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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - September 2, 2011

Garden tips for September

How to start your own gardening-design group

by Jack McKinnon

About nine months ago I started a design group. The idea came to me when thinking about what to do next in the field of horticulture. I invited four smart people to lunch and we sat down and started talking about the interface between indoors and outdoors.

On the team are a building architect, a landscape architect and two design/build contractors. Together we brainstorm design ideas, alternative energy, conservation, recycling technology, plantings and materials as well as what others are doing in the field of innovative landscape and building design.

This month's tips will be about how to start your own group so you too can bring about change in the gardening world. Here are the tips:

1. Choose a topic to meet about. It needs to be challenging while not too obscure. I chose the indoors/outdoors interface because it has been addressed for a long time and is still not what it can be. Find your own challenging questions to be asked.

2. Gather people as smart or smarter than you to talk about your topic. This will stimulate you to do your homework, plan your meetings and be on your toes about your subject matter.

3. Invite them to someplace special. I invited my group to the Ritz for lunch (on me the first time then we split the bill). Once a quarter we meet, eat and talk. It has a nice atmosphere, good food and a certain prestige. They are all busy and have plenty of projects going but lunch out, in a nice place, with an interesting group and a challenging topic is hard to turn down.

4. Get permission first and then record your meetings. This is important for future reference and to help with your notes and follow up. I use my smart phone. It has a good microphone and I can title the recording and date it immediately.

5. Write an outline of what your meeting will be about and what questions you will have for the group. Ask two or three open-ended questions to get the conversation going. An open-ended question is different than a yes-or-no question. Often it starts with "What do you think about ... ?"

6. Continually read and study your subject so that you are current with what is going on in the world. Watch the conference talks. These are amazing, brief talks on technology, entertainment and design that give plenty of material for thought. Search the Internet, go to the library or take a class. All this and more give you leadership material for your next meeting.

7. Stay flexible with your thoughts and your role. People may come and go from your group. Don't lose heart. You may change directions. Flow with it.

8. Practice anti-mastery. If Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to gain mastery, and you don't have an extra 10,000 hours then why not practice anti-mastery. That is, try something new each time you meet. Take a risk with the topic, the method of conversing, who leads and who follows and what the outcome goal of the meeting is.

9. Cultivate beginner's luck. There is truth to the old saying "beginner's luck." I have asked over a hundred people if they believed in it and an overwhelming majority said yes. Why is this? Because when we do something for the first time we don't have any experience of failing and thus we relax and can do better. How do you cultivate beginner's luck? Think like a child, be fearless, try everything then go at it with excitement and panache. You will be more likely to succeed.

10. If you come up with ideas, designs, new techniques or technology, I recommend sharing them. There are probably others out in the world who are thinking along the same lines. Partner with them, share your strengths and try to help make the gardens, homes and people of this planet better for it.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at