Rough, tough, spirited plant lady

She's a Tree Tender, garden consultant, and Flower Show volunteer, and she hits the lecture circuit regularly.

 Mia Mengucci wears a dog tag around her neck that reads: Don't tell me what I can't do.

If you have half a brain, you won't even try.

That's because Mengucci, a spirited horticulturist from Mount Airy known as Gooch, goes her own way, in high gear. Works for her - and a lot of other folks, too.

"Mia's real high energy, and that scares people, but when you're flagging, she's the one behind you. I wish I had 10 of her," says Sally McCabe, community education project coordinator at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which recently honored Mengucci as a "star volunteer."

She's a Tree Tender, garden consultant, and coach. She helps teachers integrate gardening into their curricula and Girl Scouts plant trees. A tireless Flower Show volunteer, she's also a customer favorite at Primex Garden Center in Glenside, where she has worked for six years.

"I'm just a peon," she demurs, albeit one who sprints around the lecture circuit.

Garden club needs help with house plants? Cool!

Seniors curious about containers? Listen up!

Gardening for beginners? The best!

"I get so excited about my plants. I'm such a nerd," Mengucci, 44, says with a big grin, clapping like an excited kid.

She may not be what comes to mind when you think horticulturist. After all, the rap on horticulturists - dare we say it here - is that they love plants but can't stand people.

Could that ever be said about Gooch?

"Hahahahaha!" is how Anne Myers, Mengucci's boss at Primex, reacts to that suggestion. "You definitely know when Mia's in a room," she says. "People really enjoy her."

What horticulturist do you know who uses dork as a verb, as in "Don't worry, I'm not going to dork on you," or who creates memorable advice like this, for people who ask how much to water their house plants: "When in doubt, dry it out"?

"You want honesty?" Mengucci asks. "I'm going to give it to you, and I'm not going to be wordy about it."

We aren't either: Mengucci knows plants.

She has completed the Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist program and worked in the industry for 30 years, starting in high school at Cierech's Greenhouse in Pohatcong, N.J., near her home in Alpha, on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border.

Mengucci's still famous there, having participated in uproarious "tomato wars" and other high jinks with her fellow employees. But there were other reasons, too.

"We liked her here so much," says owner Frank Cierech, describing Mengucci as "a lot rougher and tougher than most girls. She did just about everything - plants, carrying pots, helping customers, weeding, whatever job was here.

"A lot of the other girls couldn't carry the stuff she could," he says. "She was very strong and wasn't afraid of any job any man did."

After a short time in college, Mengucci worked as a gardener at an Ambler country club and estates in Fort Washington and Palm Beach, Fla. Later, she hooked up with a lawn-care company, where she got pesticide poisoning, and she worked jobs in the mental retardation/mental health fields.

Then came a happy run doing "interiorscapes," caring for plants in Philadelphia-area malls, as well as at the U.S. Mint, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Curtis Building.

"You became part of the family. They used to say, 'It's the plant lady. Must be Thursday,' " recalls Mengucci, who then spent four years at Laurel Hill Gardens in Chestnut Hill before moving on to Primex.

Her resumé thus far has taught her a few things. One, she needs to work outside. "I can't work in a cube," she says, "and I can't be a suck-up."

And she can't stomach rude drivers, especially when she's riding sweep - "they call me rear admiral" - with her bicycle club.

Native Philadelphians know better than to yell, "Hang up your phone!" to an oblivious motorist, but Mengucci grew up in a tiny, insulated town, less than two square miles, and knows no fear in the big bad city.

She has been known to catch up to the offending driver at a red light and spew, "Don't ever do that again!" She has even spit on the bad guys' cars.

If you're new to Gooch World, you might be passed out on the floor at this point. And friends and colleagues, Mengucci herself, acknowledge that her out-there style sometimes scares people, especially at first. But they know the humor and craziness are not all there is; you have to go deeper.

Joe Ziccardi, formerly of PHS, worked alongside Mengucci at the Flower Show's Gold Medal Plants exhibit for several years. Here's what he thinks of her: "As my father used to say, if I had to pick one person to be in a foxhole next to me . . . I would pick Mia. She's a great person and would do anything for you."

Like everyone else, Mengucci has been shaped by her life experiences.

The good: learning to love nature from her dear Pop Pop. Opening the greenhouse door and "seeing miles of poinsettias and thinking to myself, 'I helped grow that.' What a rush of pride."

Teaching is another rush. "Everybody can garden!" Mengucci says.

The bad: never having a best friend as a kid. Being bullied in high school over her evolving sexual identity, while teachers ignored the abuse. (Mengucci went to her 10th high school reunion as a fully out gay woman, with partner Holly Hill, now 51.)

These days, Mengucci is in a good place both personally and professionally. She has a wonderful life with the person she loves, doing work she considers "awesome" every single day.

Consider this recent scenario: It's a breezy afternoon at the High Point Cafe in West Mount Airy, where Mengucci runs into neighbor Gary Seagraves. "Where the hell you been?" she booms. "Find someone else to buy your plants from?"

Before you know it, she's talking ground covers for his garden, and he's gushing, "You're, like, famous in these parts."

Just don't tell her what she can't do.

 


See a video of Mia Mengucci at

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Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.