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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Phyllis Stephens has answered Spokane’s gardening questions for decades

Bubbly. An infectious laugh. Boundless energy. Garden guru extraordinaire.

When you put all those qualities together to describe one person, Spokane gardeners know we are talking about Phyllis Stephens.

Many associate her name with the cheerful voice heard on the radio on Saturday mornings during the gardening season. Perhaps they’ve been to one of her garden club talks or seen her at the Spokane County Interstate Fair, dispensing gardening wisdom.

No matter what the connection to Stephens is, she’s had a very long association – 36 years and counting – with gardeners throughout the Spokane area. Her career in horticulture has been a series of being in the right place at the right time and being willing to take on a challenge.

A native of Spokane, Stephens developed her love of gardening at an early age.

“Mom always had a vegetable garden and grew flowers on the farm,” she recalled. “She had a small greenhouse where she raised plants for the Associated Garden Clubs of Spokane. When she passed away in 2003, my husband and son built me a greenhouse so I could carry on the tradition.”

She and Jim Stephens met in high school and both attended Seattle University, where she majored in music (voice and cello). Little did she know her love for singing and drama would prepare her for a career in broadcasting many years later.

They married in 1966 and have four sons and 15 grandchildren. Aside from being stationed in Stockton, California, for two years while Jim Stephens was in the military, they have lived in the Spokane area.

“I didn’t work outside the home but was so impressed with everything growing in the Stockton area, I wanted to learn more,” Phyllis Stephens said.

After moving back to Spokane, she knew she wanted to become a Master Gardener and was accepted into the program in 1981.

“I couldn’t get enough of it,” she said. “I was reading all of these books and extension bulletins because I wanted to learn more nuts-and-bolts gardening.”

In 1983, she was hired as a horticultural aide to extension agent Tonie Fitzgerald. Her duties entailed answering gardening questions from the public, making sure publications were up to date, teaching classes to Master Gardener trainees and working closely with program coordinator Sydney McCrea.

“Phyllis was so enthusiastic and loved gardening, the Master Gardener program, and meeting the public,” Fitzgerald recalled. “She loved diagnosing plant problems and was really good with the microscope. I remember her infectious laugh, her enthusiasm and her limitless energy.”

On one momentous day in 1987, Stephens’ career took an interesting turn. Fitzgerald received a phone call from the KREM television station, wanting her to assist their new weather anchorman in growing a garden for segments that would air during the news.

“What I decided was that I didn’t have the personality for that kind of work and Phyllis totally did,” she said. “She was excited, enthusiastic and loved gardening. I talked to Phyllis and she said she’d do it.”

The segments were called “Peter’s Garden” and featured Peter Colford, who had just moved to Spokane from New York.

“He was living at a duplex where there was a weedy field out back,” Stephens said. “KREM wanted a niche to introduce Peter to gardening, which we’d share with viewers. I taught him about raised-bed gardening and Peter really became a garden expert in his own right. I talked him into taking the vegetables he grew to the Interstate Fair and he won all sorts of ribbons.”

“Peter’s Garden” aired for five years. In 1991, both Colford and Stephens were ready to move onto other things.

“That fall, as I was driving away from the fairgrounds, I was listening to the syndicated radio program, ‘Songsmith,’ she said. “After the host answered a question on the air, KXLY radio host Jim Bickel came on and said, ‘I wish we had a local radio garden program for Spokane.’

“I screeched on the brakes, turned the car around, drove to the station and met Jim Bickel. I told him I’d like to do it and he hired me.”

The timing was perfect: If she’d still been doing “Peter’s Garden,” she wouldn’t have been able to work for a competitor.

KXLY began the “Lawn and Garden Show” in 1991 and it’s still airing 26 years later. The call-in radio show was initially an hour long. The following year, the station increased it to two hours and in 1995, to three hours. The program is now back to two hours, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays from March to October.

In the early days of the program, however, it wasn’t easy for Stephens.

“I was so nervous! I would sit up at night and would be reading all of these garden books, trying to anticipate the questions callers would have,” she admitted. “Jim said, ‘If you don’t know it by now, you can’t cram for this!’ ”

Because the show was live, she initially found it unnerving. When she had worked at the county extension office, she could look up the answer to a client’s question in a book. Stephens quickly learned there wasn’t time to look up answers during the radio shows.

“After a while, though, you just calm down and realize the questions are no different from what you’ve answered before,” she said. “And if you don’t know the answer, you can always say, ‘I’ll look that up and get back to you.’ ”

Since 2005, Stephens’ co-host has been KXLY’s technical producer Rick Edwards. He’s enjoyed their collaboration.

“She’s always in a fantastic mood, always smiling, always upbeat, nothing ever gets her down,” he said. “She’s bubbly, her laugh is infectious, and you can just hear people smiling when they’re talking to her. When the show’s over, we know they’re heading outside and taking her advice.”

Stephens’ goal has been to make callers feel at ease.

“My listening audience is so neat,” she said. “They’re such wonderful people. They’ve always been kind, open, thoughtful, nothing ever mean. I tell them there is no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to nature, because as soon as you say one thing about nature, Mother Nature comes along and changes it.”

From 1992 to 2014, Stephens also was featured in the “Great Gardens” segments during KXLY’s newscasts. They were taped once a week, year-round, and either filmed in her home garden or on location at a garden tour or other event.

As one might imagine, this kept her very busy. However, there were other aspects of her career taking place at the same time.

For example, she had her own business as a horticultural consultant and landscape designer from 1989 to 2006. Stephens also wrote the garden columns for The Spokesman-Review from 1989 to 2002.

“Writing for the paper was fun but I’m not a writer,” she admitted. “Jim would edit them for me so they were definitely a collaboration. I couldn’t have done them without him.”

No matter what role she’s had in the horticultural field, Stephens certainly has a large following, especially through the Lawn and Garden Show.

“When I go on the air every Saturday, the first thing I do is dedicate it to God and I ask him to help me give out the right information,” she shared. “But if I can reach somebody and make them feel good and bring a smile to their face during those couple of hours, that’s my goal. That, and to express the love of gardening and the love of nature.”

Susan Mulvihill can be reached at Susan@susansin