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The arrival of spring often brings thoughts of planting and tending flowers, trees and other landscaping. And for many in and around Springfield, it reminds of Nikki Petitt.
For three decades, Nikki was a mainstay at the Wickman’s Garden Village nursery, nurturing flora and cultivating friendships among customers who came to depend upon her for guidance and advice.
“I worked for MoDOT and was the ‘flower girl’ who designed and maintained the flower gardens on Glenstone Avenue for about 14 years,” says Jeanie Bray Collins. “Nikki helped me learn about native perennials that would be suitable for landscapes. She was so helpful, knowledgeable and a pleasure to work with.
“After the beautification program ended, I always made a point to go to Wickman’s during my personal flower shopping to visit with Nikki. I learned to go first thing in the morning, as she was always in demand for assistance.”
David Stokely, who was a nursery manager during a portion of Nikki’s tenure at Wickman’s, appreciated her skills from the business side.
“I consider myself in the 90th-plus percentile of nurseryman and horticultural expertise,” says Stokely, “but Nikki always knew a few more things than I did. And once I had left and needed something as a customer, I always looked for Nikki.”
Born Nikki Darlene Muse in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1956. Nikki was married to the late Daniel Petitt for 43 years. She died March 4 at age 67.
Other customers echo the tributes of Collins and Stokely:
“I was always delighted to encounter Nikki’s presence at the register or on the grounds of Wickman’s,” recalls Sandi Green-Baker. “She never knew my name other than reading it on my debit card, but she treated me as though she knew me as the closest of friends. Her beaming smile, patience and immense knowledge of the plant world made her a searched-out destination.”
Frank Shipe observed that Nikki “went at her job with such joy and love and kindness and smarts that she could cut through any gardening or landscaping situation, no matter how tricky or difficult, and bring about a happy ending for all concerned.”
Nikki’s former co-workers agree:
“She’s the one who brought me onboard at Wickman’s,” says Becky Nicholas. “She was very kind to the customers, and would bend over backwards to make sure that everybody was taken care of.”
‘Nikki set the standard’
Nicholas admired Nikki’s ability to remain fresh and cheerful while working behind the scenes in greenhouses where air temperatures could reach 130 degrees. “We all had an addiction to plants; that’s why we were there,” she says. “But Nikki set the standard.”
Another colleague, Jeannie LeJeune, saw the same in Nikki:
“She was a hard worker, never complained, and she was always ready to go out of her way and take on an extra task. She was my sounding board when I had a problem, and through her always-sound advice, I was a better employee.”
LeJeune also counted Nikki as a personal friend away from work. “I miss our phone conversations. We would talk for two or three hours at a time…about our obsession with growing plants and the merits of various vegetables. And we frequently shared seeds and plants.”
Nikki stood about 5-foot-4 and frequently referred to herself as an “elf person,” LeJeune says. “But what she lacked in stature she made up for in her impish smile, the twinkle in her eye, her soft voice and her musical laugh.”
Peggy Pearl met Nikki when they volunteered to work on local civic and political projects. Pearl says she and others learned that “when Nikki spoke, it was not just to hear herself talk. She had something to say, so you gave her your attention. She’d thought about it before she said it.
“You expected positive thoughts and ideas from Nikki,” says Pearl. “What she had to say had merit, or it wouldn’t be coming out of her mouth.”
Nikki’s eye also impressed those around her. She had a flair for design, an innate ability to see what things should look like, they say. She applied that talent in her hobby of photography as well.
Family members had the best opportunity to observe and appreciate Nikki’s admirable qualities:
‘Her level of patience was unmatched’
Niece Bethany Talley describes Nikki as “the kindest soul, and her level of patience was unmatched. Her love of the natural world was shown throughout her daily life, tending to an impeccable garden as well as her career.
“Nikki loved the outdoors and could often be found sitting outside, relaxing with her dogs or trying out a new gardening technique to add to her ever-growing garden.
“Very rarely would you ever hear her raise her voice. Several of us called her ‘the dog whisperer’ because we were fairly certain that if she told one of her dogs to do a back-flip, they would have.”
Ree Talley is Bethany’s mom and one of Nikki’s four younger siblings (three sisters and one brother). She recalls Nikki as a good role model when they were growing up. “She was an excellent student, and she encouraged us to do well in school.”
