Season in the Sun

Sally Cunningham:
A Gardener with Heart

by Kathryn Radeff


Days of endless sunshine…. pottering about the planters…creating plant shapes and stunning scenes…pairing colors that are perfect together…masses of beautiful flowers and fresh vegetables. What better way to spend the summer months than in a glorious garden?

Whether you have acres of lush landscape or a sunny city terrace, it’s time to live a little in the great outdoors and create a romantic retreat in your backyard or turn your city patio into an urban paradise.
Today, gardening remains one of the most popular hobbies in America, and more health-conscious people are looking for new and better ways to have a garden without using chemicals or pesticides.

Western New York’s Sally Cunningham, having made her way in the world with her organic gardening expertise, is an enthusiastic master gardener and knowledgeable expert full of passion who easily transmits all of her energy to her audience both as a wonderful writer and speaker.

From her days as a country girl, Cunningham, a former Cornell Extension educator, loved nature. She grew up in Eden, on 20 acres of wooded land where she tended plants as long as she can remember. As a child, she learned about soil, worms, perennials, and raspberries from her grandfather. She carried with her the beautifully complex vision of many dimensions all through the years as she went about the world outside the garden gate.

Cunningham studied at Alfred University and the University of Madrid as a student of Spanish language and literature. She has a B.A. from the State University of New York at Buffalo in language, minors in theatre and philosophy, with a New York State teaching certificate. She completed an M.A. from U.B. in the Humanities Department, where she concentrated on comparative literature. “Throughout my time in college and living in the Buffalo area, I was an actress, always in a play,” she says. “And, the theatre skills are clearly part of what I use today.”

Shortly after, she moved to New York City where her eclectic career path unfolded. For fourteen years, she lived mostly in Manhattan. She also worked in real estate in the Brooklyn Heights area where she sold fancy co-ops as well as rented fifth floor walk-ups.

After meeting real estate executive Brendan Cunningham, they married, and then moved to Western New York. The couple concluded the time was right to invest in Wonderland Farm, and Cunningham started gardening again.

Soon, she discovered that “organic gardening” was the only way that rang true for her.

“I’ve taken a circuitous route,” recalls Cunningham, who firmly believes that whatever one does in life adds up to form the whole, and everyone learns in many ways from all of life’s demonstrations.

“I was a risk-taker making career choices,” she recalls. “It’s a good thing I was resilient. Also, I had to be resourceful since some of the risks I took, looking back, weren’t the smartest moves! But, I truly came back to my roots in Western New York and to a home in East Aurora very much like my first place.”

Living in a natural setting with birds plucking worms, and dogs romping through, Cunningham says she somehow knew there was something wrong in her home setting with spraying pesticides. “And,” she says, “I wanted a child to be able to eat that sun-warmed tomato right off that vine!”
Encouraged by what she learned from Rodale Books and the Northeast Organic Farming Association about building the soil, and bio-diversity – that if you “interplant the vegetables with herbs and flowers, you will create a healthy habitat for many creatures – including beneficial insects,” she felt there wasn’t enough written about the helpful insects, predators that help to manage potential pest insects, for home gardeners.

“The research for farming use wasn’t in user-friendly language,” says Cunningham. “Something in me said if it isn’t written, find what’s out there, become an expert, interpret it, package it – and write a book!”

Cunningham points out that when she started writing her book, she did the same thing she’d done anytime she was about to start a new career.

“I went to the library and researched it,” she says. “I found books on how to get published and followed the process, step by step. Soon, I heard from Rodale Books those great words: “We would like to publish your book.” The writing itself was a great process, she says, adding, “I was blessed with the all-time best editor – especially for a new author – named – would you believe – “Fern!” The book, she says, from acceptance to completion – took about two years.

“I wrote on Fridays – never answered the phone – and often from 6 to 7 a.m.,” she says. “At the time, I was also a mom, wife, gardener, and had a part-time job. But my book, is still true to my values and, after my daughter, Alice, one of my best life endeavors.”

Somewhere in there, she says, she had become an “expert,” and was asked to speak, appear on television, and travel to conferences with books in hand. “It’s not a get-rich-quick plan for sure, but I’m gratified that my “baby” has sold about 23,000 copies so far and is still alive, and getting around out there,” she says.

“Great Garden Companions” is designed to help readers make organic gardening easy and productive by using plants themselves instead of chemical care. In the book, Cunningham’s country existence is very evident as the backdrop for the vegetable-flower garden with pets and wildlife all around. Her garden, she points out, is “a magical place.”

Cunningham is a gardener who offers a system that encourages pest-free growth. She shows readers how to keep pests and diseases at bay with her unique companion-gardening system.

“By planting special combinations of vegetables, flowers, and herbs, she says, “you can minimize pest and disease problems,” and “create a high-yielding, beautiful garden!”

It is through hard work and dedication that Cunningham has consistently been recognized. Since writing her book, she has contributed many chapters to several Rodale and Yankee Books on a variety of different topics.

“At some point, I became a master gardener volunteer and worked my way into a part-time job developing the very small MG program and the home gardener education area,” Cunningham says. “Our own area expert, Ken Brown, had initiated the Master Gardener program here in the 70s, but funding cuts back then had caused it to become almost defunct, except for a few persistent volunteers.”

