Plant Expert Overcame Personal Challenges in Career Making Gardens Grow

Urban Horticulture Advisor Vince Lazaneo provides most of his advice over the phone.
April 9, 2012 | 3:10pm

One of the reasons Vince Lazaneo loves his job is because “we always get new pests in our area.”

Lazaneo, 64, is the Urban Horticulture Advisor in the Farm & Home Advisor office which is jointly sponsored by the County of San Diego, University of California, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 “The fortunate thing is that I enjoy my work,” he said recently.

His job is to help urban gardeners grow healthy plants and to identify the pests that damage them.

Sitting in his Kearny Mesa office, Lazaneo looks handsome and a little mysterious wearing dark glasses over his blind eyes. He lost his sight to a congenital disease 10 years ago.

Lazaneo has a big garden of his own at his suburban home where he grows a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers. He said his neighbors often stop by to see what is in bloom.  Some of them go home with garden gifts too.

Why go to all the trouble of growing your own food?

“The big difference is in fruit,” he said. “Commercially, fruit has to be picked a bit too early.  By leaving fruit to ripen on the vine, they taste richer and keep more water inside.”

He added, “One big difference is that home gardeners know what kind of chemicals have or have not been used.”

Vegetables picked fresh from the garden may taste only a little better than their grocery store counterparts, but they will cook up quicker because of the higher water content. Some vegetables are not worth the trouble, however. Broccoli, for example, is cheap in the store and is a pain to grow, he said.

In September 1977 Lazaneo landed in the San Diego Farm & Home Advisor office where his responsibilities included all noncommercial horticulture and pest management in the county. He came to the job with a Masters degree in horticulture and a teaching credential in vocational agriculture from UC Davis.

“My job is my hobby,” he said. With gardening “every year is a new start. If your plant didn’t do well you can start the new year with more knowledge.”

Lazaneo was 17 when he severely injured himself while experimenting at home with explosive chemicals. He lost his right hand and his left hand has only a thumb and one finger. His right arm was fitted with a prosthesis and he uses the hook to garden. He said he can do almost every activity now that he could do before his accident.

Because of his incredible memory he can identify many pests just by description. In spite of his blindness and injuries, he tends his own garden and advises others of what and when to plant. He knows the region’s micro-climates and will suggest plants that thrive in distinct areas.

“We’ve got so many plants in Southern California that if one is too much trouble you can just grow a different plant,” he said with a smile.

He does most of his work by phone but occasionally he goes out to a garden if he thinks he can learn something that will help others.

One time a homeowner couldn’t figure out why the pine trees atop decorative mounds were dying in his front yard. Lazaneo went there and started digging to see what was under the soil and instead of finding tree roots, he found tree branches. It seemed the previous homeowner wanted mounds in his yard and instead of uprooting and replanting the trees, dirt was simply piled up around the tree trunks.  

Another time a homeowner was complaining that his lawn developed yellow spots. Lazaneo stopped over there after work one day. He tried to dig down into the soil and couldn’t go very deep because the dirt was so dry. Apparently the homeowner was not watering enough to keep the grass alive.

“This job is a great combo of helping people and informal teaching,” he said.

When he first took the job he was almost overwhelmed by the requests for information so he brought the Master Gardener volunteer program to this county.

There are 56 people in training now to be new Master Gardeners. Before they can join the current 200 Master Gardeners, they have to pass a test proving they can identify garden problems. In exchange for the education, Master Gardeners volunteer to staff phone lines, informational booths and to consult with schools. They respond to about 6,000 questions annually on the Master Gardener phone lines.

Lazaneo is going to retire in June. He intends to take some time just to figure out what he wants to do with his free time. He knows he wants to visit area nurseries and do some fishing and hiking.

After being selected as the 2004 Horticulturist of the Year by the San Diego Horticultural Society he wrote, “I continue adapting to new challenges, particularly the loss of my sight in 2002. I remain optimistic and still consider myself very fortunate. Blindness has not diminished my love of plants and I plan to continue gardening and sharing my knowledge with others.”