Another fond memory: “During holiday seasons, Nikki loved to make gingersnap cookies. That was a favorite thing for her — and for us, too.”
Nikki’s only child, son Joshua (Josh to family and friends) Petitt, marvels at the memory of his mother’s determination and accomplishments.
‘She learned all of the horticulture knowledge on her own’
“She learned all of the horticulture knowledge on her own,” he says. “For many years we had a couple of lawyer bookcases that she filled with books about plants and trees. She read all those books and basically taught herself.”
Nikki’s career path headed in a different direction at first. She earned a degree in marketing from Southwestern Oklahoma State University and her first jobs were with newspapers in El Reno and Weatherford, Okla. But then she signed on with a nursery that specialized in developing hardy trees that could survive in Oklahoma’s sometimes brutal weather conditions.
“The Dust Bowl (drought of the 1930s) still was in peoples’ minds,” Josh explains, “and the Oklahoma Extension Service was really promoting that farmers shouldn’t strip all the trees from their land and reproduce the Dust Bowl. So they encouraged development of varieties of trees that could grow well in western Oklahoma and were drought-tolerant.
“My mother read, went to seminars, studied and learned — she really just ate it all up. Not only did she know the common names for plants and trees, she often would have memorized the Latin names for them.
“She also read a lot about insects and pests and all sorts of native wildlife. She didn’t like pesticides and chemicals; she used natural means to keep pests away. She planted wildflowers for the butterflies — oh, she loved butterflies.
“She would take broken flower pots and, instead of throwing them away, she would turn them on their sides so the toads would have little homes. And we had so many birdhouses on our property,” Josh says of the 47-acre farm where the family settled in the early 1990s about 20 miles north of Springfield near Tintown.
“My dad could never be a hunter,” Josh says with a chuckle, “because my mom wouldn’t let him kill the deer.”
Nikki went out of her way to share her knowledge with others.
“As soon as I was old enough, probably in the second grade, my mother wanted me to have opportunities and experiences that would help me achieve success in life,” Josh says. “She and another woman ran the local 4-H Club for four years. A lot of 4-H is learning by doing. You pick a project, learn about it and go do it. And then you get up in front of a group of people and tell them how to do it.
“Looking back, I admire how she took all that time out of her busy schedule to help us kids,” says Josh. His involvement with 4-H continued when the family moved to the Ozarks — he became the Missouri state 4-H president when he was 17.
‘My mother pushed me — not pushing to force me to do something, but to support me’
“The only reason I was able to do that was my mother pushed me — not pushing to force me to do something, but to support me. She wanted me to go to college, and she knew that she and my dad might not be able to pay for it. So she pushed me to get the best grades possible, and to do the extra-curricular activities, so that I could get college scholarships. If it weren’t for my mother, I never would’ve gone to college.
“Her mind was amazing. She was always one of the smartest people in her class in school. She scored extremely high on college admission exams — a 33 on the ACT (maximum score is 36). She really valued education,” adds Josh, who earned an engineering degree from Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla.
Nikki’s remarkable intellect made the illness that felled her — Alzheimer’s — all the more ironic and cruel. It struck shortly after she retired from Wickman’s in 2020.
“It happened so fast,” says Josh, whose father — Danny Joe to family — had died in 2018. “From the time of my mother’s diagnosis to her death was less than two years.
“She believed strongly in the way that people should do things, and she practiced it. She was very fit — not ‘gym fit;’ she worked outside all the time doing physical labor. She liked to walk, she cared about what she ate, she never smoked, she never drank, she abstained from all drugs. She had worked her whole life to take care of herself — but then her body, her mind, failed her.”
Yet her legacy lives on with those her path intersected in life. Her niece Bethany, for one:
“My Aunt Nikki had the most adventurous and curious spirit. She had this saying: ‘Don’t buy me things that will collect dust. Let’s go on an adventure and experience something new. That’s the best gift I could receive.’
“That sense of adventure is something I know I’ve directly inherited from her and our time spent together. From making scarecrows for the Wickman’s fall festivals to her photographing my numerous dance recitals and putting together the best photo compilations from holidays, and so on.
“Her presence will be missed dearly, but Nikki’s love for adventure, the outdoors, animals and laughing at least once a day will always be remembered…”