Ciscoe Morris (b. 1948) is a household name for many in the Pacific Northwest. A gardening guru with an inimitable personality, his enthusiasm for all growing things and his high energy have elevated him to a uniquely recognizable media personality. Ciscoe honed his skills during 24 years in the grounds department of Seattle University. He has shared his wisdom and storytelling on radio shows and television programs, in two books, and in numerous personal appearances.
Roots in Wisconsin
Although named James at birth, Morris's childhood nickname – Ciscoe, in honor of the Cisco Kid, his favorite television character – stuck. His parents, Bob and Sally, were dancers: hoofers in vaudeville shows who also ran a dance studio. Ciscoe shared his childhood home with six siblings.
Ciscoe's gardening experience began early in life when he tended a wide array of houseplants at his home in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He then talked his way into his first paying job at age 10 mowing the lawn at a local Catholic church. At this tender age, he was first introduced to the concept of pesticide-free gardening from a caretaker he calls "Old Joe."
The Vietnam War stepped in and set the stage for the next phase of his life. Drafted into the military, Morris was fortunate to be able to pass an exam in coding, which allowed him to spend his two-year tour of duty in the naval reserves, stationed in Okinawa, Korea, and Thailand, but avoiding combat in Vietnam. "I was basically a spy," he said (Morris interview with author).
Transplant to Seattle
After his discharge from the military, Ciscoe hitchhiked across country from Wisconsin, finding work along the way. He fetched up in Seattle in 1971, reuniting with friends from the service, and set about finding work. His first job was on the garden crew with Seattle City Light at Newhalem, the company town at the western end of the North Cascades Highway. He has fond memories of his experience working with head gardener Carl Faulkner, putting in ornamental gardens at the facility, and – by his own choice – living in a tent in the mountains and watching bears stroll by his campsite.
It was Faulkner who pushed Ciscoe to add formal education to his experience as a gardener. Returning to Seattle, he enrolled in classes at the Georgetown campus of the new South Seattle Community College, earning an AA degree in Horticulture. At the community college he was offered the opportunity to participate in a mentorship program in which instructors referred students to job assignments and guided them over the rough spots.
The moniker "Gardening with Ciscoe" began with Morris's entrée into self-employment. Armed with a used 1954 Chevy truck with bullet holes in it, he offered services ranging from pruning to design to installation. For the next several years he alternated between running his own company and working for big landscaping companies, including Lucas Landscape and Evergreen Landscape, each gig bringing fresh experiences and new learning opportunities. Always one to fess up to his mistakes, Ciscoe describes accidentally spilling gasoline from a weed-eater all over the pristine lawn of a Bellevue business park on his first day on the job with Evergreen. Luckily, he was given a second chance.
A Rocky Start
In 1978 Ciscoe began work as a senior gardener with Seattle University (SU), a Jesuit school straddling the city's Capitol Hill and First Hill neighborhoods. Like many things in his life, hiring on at SU did not go smoothly. He had to endure a gap of several months between the time of his initial promising interview with human resources and the formal job offer from the priest who would be his boss. It seems the human-resources officer had come down with pneumonia, disrupting the whole process. Upon finally meeting with Father Bisciglia, Ciscoe – who had been swotting all night expecting a gardening quiz – was simply asked "Do you talk to plants?" (He does.) The job was his. Within a few years, he became director of the school's grounds department
The 50-acre campus had been landscaped years earlier by renowned gardener Fujitaro Kubota in partnership with grounds director Father Ray Nichols.
"And he [Nichols] loved the landscape. So, he put in one heck of a landscape, but he had gotten very sick 10 years before I got there. And he died five years before I got there and nobody, nobody ran the department really. So, the campus was a mess, weeds everywhere, you know, and Father B would come in -- this truck would show up with all these annual flowers on it. And it would be from a nursery down by Boeing Field where they knew Father B really well. So, they'd give him all the annuals they couldn't sell. They were over-the-hill annual flowers. So, we just kind of dug a hole into weeds to plant the annuals, you know; it was terrible" (Morris interview).
