Plantaholic brings 'em back alive

Posted: Monday, April 18, 2005

FAIRBANKS - When Deborah Koons goes grocery shopping at Fred Meyer, the first place the self-proclaimed "plantaholic" looks is the plant section.

She searches for pieces of half-dead, browning plants that have fallen onto the floor. She puts the tiny stems and leaves in her pocket, brings them home and puts them on life support.

If Koons' nursing is successful, the wayward plants will come back to life.

"When they grow big, I give them away," she said. "Because then they are boring."

Koons unloads many of the plants on her employer, the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Between the UAF Tanana Valley Campus' headquarters and the Natural Sciences Building on UAF's main campus, there are probably 100 of Koons' plants.

"It's really satisfying to take this old decrepit dying plant and make it healthy and give it away," she said.

The 48-year-old's life story begins in Beverly Hills, Calif., where she was the only child of a private detective and a legal secretary.

Koons lived in what she described as the posh community's "golden ghetto." She graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1974.

Koons went to college for a few years, studying at Humboldt State University and the College of the Redwoods, before she became restless and began hitchhiking across the country.

Koons followed the Grateful Dead from concert to concert, pausing briefly in Wyoming. It was the Grateful Dead that brought Koons to Alaska.

In 1980, the band played five nights in the West Anchorage High School auditorium. Koons attended every show and wound up spending all her money.

"I did what everyone else does," Koons said.

She went to the Kenai Peninsula and got a job at a cannery. Koons worked 18-hour days as a machine operator and fell in love with the state.

When she returned to Wyoming, Koons saved money from her work waiting tables and painting houses. She acquired a trailer, packed her belongings and drove to Alaska, this time traveling north to Fairbanks.

Koons said she was instantly struck by the friendliness of Fairbanks residents. She stayed six years before embarking on her next adventure.

With her 30th birthday imminent, Koons became restless again and decided to travel the world.

Koons traveled to Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan. Along the way, she got work at a bakery, youth hostel, cattle ranch and tobacco farm.

Koons also traveled to China, arriving the day of the Tiananmen Square uprising, with a group of Europeans. Tourists were leaving the country en masse.

"We were thinking, 'Now if all of the tourists are gone, then we'll be the only ones here. This will be great,"' she recalled.

After three years, Koons returned to Fairbanks, rented a cabin and got on the board of directors of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. She also earned a degree in natural resources management and married longtime friend Clint Meyer, a handyman whom she had met in a welding class.

The couple moved to Palmer for three years before building a three-bedroom house on Moose Mountain.

"It was 18 hour days, seven days a week," Koons said. "We're still together, which is amazing."

An assortment of Koons' plants, including orchids, adorn the couple's living room. A room in the basement is being set up as a plant room.

Koons also is cultivating hundreds of seedlings for the Hospice of the Tanana Valley plant sale at Holm Town Nursery on May 28.

Koons has always been interested in plants, she said. She also maintains composting piles and does worm composting to enrich her plant dirt.

"It's just really relaxing to me to fuss with plants," Koons said. "They're like my kids."

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