In Calhoun County, a state highway patrolman new to his post mentioned to an older patrolman that he kept seeing a woman climbing in and out of roadside ditches in the St. Matthews area.
“I don’t know who she is or what to do about it,” the younger patrolman said to his fellow officer.
Amanda McNulty, the unconventional host of Making It Grow, a gardening program produced by South Carolina Educational Television and Clemson Cooperative Extension, laughed and recalled the rest of the story.
“The older patrolman said, ‘I don’t know who she is either, but you better just leave her alone.’ ”
“She,” of course, is none other than McNulty herself, who scours the South Carolina countryside – yes, climbing in and out of roadside ditches – to gather materials for the homemade hats she wears during her weekly television show.
Describing McNulty is not for the faint-hearted.
She is a small person with curly, flaxen hair. Her blue eyes twinkle through classic horn-rimmed glasses. Her hands are always busy, helping to explain how to dig a proper hole or nurture a particular plant. She moves purposefully through her downtown Sumter office, asking co-workers about their health, their children, whatever it may be.
When she laughs, she throws her head back. When she answers a question, she leans in with an intensity that typifies her vast knowledge of all things horticultural.
Genuine. Spontaneous. Delightfully unfiltered. Pick one. Or all.
“I am particularly open about who I am,” admits the 67-year-old McNulty. “I’m not very filtered, and I think people just like a person who is being herself.”
The eldest of three children, McNulty was born and raised in Columbia, where her mother was a reference librarian; her father, a businessman.
She grew up in an area of Columbia called Forest Acres. It’s a highly populated part of town these days, but at the time – the ’50s and ’60s – it was far less developed, fostering McNulty’s love of nature.
“I remember being outdoors . . . surrounded by woods and streams,” she recalled. “My mother would send us outside in the morning, and we wouldn’t come home until suppertime. Then, we’d go back out and play until 10 p.m. My parents just let us do. They were so tolerant.
“We would find baby birds and bring them home. We raised pet squirrels and we always had a snake or two. They just let us do anything we wanted. It certainly made me love being outside, paying attention to things.”
McNulty described her teenage years as “finding my way.”
She attended a prestigious woman’s college in Virginia for one year before returning to the University of South Carolina where, she noted gleefully, “I flunked out, thank goodness!”
She was majoring in international studies, “but I just didn’t go to class.
“I just didn’t care that much about school. I guess that’s because I hadn’t found what I loved. I really liked science – my parents gave me a microscope one Christmas – and that’s what I should’ve done in the first place.”
Instead, McNulty got a job as a secretary in a Columbia stockbroker’s office and married Edward Wimberly, an artist, and at the time, a stockholder in one of Columbia’s most hip shops, the Joyful Alternative in Five Points.
McNulty and her husband would make a move to Atlanta, where Wimberly went to art school, before landing in Pendleton, South Carolina, where McNulty discovered her future’s path by taking a horticulture class at Clemson University.
One of her favorite professors was Dr. David Bradshaw. “His passion about plants was just infectious,” she remembers.
Unlike her former higher education experience, McNulty earned a degree in ornamental horticulture from Clemson – graduating with honors.
“It makes a difference when you’re paying your own tuition,” she quipped.
McNulty and Wimberly eventually moved to St. Matthews where they raised three children in a rambling old home near downtown. She worked as a private gardener and helped decorate for elaborate weddings.
“My thing was to gather material off the side of the roads,” she said, eyes twinkling. “You know, that’s what gives things character.”
McNulty also earned a graduate degree in teaching – secondary science, her specialty – at South Carolina State University, eventually taking a job with Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension teaching horticulture to adults.
And that, it’s fair to say, led to McNulty’s association with Making It Grow.
She began as a panelist on the program. Then, a permanent panelist who was such a natural fit that she began filling in for the show’s host, Rowland Alston, who was approaching retirement. In 2012, McNulty became the full-time host of Making It Grow, a program that continues to increase in popularity.
Last year, Making It Grow saw a 119 percent increase in viewership compared to 2016, according to Sean Flynn, the program’s producer.
Besides the show, McNulty has other responsibilities. She creates spots for South Carolina Public Radio, garnering almost 99,000 listeners each week. She writes articles for South Carolina Wildlife magazine. She’s been the horticultural agent for Sumter County since 2002 and teaches a Master Gardener course each year.
