The Legacy of Engagement

This blog post was authored by Scott Carbonara, who will be speaking at Winter Management Conference 2017 in Puerto Rico, February 5-9.

carbonaraWhen people speak of my paternal grandfather, Michael Carbonara, they mention two things: his generosity, and his garden.

During the Great Depression, he held a modest job as a haberdasher on the west side of Chicago. To care for the many less fortunate in his American-Italian neighborhood, he took it upon himself to feed his neighbors each Saturday night. To supplement the pasta he and my grandmother served, he harvested fresh vegetables from his own garden. For dessert, they made pies from his many fruit trees. And whenever a neighbor fell sick, my grandfather would deliver cut flowers, also from his own garden.

Engagement refers to the level of dedication, commitment, passion, innovation, and emotional energy a person is willing to expend on any effort.

Engagement happens all of the time at work when someone puts in that extra little effort to make sure things are done perfectly. It happens after work when someone talks passionately about their work at a backyard BBQ or at a party. And it happens when someone who loves skiing gets up at 4:00 am to get to the slopes to catch the early powder from the snowfall the night before.

Engagement Looks Like Excitement

For my grandfather, his engagement showed up most when he was in his garden. My dad told me that people would regularly stop on their evening walks through the neighborhood to gaze over the fence and comment on the beautiful, diverse garden paradise my grandfather kept flourishing in the middle of a concrete jungle. Grandpa would beam, stop his work, open the gate, and give tours without even being asked. 

When you’re engaged in what you do, it shows up as pride on your face for what you have created.

My grandfather, with my dad as his eager assistant, spent countless hours grooming, fertilizing, and protecting his trees so that they could survive and thrive the brutal Midwest winters. A single, unlikely fig tree took most of his attention. Fig trees grow in warm climates, and they are very susceptible to the cold. But he needed a fig tree in his garden.

My grandfather moved to the United States from Bari, Italy, at the turn of the last century, and that fig tree represented his childhood, one where he would eat fresh figs picked from any number of trees that his own father planted. In nurturing that tree, my grandfather kept alive the legacy of his own father and his home country.

In 1965, my mom and dad purchased a parcel of land and started to build a home in a Chicago suburb, wanting to give their two kids (and me, number three, on the way) better schools and opportunities. As the house was nearing completion, my grandfather gave my dad $50, and he told him to plant some nice fruit trees.

Engagement Becomes Contagious

My grandfather didn’t ask or pay my dad to take an interest in gardening. His simple love of working the ground to produce a bounty was contagious. My dad saw the joy on his own fathers’ face, and he wanted that for himself.

When you’re engaged, you draw other in.

That fall, my dad planted apple, cherry, apricot, and Italian plum trees in his backyard. My parents invited the entire family to see their new home for Thanksgiving. He was excited to tell his family that they were expecting another child. But I think he was just as excited to show his father the fruit trees he planted.

My grandfather passed away three days before Thanksgiving. He never knew I would be arriving the following July. And he never saw those fruit trees.

After the funeral, my father planted one more tree, a pear tree, in memory of his father.

Engagement Seeks Apprentices

Growing up, I served as dad’s not-always-so-eager assistant. I had severe allergies. If it bloomed, it made my eyes itch and my nose run. I’m pretty sure if mosquitoes were to eat pre-packaged food, my face would be on the package. And I have no doubt that the pesticides Dad used were as healthy for us as eating a pizza covered with lead paint chips.

When you’re engaged, you create followers.

Nonetheless, I saw the pure joy my father had when he worked the garden, and I wanted a part of that. No hives, no runny nose, no toxins could keep me from working alongside my dad in the garden. When he trimmed trees, I was his man. When he planted bulbs, I was there. When it was harvest time, I would climb any tree to be part of it.

When I was 15 years old, that special pear tree got some sort of blight, which sickened my dad. One Sunday, he severely limbed it as a last-ditch effort to save it. I woke up the next morning to find a note from my dad on the table:

“There’s a can of white paint and a brush on the workbench. Before I get home, I want you to put a thick coat of paint all over the pear tree.”

I didn’t know if this was some sort of primitive voodoo ritual, but I complied. I slapped paint all over the trunk and few remaining branches.

That voodoo worked. The pear tree rebounded, fresh branches and leaves sprouted from the white skeleton. The next year, the tree was heavy again with fruit.

Time passed, and most of the trees died and were replaced. But that special pear tree, the one that commemorated his dad, still survived and bore fruit.

As my dad got older, though, he no longer had time to nurture them as he had done as a young man. When my wife and I would come for a visit, we would weed and mulch the garden, trim the trees, and plant new ones.

A year ago today, I sat with my 79-year-old dad on the sun porch, and we talked about the fruit trees he had planted in the yard all those years before.

“Dad, do you remember when you had me paint that pear tree white? Why did you have me do that? Did you know it would work?” I asked him.

“I read somewhere that it could help. I think it suffocates the bugs that are eating it. But I don’t remember exactly,” he said in a tired voice.

“Well, it worked,” I said, pointing to the tree whose branches sagged under the weight of the fruit.

“It sure did,” he nodded.

My father passed away in his sleep a few weeks later.

I gathered up several pears and saved the seeds.

Engagement Creates Your Legacy

After the funeral for my father, my brother and I planted a tree in the front yard of the family home. When my brother returned to Louisiana, he bought a bench for the middle of his garden, and he planted another tree in memory of our dad.

When you’re engaged, your legacy lasts well beyond your lifetime.

In North Carolina, two fig trees crown my yard in homage of the grandfather I never met. Small pear trees now sprout, too, as part of the legacy that my own father left me. And for my own children, I planted a Dawn Redwood that will outlive us all.
In the tree care business, you practice engagement when —

  • You bring professionalism, expertise, and passion to work with you;
  • Your excitement for growing the future is expressed in just about every conversation;
  • You do everything within your power to make sure that those who see your work know that you put your soul into it;
  • You leave behind a legacy both in the ground and the hearts of everyone who sees what you helped create.

Scott Carbonara lives in North Carolina with his wife and children. He’s an author and speaker whose passion for the topic of engagement fueled him to write two books on the subject. When not speaking across the country and in Europe, he’s an avid road biker, mountain biker, hiker, and yes, a gardener. Visit for Scott’s inspirational blog.