Heath Racela is a smart, young, fresh-faced producer for PBS’s home improvement show “Ask This Old House.” He travels the country to direct a team of savvy, screen-ready tradesfolk who may show up at your house to fix that clogged bathtub or defective thermostat or cracked picture window.
You get a repair, they get material for their nationally aired spinoff of the mother of all domestic makeover shows, “This Old House.”
Last week, he was in Baltimore with his crew to film the installation of a rain barrel, then north to Wilmington, Del., to toddler-proof a house, followed by an electrical fix in Philadelphia. But he began the week in Northeast Washington, where homeowner Amy Enchelmeyer was getting the pollinator garden of her dreams.
“And, action,” he said, as Enchelmeyer walked into shot with the talent, a landscape designer from Boston named Jenn Nawada.
“Wow, this is amazing,” said Nawada, an athletic woman with a bright smile and dark pigtails. “I didn’t expect to see this in Washington.”
In the next take, there was more of Amy. “So, Jenn, we are really excited about this neighborhood because it gives us an opportunity to have a yard.”
“I didn’t expect to see this in Washington, D.C.,” said Nawada. “This is amazing.”
What is amazing is not quite clear, except perhaps that this is an urban neighborhood — Michigan Park — with the feel of a close-knit suburb. The houses are small and sweet and they were built in the 1930s. Enchelmeyer and her husband, Collin Warren, both in their early 30s, moved here a year ago from Van Ness because, she said, “it’s the last affordable place in D.C. to have single-family detached houses.”
But months of fixing leaks and general decorating had worn them down, and then a driver eluding police rammed a car into the back of their garage along the alley. Feeling low, she reached out to “Ask This Old House.” Heath Racela reached back.
Making a TV show is a bit like making a garden: You must deconstruct its elements before you can put them back together. The opening scene took about a dozen takes in the space of an hour. There were delays as a firetruck went by, as a bus turned around at the top of the street, as a truck and trailer rattled over rough asphalt. At one point, a man in a Bobcat arrived to scoop up construction material a few feet down the road. Racela took it all in stride. Everyone was wilting under the heat and humidity, and suddenly the biting flies showed up. “Amy, you were great,” he said during a break. “Do you need more DEET?”
As the scene unfolded, Enchelmeyer and Nawada were moving toward another landscape designer, Joshua Dean, who was standing in the shade of an old willow oak. Dean designed the pollinator garden as a ribbon of perennials, shrubs and grasses that flowed through half of the front yard. He also had the plants delivered, laid them out and had a crew ready to put them in. (Dean works for Wheat’s landscape company in Vienna.) The palette included classic long-flowering native perennials for butterflies and bees, including coneflowers, Stokes aster, false indigo, hyssop and penstemon.
With all the pots in place but before planting, Racela set up another scene where the women were struck by the flowers and Dean introduced the idea of plant layers. This message also took many takes. Before each one, Racela got his subject primed. “Nice deep breath, everyone. Have fun with it. Make me want these plants.”
Gardenmaking is much harder TV fare than, say, cooking, with its built-in narrative: a beginning (the recipe); a middle (the actual cooking process) and an end (the finished meal). Gardens are planted and then take years to mature.
Except Dean arrived with plants in two- and three-gallon pots; they were 80 percent there. This wasn’t a gimmick for the cameras, he said, but the way he likes to plant. He found a grower who raises big stock with large root systems, and his clients have come to expect a little instant punch.
This serendipity no doubt pleased Racela. What may have pleased him, too, was that both Enchelmeyer and Dean seemed every much as natural on camera as Nawada. Take after take, they were fresh, polished and “on.” Enchelmeyer is a media and Web content specialist at the National Zoo. “I’m not an in-front-of-the-camera person, but I was okay with it,” she said afterward. Now she is busy watering her new garden and putting her finger in the mulch to check moisture content. The whole experience, she said, will “definitely” turn her into a gardener. The shoot will be condensed to a six- to eight-minute segment that will run next winter.
Racela, meanwhile, will continue his quest to turn the travails of homeownership into the stuff of screen magic. “Electrical and plumbing stories are always the hardest,” he said, over a break for catered lunch. “Most of the action takes place behind a wall.”