Growing More Than One Garden

Date February 29, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


The sun is setting when Heather Rowley, owner of Eco-Clean Albuquerque, finishes working in the house in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. It's been a backbreaking day that began a tad after eight a.m. She has moved couches to vacuum underneath, climbed ladders to catch ugly streaks on windows, and scrubbed counters with white vinegar to bring out a gleaming shine. When Rowley walks out the door, she notices the dirty welcome mat on the front porch and cleans it, too.

If something attracts this energetic, hard-working woman's attention, it's bound to be improved by it. Ever since she was a little girl, Rowley has felt a tremendous connection with the earth's natural rhythms, with seeding gardens and watching the plants flourish. "I have a knack for it,"€ she says. "My hands just know how to do it."€

It's the variety and scale of commitment to growth that impresses an onlooker. While most people are content with small backyard plots, Rowley's green thumb extends to nurturing businesses, improving the economic health of communities and cultivating her own intellectual development.

Heather Rowley's story begins in rural Long Island a little more than three decades ago. Raised in a small town, she always felt a special affinity with the natural world around her. She didn't find much support for this tendency at home. Summers were an entirely different matter. That's when Rowley and her siblings would travel to upstate New York to visit their mother's parents. "It was like camp, a getaway,"€ Rowley says, her almond eyes alight with memories. "My grandparents' shelves were filled with cans of food they'd grown or gathered."€ She spent those paradisiacal days walking the woods with her grandfather picking berries and collecting sarsparilla, Indian pipe, wintergreen and other herbs. She helped garden, harvest honey, and learned how to put food by.

Each summer's experience instilled a high regard for living simply, being independent, and understanding where food comes from and how to use it to heal and nourish ourselves. These informal lessons formed the foundation, the cherished center of reference, from which Rowley has developed a strong sense of personal responsibility in life and with respect to the planet. "You need to be aware of your effects on everything that falls within your sphere of influence,"€ Rowley says, her slender fingers bent around a large mug of coffee.

Being from that small town, Rowley saw first-hand what happens when development trumps agriculture and property taxes skyrocket. She is passionate about sustainable farming and about people's connection to the food they eat. "We've become disconnected, unplugged from the natural growth cycle. It's unhealthy."€ Rowley shakes her head and gives several examples including this one: "So many people in Albuquerque have fruit trees but they don't know how to take care of them, how to prune them to get food."€

That's one of the reasons Rowley started her consulting business. She wants to help clients-from the person who has a two-gallon pot on his apartment balcony to the commercial organic farmer-to become more comfortable, and efficient, with planting, growing and harvesting food.

Rowley's life has been a continuous hands-on study in agriculture, from the first small gardens she designed in preschool to working at roadside vegetable stands near her home, from sunrise harvests for farmers' markets in New York City to managing production at a large-scale organic herb business while still in her teens.

Her formal education has taken a less linear path. From earliest memory, Rowley adored school. It was this love that shoved her into independence when most of her peers worried about getting caught smoking cigarettes behind the football bleachers.

In seventh grade, Rowley was selected to take the PSAT as part of a John's Hopkins'-sponsored talent search. The prize for excellence was the opportunity to attend a weeklong course at an upstate college. Rowley scored quite well. Her dreams blossomed...then crashed.

"You're not going,"€ said her father, whose fundamentalist beliefs anticipated Armageddon any minute. "You'll never go to college. So we won't send you to this."€ In short, he expected his daughter to get married, have babies and support her church.

Rowley had different plans. She got a job, took correspondence courses to finish high school in record time and graduated just before she turned sixteen. Then she bought a car and moved away from home. But trying to support herself full-time and take night courses at the local community college became too much. Without her parents' willingness to fill out financial aid forms, Rowley was left with no choice but to postpone her academic education.

In 1992, when she was just eighteen years old, Rowley relocated to New Mexico. "I had a dog, a pillow and one suitcase,"€ she says.

In those first years, as is the case in small towns like Taos, Rowley worked a variety of jobs including contract weaving, waitressing and her old standbys: landscaping and gardening.

When her first child was three, Rowley wrote a business plan and secured a private loan. With that money, she bought two greenhouse kits and put them together herself-and built an organic herb nursery. Working as a freelance landscaper, a gardener and herb grower provided decent money during the summer, but the long winters proved difficult. Rowley needed a consistent income during those dormant months. By the time her second child was two, Rowley had started Sparkle Cleaning Service.

However, the novice employer soon faced a common problem-high turnover. Rowley talked to other people in her community. She listened. "Potential employees were saying, "€˜there are no good jobs.' Potential employers were saying, "€˜Nobody wants to work.' No one was happy. So I decided to try to find out about the nature of this gap between the work force and employers,"€ she says matter-of-factly.

At that time, Rowley was taking a couple of classes at the University of New Mexico's Taos campus. She decided to focus her studies on this problem. She wrote a grant proposal for field observation and to create and conduct a survey to explore what challenges employers and employees faced throughout New Mexico's Enchanted Circle-and to look for solutions. Project Alianza grew out of these efforts. In the process, Rowley learned that she loves research. Today, the project continues in the form of a regional task force.

In 2007, she came to Albuquerque to continue her education at UNM's main campus. The single mother of two needed a job and tried to find an administrative position, to work for someone else for a change. She quickly realized that most of those positions didn't pay well and/or they wanted full-time employees.

The solution? Rowley noticed that no one had started an environmentally friendly cleaning service. So, she did it herself. "Eco-Clean Albuquerque is a natural outgrowth of all my other work and interests,"€ she says. "There's a tremendous need for it, for cleaning that leaves a small energy footprint."€

Rowley's studies are thriving too; she is a Ronald E. McNair Research Scholar, is on the Dean's list, and will complete her studies with honors this year. She's also the first person in her family to earn a college diploma and has already applied to graduate school. As if that's not enough, Rowley's consulting business is in full bloom and she is the current president of the New Mexico Herbs Growers' Association.

Though her journey is far from over, Rowley reminds us that a single person can plant many vital seeds in a life. She believes it's our job to do just that. "If you have a skill, you have the responsibility to use it within your community,"€ she says. "This world is a gift."€

If you are interested in any of the service businesses of Heather Rowley you can contact Rowley Enterprises, Inc. or Rowley Consulting or Eco-Clean Albuquerque at 505.293.0173 or 505.770.1218.

Pari Noskin Taichert is a two-time Agatha Award finalist. Her third novel, THE SOCORRO BLAST, is now available.