Rising to the challenge, Ciscoe recruited work-study students to help him get things into shape. "Eight students signed up to work with me," he recalled. "And we started getting some work done ... That was a pretty good workforce and they worked hard. But because Kubota had brought in all these specimen trees, there was a really neat kind of Asian feel to the campus. So anyway, there were weed trees growing in the middle of spectacular Japanese Maples, all this" (Morris interview). Ciscoe took it upon himself to remove certain undesirable trees, especially those that posed the danger of falling limbs. At first, the work had to be undertaken in a clandestine manner to avoid confrontation with the higher-ups.
Ciscoe is most proud of his work at Seattle University establishing an organic, pesticide-free garden-management plan at the campus. The work began in the early 1980s. Ciscoe was an early proponent of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a formal, structured approach to controlling garden pests that minimizes the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides and contributes to wildlife diversity. In 1982, he and his team released 22,000 beneficial insects – lacewing eggs – into the grounds in a successful effort to control the harmful aphid population. Another time found Ciscoe in full protective gear moving several hives of bald-faced hornets away from the student-traveled pathways. What began as an uphill battle to convince campus officials of the efficacy of such a program has become a point of pride for SU. Today IPM is an established policy of the school's landscape-management plan. In 2007 the campus was named a wildlife refuge by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the first educational institution to be so recognized.
In Full Bloom
While at Seattle U., Ciscoe found himself caught up in the spotlight. It began with short spots on local radio station KIRO, filling in for another garden expert. That led to a weekly show of his own: Gardening with Ciscoe, in which he dispensed advice in response to questions from callers. The show lasted more than two decades. His media career went on to encompass a dozen or more radio and television programs, shows that made him a household name in the Pacific Northwest. His big break into television came about in a haphazard way: in 1992 he was asked to audition for KIRO's new Ernst Home and Garden show sponsored by Ernst Hardware and hosted by Jeff Probst.
"So, the day I was supposed to do it, all kinds of problems happened. I got there 45 minutes late for my big tryout on TV. I was all excited, but I had an arborist thing I had to finish. Something went wrong, so I ended up late. I was gonna have to memorize lines on the spot. Was late. I'm sweating. And I can't get these lines. So anyway, right when my turn came, they said we're out of time. You can't do it. And I didn't get to try out. I was so bummed even though I would've blown it a hundred percent. So, I come home and the phone rings. 'You Ciscoe?' I go, 'Yeah.' And they say, 'We want you to be on the first show.' I'm like, What the heck?
"So, I go to the place and nobody is looking at me, nobody's talking to me, nothing. I'm just standing there. So, I wait 15 minutes. I walk up to the producer whom I'd never really met and I go 'I'm supposed to be on the show.' He looks at me. 'Who are you?' I say, 'I'm Ciscoe.' He goes, 'You're not Ciscoe, that other guy's Ciscoe.' I said, 'Well, I'm Ciscoe.' He turns to the camera crew and he goes, 'We gotta do it with this yahoo now!' I did it. It was a big hit. And I was on that show almost every week for seven years. To this day, I have no idea who they thought Ciscoe was. They got me mixed up with someone else" (Morris interview).
From KIRO Ciscoe moved on to Seattle's KING-TV in 2001, teaming with journalist Meeghan Black for Gardening with Ciscoe, a series of short segments and full-length shows in which they visited Northwest gardens, including Ciscoe's own, and dispensed tips and tricks. The show ran for nearly a decade.
Ciscoe's folksy and infectious personality, complete with a hearty Wisconsin accent, went over big with audiences and soon he found himself in demand for personal appearances. From that day to this , scarcely a garden show, sale, or fair happens without his presence. The biggest splash is the (mostly) annual Northwest Home & Garden Show (now "Festival") at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. He wrote about the experience in his 2007 book: "I practically live at the show for the whole five days, giving presentations, working booths, signing books, and performing live radio. Best of all, if Meeghan and I can stop hamming it up with the crowds, we shoot our TV shows in the midst of all the excitement" (Ask Ciscoe, xi).
