April 22, 2024

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Benito Cotarelo, master gardener, taking care of one of his rose bushes.
Benito Cotarelo, master gardener, taking care of one of his rose bushes.JAIME JOAQUIN SALMONTE

When you love what you do, when you enjoy your work so much that there are few hours of the day, transmitting that passion becomes a pleasure. The taste for learning and for sharing what is known then join hands, and walk lightly along the path of the days. For an Asturian like Benito Cotarelo, gardening became his trade, and teaching it led him to be a master gardener with capital letters. His students, grateful, remember those teachings when they carry out their work in all corners of Spain.

Ask. One fine day he decided to leave his native Asturias.

Answer. Yes, these were difficult times for the young people who lived in rural areas. We had to live based on pure subsistence agricultural-livestock farms, to which was added a very limiting isolation for the inhabitants of those regions.

Q. What led you to grow plants?

R. Being born and spending my childhood in a town where any glance took you to an immense world of plants and trees with their flowers, fruits and autumn colors. I think that marked me for the rest of my life.

Q. If you had not dedicated yourself to gardening, what other profession would you have chosen?

R. I have always dreamed of developing professionally in the field of agriculture, livestock or forestry. In the end, I fulfilled my aspirations within that creative and beautiful field that is gardening, and especially teaching.

Q. Precisely, teaching has occupied a large part of his life. At what point did he become a teacher?

R. There was a time when I planned to go to Mexico to manage a citrus farm, whose owner was an Asturian from Pravia, of whom I keep fond memories. But through the media an offer appeared from the Ministry of Agriculture that was looking for teachers for the Agricultural Training Centers. That was really my vocation and they selected me. I have to confirm that the people who trained us, with Antonio Hernández as the driving force, apart from their knowledge, gave us such a dose of enthusiasm and motivation that they have been maintained throughout all my years in the profession.

Composition of geraniums, petunias and gaillardías in the garden of Benito Cotarelo.
Composition of geraniums, petunias and gaillardías in the garden of Benito Cotarelo.Benito Cotarelo

Q. Hundreds of students have passed through his classes who have received the same enthusiasm for the gardening profession.

R. Yes, first teaching agriculture, livestock and machinery at the centers in Cangas de Onís and Arriondas (Asturias), then in Monterroso (Lugo), and later gardening at the Central Agricultural Training School (Madrid).

Q. Are there any common traits that you have seen in your students who are more enthusiastic about plants?

R. They have generally been very passionate and sensitive people to all issues related to the gardening and environmental world, to the point of abandoning their professions, seduced by the attraction that gardening offered them.

Q. What plants cannot be missing in your ideal garden?

R. All plants have their charm. I could cite some such as the Jupiter tree (Lagerstroemia indica), the gaillardias (gaillardia cv.), the hibiscus (hibiscus spp.) or the alegrías (impatiens spp.), among others. I have long since become very practical. In my opinion, depending on the place, you always have to use the species that are best adapted, easy to maintain and that integrate with the surrounding landscape. I think that exaggerated trends should be avoided as much as possible, since in many cases totally unadapted species have been planted.

Syrian Hibiscus one of Benito Cotarelo's favorite plants.
Syrian Hibiscus one of Benito Cotarelo’s favorite plants.Edward Beard

Q. In his gardening journey, the tree occupies a very special place.

R. Of course, trees are the great benefactors of our planet, generators of life for very little. Whenever space allows, they must be present in the garden, since they structure the spaces, mark milestones, define scales… Likewise, many species contribute very interesting autumn blooms and colors and generate shady spaces. Of course, we must be very farsighted in its choice, planting and management, to prevent future problems. Therefore, knowing the extension of its roots and the crown in its adult state is essential. We have to be patient, many tree species are slow to establish and develop, but we must give them their time and space.

Q. Today, is there anything that continues to amaze you about plants?

R. They never cease to amaze me. The more I observe them, the more unknowns I find in their way of life and development. This summer I never tired of seeing how the dipladenias (Mandevilla sanderi) changed the orientation of their shoots as I changed the location of the stakes they climbed on.

Q. Are you still learning about your trade or have you already achieved a global vision of it?

R. In this profession, as in any other, you can never consider yourself to know much. With humility, every morning you have to reflect and ask yourself what new things I can learn today among the many that I ignore. As I get older, it worries me to think that I have less and less time left to learn new things and be able to transmit them to my environment. Being useful to others I think is the most rewarding thing that can happen to a person.

A Jupiter tree given to him by his students blooms in Benito Cotarelo's garden.
A Jupiter tree given to him by his students blooms in Benito Cotarelo’s garden.Benito Cotarelo

Q. What did your students teach you?

A. Many things: listening, learning from their experiences, what things need to be improved when the objectives are not met… I found that when the teacher radiates enthusiasm and passion for the subjects, the students pick it up immediately.

Q. Does he bid us farewell with a magical moment lived in a garden?

R. There have been and continue to be many, in the gardens all moments are magical. Perhaps the entrance to the Keukenhof, in the Netherlands, caused me an impact that is difficult to forget. No wonder it is considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

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