Tim Kohlhauff’s passion for horticulture began in 1976 — “the year the Easter Bunny was on a health-food kick and left flower bulbs in our baskets instead of candy.”
Ten years old at the time, Kohlhauff’s reaction was predictable.
“I said, ‘What the heck is this? Where’s the chocolate and jelly beans?’
“Then I planted the flowers in the wrong place, they didn’t bloom, and I wanted to know what I did wrong.”
His quest for answers inspired a devotion to dahlias, and each summer through high school he displayed his blossoms at the Spokane Interstate Fair.
After several detours in college and his career, Kohlhauff eventually rekindled his love for plants and now oversees Washington State University Extension’s Spokane County master gardener program.
Earlier this month, the local program won the International Master Gardener Conference’s first-place award for community service.
“That was a big deal for us,” Kohlhauff said, “because we were competing with programs from across the United States as well as Canada and South Korea.
“The judges were impressed that our plant clinic helps about 4,000 people a year.”
During a recent interview, Kohlhauff discussed how urban horticulture has evolved, which question his volunteers hear most often and how not to get rid of snakes and insects.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Kohlhauff: Here in Spokane. I attended Ferris High School.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
Kohlhauff: I liked all the sciences. I went on to Whitman College in Walla Walla intending to become a technical writer. But it turned out organic chemistry was a lot harder than I thought, so I switched to history instead.
S-R: Where did that lead?
Kohlhauff: A couple of different directions. First I worked in a law office, and later at an office equipment dealership. But I got cancer in my 20s, and while undergoing treatment in Seattle, I reconnected with trees and plants while walking around the Japanese garden there. I found it very comforting.
S-R: Then what?
Kohlhauff: Five years after that – in 2000 – someone recommended the master gardener training program, and I was accepted. When my job at the office equipment dealership was phased out, I enrolled in SCC’s horticulture program. After graduating in 2002, I worked on the Spokane Country Club’s landscape crew and volunteered with the master gardeners. In 2008, Extension offered me a part-time job and four years later hired me full time as urban horticulture coordinator.
S-R: Did you have any mentors?
Kohlhauff: Yes – Cindy Deffé at Spokane Community College. Ever since my first disappointment with those Easter bulbs, I’d been interested in plant problem diagnosis. Cindy showed me there was a career path in solving plant mysteries.
S-R: Do you still call her for advice?
Kohlhauff: I do. She’s a much better diagnostician than I am, so we work together a lot. And she teaches here every year.
S-R: Looking back on your career, what sticks out?
Kohlhauff: I remember seeing bald eagles and deer on the golf course at sunrise and thinking I had the most beautiful office in town.
S-R: How about bad memories?
Kohlhauff: When I was a pesticide applicator, I tried to find the least toxic solutions to problems. But some clients wanted me to nuke their landscape. I remember one gal who asked me to get rid of all the dragonflies in her yard.
S-R: Did any skills learned in other careers transfer to this job?
Kohlhauff: When I worked with office equipment, I learned to deal with people who were unhappy because their copier had broken down. That helped me develop customer-service skills. We don’t have a lot of conflict here, but every now and then someone gets upset because what we tell them may not be what they want to hear.
S-R: How has the philosophy of urban horticulture evolved during the past two decades?
Kohlhauff: I think people are more focused on working with nature instead of against it. People used to be quick to spray. Now they’re more interested in organic gardening. Our goal is to teach people how to get good results using less fertilizer, fewer pesticides and less water.
S-R: What’s your management philosophy?
Kohlhauff: Since I work with volunteers, my philosophy is a little different than when I was in a commercial environment. We serve the public best by having happy volunteers. That means my being accessible to them whenever they need me and staying out of their way when they don’t.
S-R: How many volunteers do you work with?
Kohlhauff: We’re just wrapping up a training class of about 50, and we have another 165 active master gardeners.
S-R: How many hours of volunteering do master gardeners commit to in exchange for training?
Kohlhauff: Forty hours of volunteer time and 10 hours of continuing education every year. Most are happy to put in more than that.
S-R: How long do they stick around after completing the training course?
Kohlhauff: One of our volunteers has been with us 33 years.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Kohlhauff: From late February to the end of May, when people are ramping up to get their garden started.
S-R: How do you unwind?
Kohlhauff: Walking along the Spokane River and appreciating nature without trying to diagnosis it.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Kohlhauff: I get to do something I love every day.
S-R: What do you like least?
Kohlhauff: We constantly accumulate data to do reports at the end of the year. Sometimes I wish we could focus more on helping people and less on keeping track of it all.
S-R: Are there misperceptions about WSU Extension?
Kohlhauff: A common one is that Google has made us obsolete. But Google provides information from around the world, while we specialize in knowledge about our specific area. So maybe we’re even more important today.
S-R: What typical mistakes do people make?
Kohlhauff: Planting trees too deeply in the soil or watering them like they would a lawn – frequent, shallow watering instead of an occasional, more thorough soaking.
S-R: What question do clients ask most often?
Kohlhauff: “What happened to my tomato?”
S-R: How about unusual inquiries?
Kohlhauff: One client who lived in a rural area wanted to rid her property of snakes and insects, and called seeking advice on ways to attract bears and cougars. We had to convince her that wasn’t a good idea – especially because it turned out she raised pigmy goats! By the end of the conversation she had decided to take up falconry.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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