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Cass Turnbull


1951 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
Cass Turnbull Obituary
Cass Turnbull

Cass Turnbull, well-known PlantActivist and founder of PlantAmnesty, died unexpectedly on January 26, 2017, while vacationing in Hawaii. She was born Katherine Fauntelle Cleland on February 7, 1951, in Seattle, Washington, to James Maitland Cleland and Ruth Marcella Miner.

Cass grew up in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle. After attending Helen Bush School and St. Margaret's School in Victoria, she attended Fairhaven College in Bellingham, where she made many lifelong friends.

Cass's passion for public green space and the health of trees and shrubs was born working in the Seattle Parks Department, where she had been hired through the Comprehensive Training and Employment Act (CETA). While working at Discovery Park, she met her future husband, John Turnbull. They were married on August 16, 1987.

That same year, Cass founded PlantAmnesty, a horticultural nonprofit dedicated to "ending the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs due to malpruning." She knew that, "One woman ranting is a kook, but 2000 people ranting is a movement." Her passion, knowledge, and humor drew legions of volunteers and gardening experts to her cause.

At first, Cass worked to end the prevalent practice of topping trees. Her success established her reputation, and she began to focus more on promoting good pruning practices for gardeners and landscapers alike.

During its early days, and with much support from John, Cass ran the organization from her living room. From the beginning, she used humor and creativity to draw people close enough to hear her message. She published photos of distressing gardens in the "Ugly Yard Contest" and she made refrigerator magnets with photos of comical pruning disasters. Always willing to be silly, she dressed as Father Weedo Sarducci to hear plant confessions of gardeners and landscapers. When she booked a mariachi band for the Festival of Trees, the agent asked if she might also want to hire "Dancing Horses," and he couldn't have come up with a more irresistible offer.

Cass was a serious student of horticulture, and she continued her education at the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture and earned credentials as a Washington State Certified Landscaper and an ISA-Certified Arborist. She taught horticulture through PlantAmnesty and at Washington State Vocational Schools. Knowing that minimally-trained employees make most pruning cuts, she made a special effort to reach them, enlisting Spanish-speaking instructors.

Known throughout the plant community for her wit and speaking ability, Cass was a much sought-after speaker at garden clubs and other horticultural organizations. She was also a featured guest on many garden shows.

The news media knew that Cass was always good for a quote. She was direct, incisive, and funny, and reporters came to her whenever "viewmongers" or others threatened trees or green space.

Cass's interest in pruning and gardens evolved into a greater concern for preserving the shrinking open spaces in her rapidly-growing native city of Seattle. She knew that access to nature has profound positive effects for human souls, especially in difficult times.

She used her media savvy to passionately champion the city's tree canopy and green spaces. Recognizing that political considerations were at play, she created TreePAC, a political action committee supporting local candidates who stand up for trees and open space. Her voice and organizing work were critical to preservation of the 32-acre Myers Way property in White Center last year.

Between phone calls and speeches, Cass wrote. In addition to her entertaining columns in the PlantAmnesty newsletter, she wrote two books, The Complete Guide to Landscape Design, Renovation, and Maintenance (now out of print) and Cass Turnbull's Guide to Pruning, currently in its third edition.

She also operated her landscaping business, educating and amusing clients and employees alike over the decades.

Cass's greatest achievement was PlantAmnesty. For the past thirty years, PlantAmnesty, over 1,000 members strong, has striven to educate the private, commercial, and public sectors on responsible, appropriate pruning and landscape management practices, establishing a standard of quality care for the urban ecology. Contributions in memory of Cass may be made to PlantAmnesty (www.plantamnesty.org) or TreePAC (www.treepac.org). The work must go forward.

Cass was preceded in death by her parents, her sister Elizabeth Cleland Ploof, and her brother James Maitland Cleland, Jr. She is survived by her husband John Turnbull, her sister Ghaska Cleland Branch, her stepmother Nancy Callaghan, cousins Janet Orlando and Dan Miner, sisters-in-law Nancy Morgan and Jane Ruberry, her beloved cats Trouble and Sweetie, and many friends, fans, clients and supporters throughout the Pacific Northwest and the world.

Cass brought life to every gathering, and we will all miss her sparkle, keen mind, biting humor, and passionate crusading. We have all been enriched by having Cass in our lives.

PlantAmnesty is organizing a public celebration of Cass's life in the near future. Information will be posted at www.plantamnesty.org.
Published in The Seattle Times on Feb. 5, 2017
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