But arguably, Making It Grow is McNulty’s signature work.
“We have so much fun with it. I love to think somebody got excited about a plant because I talked about it.”
* * *
On a Tuesday afternoon, several hours before Making It Grow was set to air at 7 p.m., McNulty, her staff and several guests who will be on the program gathered in an unremarkable room at the Sumter SCETV studio where they had supper together – eating sub sandwiches.
There was talk about the evening’s program and chatter about how to pronounce “pecan.”
“Well, I say pee-can,” McNulty noted.
After the meal, everyone gathered in the studio for a practice run-through of the night’s program.
Practice, however, has never made perfect and the live program has had its share of unscripted moments.
Show producer Flynn has witnessed some of them.
“For the live studio portions of the show, we give everyone glasses of water. One time, during one of Amanda’s explanations to a viewer, she was getting extra talkative with her hands and all of a sudden she knocked over a glass of water. Amanda didn’t skip a beat. She wiped the spilt water off the desk – toward the camera. It must’ve looked like a tidal wave to viewers at home, but Amanda just kept talking to the viewers.”
McNulty’s relationship with her viewers may best be described as sincere.
“I love people who love the soil,” she said.
And what do viewers appreciate about her?
“Well, I think people just like someone who is being herself.”
Opening her show after a bitter cold spell, McNulty leaned into the camera: “Well, it’s certainly been a trying week. I used to live in South Carolina, but last week, I can’t tell you where I was living . . . A warm good evening to you all.”
McNulty connects easily with viewers who call in their questions.
When Brook, from Savannah, came on the line, McNulty began the conversation with a compliment: “I just don’t think any other place has trees as pretty as Savannah. So, Brook, what’s happening that we can help you with?”
Viewers typically get the help they need from McNulty or one of her knowledgeable guests.
When a caller tuned in, concerned about the cold and his collards, show guest Tony Melton, a fruit and vegetable specialist, was reassuring. “Your collards are gonna get really ugly, but they’re still good to eat.”
“I love having guests on my show,” McNulty said. “Everything we do and talk about is based upon research. We like to give people a reason for doing something, not just tell them to do it. We enjoy helping people who have a problem, knowing our solutions are the truth and research based.
“One thing we try to stress is you should always follow the directions. For instance, not over-apply pesticides. If you can, pick (a pesticide) that’s not the heaviest gun in the arsenal.”
McNulty’s Number One piece of gardening advice is about digging holes for planting.
“Digging the hole for a plant is critical. You want the hole to be no deeper than the root ball because plant roots get oxygen from pore spaces in the soil; the closer to the surface, the more ambient air can move into those spaces. Make the hole wide so the soil is loose and easy for new roots to expand to. Don’t put any amendments in the planting hole. Do mulch, but no volcano mulching, please!”
McNulty smiled. “So, isn’t that nice that you don’t have to dig a deep hole?”
Nice, yes, and classic McNulty.
On the Tuesday show, she talked about a plant getting the “up and dying disease.” She noted that a “four feet by four feet plant is a nicely behaved plant.” She characterized a particularly small variety of tea olive as one that was “not the normal tea olive people plant next to their house. Lord, next thing you know it’s coming through the dining room window!”
And then there are McNulty’s homemade hats.
Each week, prior to the show, she scours the countryside for material for a hat. Wildflowers, Smilax, you name it. Sometimes her hats are even made out of edibles. McNulty is particularly fond of her self-styled watermelon hat, because, she explains, it must stay in the refrigerator until show time, and under the hot lights of the studio set, it offers a cool respite for her head.
But why homemade hats?
“Well, I can at least have flowers on my head, because I sure don’t know all the things my guests on the show know.”
McNulty once wore her hats for the entire program, but was told that perhaps she should rethink that given the serious nature of some of the segments of the show.
Thus, she dons them for the second half of the program.
When asked what’s her greatest worry about the show, McNulty responded quickly. “What’s going to be in my hat, of course!”
McNulty’s eyes twinkled when asked if she planned to retire.
“I’d like to stay on; I’m having a wonderful time.”
And it’s a darn good bet her viewers are too.