How Does Your Garden Grow?

With a little help from Amanda McNulty

Viewers of South Carolina Educational Television’s long running and widely popular “Making It Grow” gardening program would probably expect the show to be hosted by a gardener with a degree in ornamental horticulture from Clemson University. However, this gardener is not clad in overalls and boots. Rather, she appears each week on the program in pearls and, many times, dons a hat made of flowers towards the end of each show.

Amanda McNulty, the program’s host, pulls it off with humor, grace, and a whole lot of knowledge about matters related to plants and horticulture. Viewers, listeners, and readers from all over the state join Amanda weekly for “Making It Grow” and its complementary daily short public radio feature.

Originally hosted for years by Rowland Alston, a long-time Clemson Extension agent, the program has a wide following because of its folksy yet interactive format that provides research-based information on how to grow challenging plants, whether they are roses or tomatoes, in an environmentally friendly manner.

With her familiar chipper opening, “Hello gardeners, I’m Amanda McNulty with Clemson Extension and ‘Making It Grow,’” Amanda causes even those with a perennial brown thumb to listen intently when she makes topics such as rain gardens, honey bees, and herbicides approachable.

“Making It Grow” is produced at the SCETV studio in downtown Sumter. “When ETV Sumter opened in the late ’70s, they began a partnership with the local Clemson Extension office, producing segments and shows focusing on local agriculture,” says Sean Flynn, producer for “Making it Grow.” “In the early 1990s, Sumter Clemson Extension Agent Rowland Alston noticed phone calls coming to the office began to trend more toward horticultural than agricultural topics.”

Sean says Rowland approached the ETV Sumter station manager, and they devised a plan for a television program that would provide a “common sense approach to gardening,” which has been the program’s mantra since the beginning. The program launched in October 1993. It is now in its 25th year, having won six regional Emmy Awards over the decades.

Amanda first joined “Making It Grow” in 2002 when she began working as the horticulture agent in Sumter. “Rowland started having me on the panel regularly since I was so close. I liked it,” Amanda says. “Being on TV didn’t bother me. At some point, I became Rowland’s co-host, appearing with him weekly.”

When Rowland retired, Amanda became the sole host while continuing to keep her job as the county horticulture agent for Sumter County.

“Any time a program changes from a popular and long serving host it can be challenging,” says Kerry Feduk, ETV’s longtime vice president of content, who oversees all ETV programming. “Amanda was smart by not attempting to be that host but rather be herself. This popular series truly reflects her personality and approach to gardening.”

Amanda’s path to “Making It Grow” started in her own garden in St. Matthews. “When my kids were small, we stayed outside a lot,” she says. “I was planting and doing yard work, and when the spring blooming forsythia and spiraea with their long flexible branches were flowering, we would make impromptu crowns. When I started on the show, we always took ‘show and tell’ items, and I just started making hats to show what was currently blooming in the yard.” These hats have become a signature piece of “Making It Grow.”

Amanda’s gardening paved the way for a career by way of her husband’s paintings. Edward Wimberly is a widely known artist. “Every year Edward gave pictures to an event that I also attended,” Amanda says. “I wondered if the woman who had decorated wanted to buy some flowers from me.”

Turns out, the event’s host did not buy flowers, but she and Amanda ended up working together and have sustained a lifelong friendship.

“I met Amanda around 1994,” says Ruthie Lacey, a garden designer in Columbia. “I had a gardening business then, mostly planting pots and perennial beds. I laugh now when I look back on her asking me for a gardening job. I had no idea then she had graduated summa cum laude in ornamental horticulture from Clemson. Needless to say, she was a tremendous asset.”

When Amanda first went to work for Ruthie, they did mostly private gardening for clients. “We would go to people’s homes and hand prune their shrubbery,” Amanda says.

Shearing is the worst way to prune hedges and foundation plants like boxwoods. A better process is pruning by hand, making selected cuts. “It’s something we talk about on the show all the time,” Amanda adds. “Shearing results in a thicket of growth on the outside of plants and a dense, twiggy interior that encourages insect and disease problems. When you hand prune, using a combination of heading and thinning cuts, you encourage healthy plant growth.”

Ruthie recalls having several women working for her at the time, all mothers with young children. Ruthie called these workers her “post debutantes.”

“I’d been kind of isolated living over in St. Matthews raising children,” Amanda says. “All of a sudden I had this great group of women to work with in Columbia. It was just wonderful. I got to work with all these beautiful plants and materials.”

Ruthie says the relationship was quickly reciprocal. “We had a grand time, and we all learned so much from Amanda. One of the things I love about her is her intellect. She is brilliant.”

Not to mention fun and full of surprises. “For a while, she would bring her pet chicken to work in a picnic basket,” Ruthie says. “The chicken would eat all the bugs we dug up.”

Today, having fun is clearly part of Amanda’s job on “Making It Grow.” With a 44-program season every year, Amanda keeps a full schedule with the live television program airing from the Sumter studio and location shoots, as well as keeping up with the regular daily feature on South Carolina Public Radio.

But the program’s formula for success is simple: keep everything educational and entertaining, says Sean. “We provide lots of information, and we do it in formal and informal ways,” he adds. “Some people really like hearing people call in to the show, others enjoy the segments of field trips to different gardens and farms, some participate in the chat room during the show, and others enjoy the how-to gardening and cooking segments we do. We always try to have lots of different content in each show to make sure there is something for everyone.”

The homey set in Sumter is inviting, and Amanda makes sure her guests quickly feel at home. “We come at 5, and the crew and guests all eat together. Then we do makeup. You can only imagine our agronomy agents putting make up on. One even took selfies. We try to make it fun.”

Next, everyone does a rehearsal to make sure microphones are working and earpieces are in place so Amanda can hear instructions from the director’s booth. “If we have a kitchen segment, we practice that. I want people to be able to show their personalities.”

Beyond the weekly live program, Amanda also visits many locations around the state, recording remote segments that are later inserted into the live programs.

“As we travel around the state producing segments for ‘Making It Grow,’ we frequently encounter someone who knows Amanda,” says Craig Ness, ETV Sumter operations manager. “She takes time to talk with them when she’s on location and is genuine. We have had people of all ages tell us, ‘Oh, I like that show with the hat lady.’”

One of those hat-loving fans is Susan Crow in Myrtle Beach. “Amanda’s sense of humor is delightful, and you better listen closely, or you might miss a real gem. And her hats are famous.” Susan even made one of her own when Amanda visited Myrtle Beach for a program.

“Years ago, my husband and I were just flipping channels and found the show,” says Susan, who claims her friends and family know not to call on Tuesday nights from 7 to 8. “Even my 3-year-old grandson knows his YaYa is watching ‘Making it Grow.’”

Another of those longtime fans is Anita “Hens” Green, who says she inherited her love of gardening from her father. “Many years ago, he and I would watch together, or long distance by phone. He actually went to a show in Newberry with me at the tender age of 92. The entire crew became family.”

Over the years, both Susan and Anita have become active participants in the online chat room the program runs. “Many of us chatters have become great friends,” Anita says. “We meet up, lunch, gab, swap plants, shop, and browse the markets.”

Susan has found the same kinship among “Making It Grow” viewers. “We meet different places to eat, go to Farmers Markets and exchange plants,” she says. They make it a point to visit places featured on the show and to purchase products Amanda has featured.

Anita says Amanda greets everyone like an old friend that she has not seen in ages. “She certainly marches to the beat of a different drummer. One night, she told Clemson Extension agent Terasa Lott, who runs the chat room on the TV program, that the chat room should be a dating site, since we all have such fun.”