In the mid-1980s Ciscoe took advantage of the opportunity as an employee to take free courses at SU, ultimately earning a Master's of Public Administration in 1986. A demanding class in writing gave him the confidence to branch into authoring articles and books. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer came calling, asking him to prepare helpful hints for a gardening column, he produced full articles for publication. His column, titled – what else? – "Gardening with Ciscoe," ran in the P-I for nine years (2001-2009) and another nine in The Seattle Times (2009-2018) after the P-I folded. In 2007 Ciscoe published his first book, Ask Ciscoe, a compendium of gardening advice. In 2020, his second book, Oh Là Là!, appeared, a series of humorous short essays describing learning experiences of the author in the realm of gardening. The title is a French phrase Ciscoe loves which means, in essence, Oh, my goodness!
Ciscoe's wife, Mary Flewelling Morris, is the "brains of the outfit," in recent years managing the business, editing his writings, and designing the Ciscoe.com website. The couple met at Seattle U. and married in 1982. They have shared their home with several canine companions. They also share their garden, dividing the space and plantings between them to avoid dissension (Morris interview).
By 2022, Ciscoe was far from retired. New pursuits had sprouted up. In 1995 he launched international garden tours, leading small groups to Ireland, France, Morocco, Japan, New Zealand, and other destinations. Mary Morris joins in when she is able. She and Ciscoe also enjoy traveling on their own, once hiking the length of the French Alps and often biking hundreds of miles.
Ciscoe is still seen on television, making occasional appearances on KING's New Day Northwest morning talk show, as well as on Evening, the station's local-interest program. He partners with Bellevue Botanical Garden to bring Plant of the Week mini-shows to the public via Facebook during the time of COVID (2020 to date). He can be heard on a weekly gardening advice program on KSQM 91.5 in Sequim. In his "spare" time, he is writing short stories based on his life experiences. With his dogs, he walks eight miles nearly every day up and down the hills of Northeast Seattle.
Nita-Jo Rountree, Ciscoe's colleague at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, spoke to his common touch. Members of the Northwest Horticultural Society came up with a plan to draw folks to their booth at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival. They obtained a life-size cut-out of Ciscoe and offered the public a chance to have a photo taken with "him." "And the people who wanted their picture taken with 'Ciscoe' were young, old men, women, every ethnic group. I mean he just crossed all lines and it was really interesting to me to see that" (Rountree interview).
Another colleague, Anne Erickson, met Ciscoe while producing Gardening with Ciscoe for KING. She describes the fun of working with Ciscoe, from visiting the lavender festival at Sequim to a segment for the show Evening on rose pruning which Ciscoe began with a rose in his teeth.
Ciscoe has earned credentials as a Master Gardener, a Certified Arborist, and a Certified Professional Horticulturist. He also has received honors and awards too numerous to count, among them Seattle University's Service Award in 1994, South Seattle Community College's Outstanding Alum of the Year in 2014, and the B. Y. Morrison Communications Award from the American Horticulture Society in 2020. He takes pride in the recognition Seattle University received from the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies during his tenure and since. A corner of campus has been dubbed the James "Ciscoe" Morris Biodiversity Garden.
In 2018, he found himself in the national limelight when television host John Oliver featured him in a segment on his popular show Last Week Tonight. The one-minute clip sequence was titled "You wish you loved anything the way Seattle gardening expert Ciscoe Morris loves EVERYTHING."
Seeding the Future
In one respect, Ciscoe's philosophy of gardening runs counter to that of many Northwest gardeners who see a commitment to native plants to the exclusion of all else as critical to habitat preservation. Ciscoe chooses to embrace biodiversity in plant selection. His own garden contains a highly varied collection of exotic plants from around the world. He holds to the belief that biodiversity in plants attracts and supports a variety of wildlife.
Ciscoe sees urban gardening losing ground, literally, to development projects and worries that many folks have lost interest in gardening, though his work with children gives him hope for the future:
"I'm encouraged because I meet a lot of kids that are excited about gardening. I meet some kids that are taking horticulture courses at high schools and now and then a 4-H club ... so I'm encouraged when I see that, 'cause I used to go around to grade schools and teach kids about bugs. And when I'd go, the kids would be like 'Ooh, bugs!,' you know, but, by the time I left, they were excited about bugs. So, I'm hoping there'll be somebody else who will start doing more of that" (Morris interview).