Merrideth Jiles never intended to have a career working with plants. The Atlanta native graduated from Georgia State University in 1992 with a degree in commercial music recording and worked for a while as a studio engineer. But it wasn’t the right fit. “I realized I like music too much to listen to bad music over and over,” Jiles says. So in 1993, he headed toward Texas, thinking he would live here for a short stint and then join the Peace Corps. Instead, when he moved to Austin, he joined a band, got a job as a water boy at a plant nursery a few blocks away from his house—and never left.
At first, the nursery gig was just a job, but Jiles soon wanted to know more about the plants he was working with. Diving into a whole new area of study appealed to his curious nature. “I don’t read a lot of novels,” he says. “But if you give me an encyclopedia, I will sift through it.” A fellow co-worker advised him to just pick one type of plant at a time and learn everything he could. Jiles picked orchids and started to devour books about them. And as he learned more about plants, he began to admire them in a new way. “They’re pretty amazing when you look at some of the things they survive,” he says. “Oak trees that are paved over and survive, desert plants that only get a little water a year and survive.”
From this initial spark of interest, Jiles built a long, green-thumbed career—working for 13 years at the beloved South Austin garden center, The Great Outdoors. But after almost two decades in retail, he felt burned out. Wanting to do something completely different, he took a job installing phone lines with AT&T. To his surprise, when people heard that he had left The Great Outdoors, they started asking him to work on their garden projects. In response to this new demand, Jiles decided to start his own landscape company—doing everything from design to installation.
Currently, M. Jiles Garden Service is focused on small landscape projects such as patio courtyards and front yards. And while many landscapers have a signature look or style, Jiles chooses to work closely with his clients to develop a vision for their yard. He first looks at their house and neighborhood and tries to design something that complements the look and feel of the environment. He also feels it’s important to clearly inform people about what kind of attention their yards will need. “People want low maintenance,” he says. “But low maintenance isn’t no maintenance.”
Jiles himself needs a low-maintenance yard because he rarely has leisure time to spend on gardening these days. His wife, Angi, is a busy pastry chef and owner of Blue Note Bakery, and the couple has two children, ages 3 and 5. Though the kids like to go out and play in their yard, “They’re much more into Mommy’s job than Daddy’s job,” Jiles says with a laugh.
For people interested in starting a garden, Jiles encourages experimentation and patience. He thinks the accessibility of information on the internet has made people believe that gardening and landscaping are easy when in fact these things require trial and error. “A lot of people try one time and fail and then say, ‘I’m not good at plants.’ But there are very few things that people are good at the first time they do it,” Jiles says.
Austin’s climate and soil present particular challenges for home gardeners. Jiles points to the fact that for several recent years, Texas has been in a terrible drought and then had a year of record rainfall in 2015. He decided to stop watering his own yard in 2011 because of the drought. Afterward, he watched his garden—which is filled with a jumble of different kinds of plants—to see which ones could survive with minimal water and which could not. This let him share real-world knowledge with his clients. “The biggest thing I would tell people is that every plant isn’t going to live,” he says. “Your landscape is going to have to change and evolve, and eventually you’ll find the things that work well.”
Jiles’ Top Five Landscaping Tips
1. Know your yard. A place that’s shady morning and evening (when most folks are home) may get full sun in the middle of the day.
2. Look around the neighborhood to see what plants your neighbors are having success with.
3. Shortcuts in the beginning lead to problems in the future. Fully cleaning out weeds and prepping soil is hard and time-consuming, but it’s the right way to start.
4. Big-box stores may have good prices, but they don’t always have great plants and knowledgeable staff. Visit a local gardening center instead.
5. You can create a low-maintenance garden, but there is no such thing as a no-maintenance garden.
by Claire Canavan • Photography by Melanie Grizzel