21, 22 years old and trying to find our career direction, if you could go back at that age and tell yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?
Have more fun (laughs). I was always so driven. I graduated from high school when I was 16 and it wasn’t because I was smart (laughs). I went to U of O right away when I was 17. I started working at the television station because that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a reporter. I started moving up that career ladder, and I don’t think I ever just stopped and had enough fun.
If you can find a job that doesn’t seem like a job, that’s why the media is great. It’s hard work, but you’re always learning something. For me, I have to have a job where I’m fighting the clock. If I have a job where I’m going, ‘Oh my God. It’s five minutes since I looked at the clock the last time.’ Then I’m dead. I’m back in the storeroom organizing something.
I have to be fighting the clock. In the media you do that, and what I do now there’s never enough time. So what would I do? I’d have more fun. I’d try to have something that incorporated fun and work.
I’m 49 today.
B: Happy Birthday.
Thank you very much. Hallelujah. It’s good to be here.
A lot of people when they get to be my age, they aren’t excited about anything anymore. They’re not enthusiastic. That’s why when you meet people like Sandi for instance, or Jeff, there’s a different vitality about those people. You may not be interested in what they’re interested in, but they’re interested in life.
So what do you think you might like to do?
B: I’m trying to develop this into something bigger than it is. I think young people need the advice we’re getting from people like you.
Middle aged people need it (laughs).
B: It’s a big question. We’re out there addressing it. That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to ride this out and see where it goes.
Make a business proposal. Well, you’ve already got one in the model that’s working.
There was something about that. My memory isn’t working as well ever since I got well. Sometimes I have to back up here.
The one thing that I think is really funny, is that you think of media people as thinking out of the box and trying to make stories interesting and stuff. A lot of the people that I’ve worked with over the years, they call me and they say, ‘How did you do this? How did you make the change? I’m not brave enough to do it. I want to get out of this, but, what would I do?’
I’m like, ‘What is it about what you’re doing that makes you feel like a one trick pony?’
You can do this, you can do that. If you really like fixing up houses, fix ‘em up, turn ‘em around, and sell them. We limit ourselves so much. I’m not really sure why. Someone will say to you, ‘What makes you think that you can do that?’
And you’re like, ‘I don’t know. I just don’t know that I can’t yet.’
Z: What do you think the key to that is? Hard work? Passion? An innate knowledge of the subject? Or do you just have to work at it?
Be the last one standing (laughs). It’s like musical chairs.
B: Do you have to have a passion to do that?
Yes. I think you do. If you’re aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, it’s too easy to give up.
B: Definitely. Do you have a definition?
B: Of passion.
Not really. Not really, because for me, that word is a like a living, breathing thing. It is the ‘it’ that keeps us all interested in life and wanting to learn more.
B: That sounds like a pretty good definition to me (laughs).
Is it? Okay. It’s funny that you would use that word a lot. Let me go get something.
This is a fundraiser calendar we did for some kids over in Northeast Portland. It’s like, the hood over there. There was a garden there called ‘Our Garden.’ Their parents would be drug dealers and prostitutes and they’d be applying their trades there at night near the garden, and the kids would be there during the day.
The kids were learning a lot of lessons about life through gardening like, you have to water things. You have to take care of something if you care about it. It will grow, just like you do. Look at all the different colors of people we have around here. Look at all the different colors of tomatoes that we have. There’s not just a red toma