Tina Sottolano-Cain: Making a Lot Out of a Little in the Garden

Temple University Ambler alumnus Tina Sottolano-Cain is firmly of the belief that gardens comes in all sizes great and small — though her preference skews toward the latter.

"I tell my clients 'As long as you have a spot for a pot you can have a garden,'" said Sottolano-Cain, who took the scenic route to arriving at her Bucks County-based one-woman garden design business — Gardens on the Go. "While I was at Temple earning my Horticulture degree, I developed a strong passion for small garden design, especially container gardening. There are several keys to successfully gardening in pots — the first is to let yourself be creative. Container gardening allows you to experiment with different plants, colors and textures."

With Gardens on the Go, Sottolano-Cain — who served as a consultant in the garden center industry for more than 17 years — specializes in indoor and outdoor container gardens for home, office, or "anywhere that someone wants to grow plants." 

"Having huge garden beds can be difficult to maintain for seniors and kids alike. Pots allow for easy access whether they are traditional pots or raised beds — one is not better than the other," she said. "Containers are a compliment to a traditional garden; they work together esthetically."

Traditional gardens, Sottolano-Cain said, "provide structure to your outdoor room, which is your yard." 

"You dress up your space with furniture, dining table, chairs, etc. Next you need accessories to pull the space together — that is what container gardens do," she said. "They are accessories to enhance the traditional garden that can be changed out seasonally from spring/ summer to fall, and even the holidays through the winter."

Accessorizing. Pulling disparate concepts together to form a greater whole. Finding the right fit. These are themes that have followed Sottolano-Cain from her earliest professional aspirations.

"When I graduated from high school, I was going to go into fashion merchandising; I was going to be a window dresser. My grandfather always had a garden and my mom always loved flowers, but I didn't see how that type of passion could be turned into a career until I came to Temple," he said. "I was a journalism major for a time. Then I came to Temple Ambler and fell in love with the plants and the soils and the science and what could be done in the garden — it forced me to think well outside the box."

Sottolano-Cain took an extended period of time away from the classroom, helping with the family telecommunications business. She then spent several years learning every aspect of the garden center industry before returning to complete her senior seminar topic, which, in turn provided her with the business model to create Gardens on the Go.

"Looking back on these various aspects of my career make me realize that they all, in some respect, inform what I'm doing today. My telecommunications background gave me the skill to develop workshops and demonstrations," she said. "Writing allows me to provide insight on gardening with my blog — www.adirtygirlsgarden.com. Temple's program and my years in the industry allowed me to forge ahead on creating my own business — it's been a journey that continually builds on itself."

That journey includes going in front of the camera every week to host Gate House Media's In The Garden, the only weekly gardening show in the region. The show recently brought Sottolano-Cain back to her alma mater for a series of videos set in the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University.

"I've been part of In the Garden for two years now. My goal with the show is to visit some of the amazing gardens in the region — like the Ambler Arboretum — and give people ideas that they can in turn implement in their own gardens," she said. "It's been a great experience and something that I want to continue building on." 

Sottolano-Cain's advice for aspiring horticulturists is simple — "It will be the hardest job you ever love."

"You have to really know the science — you need to be a designer that knows how your plants work and grow; that's especially true in container gardening. You have to love it and be passionate about the environment in which we live, from the tops of the trees right down to the soil beneath our feet," she said. "There are so many opportunities for horticulturists today — there are horticulturists at NASA studying how to grow plants in space. The sky really isn't even the limit anymore!"