Over the years, Cunningham’s job expanded from a few hours a week to full time. “Cooperative Extension is a wonderful concept,” she says. “It’s a wonderful entity with the goal of communicating science and research from Cornell - or other land-grant colleges - to the people.”

But her job was cut during a downsizing because of county funding problems. Not only did she lose an income and benefits, but also the Consumer Horticulture Education Program, something that she had been building with such passion. She also lost the large - by then - thriving Master Gardener program. “It hurt to leave,” she says. “It was sad, but as everyone says when one door closes another opens. Now, she is one busy person, working nearly full time at Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg.

“The people, the owners, my boss, and my associates are the top of the line in every way,” she says. “I’m writing for them, consulting with customers, and teaching or organizing garden classes. I can talk about plants all day and I try to show people how most of the insects are very good things!” In fact, she ad her boss, Jeff Leyonmark, recently made a new DVD called Containers for Four Seasons. “You never know where that path might lead,” she says.

Master Gardener is indeed a respected title, and what really sets Cunningham apart is the way in which she’s embraced life. She’s hardworking and loyal, devoted and passionate about her family and her career. These traits define Cunningham and are the reasons for her success. “This work is a passion for me,” explains Cunningham, who leads an active lifestyle that includes keeping her “writing muscles” exercised by writing a monthly column in After 50, and a weekly column, which appears on Fridays in the Home & Garden section of The Buffalo News. She also writes for other publications and makes numerous guest appearances throughout the Western New York community.

Cunningham’s public speaking skills were developed early in life along with a knack for marketing. “I was honored to be selected for the Management Intern Program, a fast-track management training that promoted me quickly and landed me smack in the middle of the l974 energy crisis,” explains Cunningham, who spent several years in the Federal Energy Administration before it became the Department of Energy. She also spent time managing petroleum allocation and applying the new energy legislation to practical needs, plus gave talks about national energy policy, and energy conservation.

“The public speaking experience has been extremely valuable and will be used for the rest of my life,” she says, adding that whenever she has the opportunity to talk with groups, and senses an interest in how she came about to write a book, she offers energetic communication to people—especially “if some are struggling with imposed changes or life crises “such as job losses, divorce or deaths.

“My belief and experience is that we should never underestimate what we can do or become, if we dare to envision goals and reach toward them,” she adds. “It’s not about what’s in your background – the education and opportunities or the money; it’s what you make of each experience. I value two qualities – resourcefulness and resilience – more than the other factors that traditionally point toward success.”

Of her government work, she said at one point it was going to be required that she move to Washington, D.C. “But I wanted to remain in New York, so I remarketed and repackaged myself to find a new career in private industry,” she says. “I chose an Insurance Broker – the accounts executive path, spending some years in Marsh & McClennan, and Bayley, Martin & Fay where I developed an innovative association insurance program for seafood importers. I also spent a lot of time marketing it across the country. My last position in that business was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center.”

When the insurance industry took a plunge and she was let go, Cunningham attended the International Bartenders’ School where she learned to shave ice, shake a cocktail, mix a martini, and move fast while prioritizing multiple pressures. Waitressing and bartending are wonderful training for most career jobs since it’s exactly the same thing: prioritizing and keeping focus on the big goal while operating on multiple levels simultaneously. Every good waitress does it every day,” she says. “One time I remember setting a goal to walk down Lexington Avenue in New York City until I got a job. I started at 90th Street and went in every bar and asked if I could audition on the piano or if they needed a bartender. I was only a mediocre piano player but I had a lot of spirit!”

Currently, she’s working on a major revision of “Pest Management Around the Home” for Cornell University. “This book is used by extension offices to give pest management advice,” says Cunningham. As for the next years, Cunningham says she plans to “stay healthy and keep working, writing and speaking” in the field of horticulture.

“Animals – my pets, and sharing reverence for nature – are a recurring and continuing theme in my whole life, so I will always care for them, she says. “I also want time with Mom, who is still nearby half the year and a close, wonderful Mom, and my daughter, Alice.”

Cunningham also believes that education and straight career training in one’s field is a great idea. “Lucky the ones who find that path early, but barring that, you can become an authority or expert in many fields by self-study, she says. “In five years you are respected in the field, in ten years you are a national expert – and imagine if you studied two hours a day, or answer questions in a topic area all day…!”

Meanwhile, Cunningham will offer a gardening demonstration at 1 p.m. May 10 at the After 50 Showcase, Western New York’s largest Senior/Caregiver event that will offer people of all ages a most enjoyable afternoon. The event, held at the Fairgrounds Agri-Center, 5600 McKinley Parkway, Hamburg, through May 11 includes exhibits on health, fitness and nutrition, senior housing, travel, patio spas, gardening, automotive and much more along with a variety of food.

Also this summer, Cunningham will announce when she will debut on a new show taped in California last fall on “Companion Gardening!” Life, she says “is never, ever dull!”


Sally Cunningham
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Writers wanting to meet Cunningham and learn more about her road to publishing success as a first time author, can hear her speak during Just Buffalo Literary Center’s working writer workshop, “Power of the Pen,” led by Kathryn Radeff on May 13 from noon to 4 p.m. in the first floor CEPA Gallery of the Market Arcade. Cunningham will discuss her direct experience with the practical tools she used for getting published, how she envisioned a plan toward a goal, getting the flow going to write and passion, conviction and communicating what matters to receptive audiences.
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