Hers Was a Plot to Plant Color Where the Mail Must Go Through

It was a bleak moment for Shirley Skinner on that day last December when she stood in a long line at the South Pasadena Post Office, gazing out at the weedy, hopeless-looking mess in front.

But it was only a moment. And it only looked hopeless.

Right there, Christmas cards in hand, Skinner began plotting the yard's transformation from a "tacky, awful weed patch" into what she calls "a woman's kind of garden--you know, fussy."

"Son of a gun, I'm gonna do it," she said, and she marched into the office of Postmaster Frank White with a proposal he could not resist. According to the agreement they eventually worked out for a new garden, Skinner would contribute $1,000 of her own money and time, and the Postal Service would chip in $200.

The result of this odd arrangement burst into the public consciousness in mid-March, when Skinner planted in two days the garden she had plotted for three months. The once-drab southwest corner of Fremont Avenue and El Centro Street is a blaze of color that delights postal employees, an enthusiastic public and especially Skinner.

"I want it the way I want it, and I want it fussy," she said, explaining the elaborate swirls of 11 varieties of blossoming plants that grace the front of the building.

In all, Skinner and her helpers planted 757 annuals and perennials after first removing five stumps, weeding the entire yard and taking a load of trash to the dump. They added 32 cubic feet of mulch, 15 cubic feet of peat moss and 10 pounds of plant food, and then applied liquid fertilizer and snail repellent. Blooming now are pansies, marigolds, azaleas, Indian hawthorn and marguerites, and soon there will be more blossoms, including Iceland poppies and candy tuft.

At age 53, Skinner is a lithe, beautifully coiffed dropout from conventional female employment, including 12 years as a secretary and a few years selling real estate. "I hated it. It just wasn't me," Skinner said of the latter.

Four years ago, with encouragement from her husband, Don, Skinner and a partner started a gardening business called the Posie Pushers, based in Skinner's South Pasadena home. Prospective customers wanted to see samples of her work, and what better place could there be than a public building--such as the South Pasadena Post Office--she reasoned.

Postmaster White said the post office has no budget for fancy gardens, and all he could contribute for Skinner's work was $200 to purchase plants.

The result, White said, is "the prettiest place on this corner. I just left it to Shirley completely. She told me she did good work, and I believed her."

Skinner made use of some existing shrubs, and created a splash of color in front of the post office in keeping with the building's cream tone and classic California style. She said she will maintain the garden without charge, figuring that once the plants mature and weeds are removed it may require only one day a month.

"It's such fun to work there," Skinner said. "Hardly anyone walks by without commenting. They keep saying things like, 'It's about time' and, 'Thank God you're doing this.' "

Skinner has a little difficulty explaining her work, which is mostly plotting and planting flower gardens for people who don't know how to do it for themselves.

She is not a landscape gardener, "and I don't do lawns," she said. "I'm somewhere in between."

Skinner, mother of four adult children and one stepdaughter, calls herself a jack-of-all-trades who learned the rudiments of gardening when she grew up in a home on a large lot in Altadena.

"I had to do the yard work whether I liked it or not, and I did not," she said. "But I learned a lot, and later I liked it."

Although she has taken many gardening classes at the county Arboretum and at nearby colleges, she said most of her education comes from experience and experimentation.

Her foreman of sorts is her daughter-in-law, Patsy Cain, mother of two small children.

"I like to hire housewives," Skinner said. "Women are real fussy and particular, and I want it to be real sharp. Men don't like planting little tiny flowers."

She does swing a pick, however, and she hauls trash to the dump. It beats office work, to her way of thinking.

"I took a pay cut to do this," Skinner said. "I'm in the sun so much I suppose I'll get skin cancer someday. And I do get tired. But there's nothing else I'd rather do."

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