Stephen F. Austin State University students Rene Bhattacharya (left) and Chanelle Angeny are members of the SFA Horticulture Club.
All photos by Hardy Meredith

Horticulture has a reputation as being hereditary. Nursery and greenhouse businesses stay in the family for generations, and people grow up to do what their parents did. That may be perception, but it’s not reality. Not every kid stays in the family business. But the question being asked is how do we replace those who leave? Are tomorrow’s potential horticulturists even aware of the possibility of a career as a grower, breeder or propagator?

Enrollment in horticulture programs has slipped nationwide. Still, students are finding horticulture. And once they find it, they are doing amazing things.

Find them early

Organizations like the National Junior Horticultural Association aim to help horticulture find students. NJHA was founded in 1934 and was the first organization in the world dedicated solely to youth and horticulture. NJHA programs are designed to help young people obtain a basic understanding of horticulture, and develop skills that could help them pursue a career in that field. These programs help the horticultural industry by training and recruiting youth in many specialized fields of horticulture.

Bill Wilder, chairman of the NJHA Foundation, says the NJHA has been working with other youth organizations to improve how it influences young people, and to cast a wider net. The association has a strong East Coast and California presence, but could use more representatives from the Midwest and Great Plains states.

“The people we do influence are all committed to horticulture,” he says. “Once we have them at a meeting, most continue in the horticulture field. We have trouble reaching new people.”

Kim Shearer Lattier, a graduate student at Oregon State University, is a good example of someone who would have joined up earlier.

“I always liked plants, but I never knew what I wanted to do in life,” she says. “I guess that’s because I didn’t know that horticulture was a career option. As soon as I had my first exposure to horticulture, I knew instantly.”

Lattier was exposed to horticulture earlier in life, but only as a spectator. Her mother enjoyed gardening and took her to garden centers and nurseries quite a bit. In 2009, Lattier went back to school at North Carolina State University. She credits the Home Horticulture course she took with Bryce Lane at NC State with opening her mind to the possibilities.

Horticulture students at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, gain practical experience.

She quickly took to propagation and plant breeding. She considers herself fortunate to have landed two valuable internships during her time at NCSU. First, she worked in the campus conservatory with Diane Mays. In that position, Lattier primarily focused on care, maintenance and propagation of conservatory plants. Next, she interned at the Mountain Crop Improvement Lab with Tom Ranney, where she got her first taste of ornamental plant breeding. She hasn’t stopped yet.

As she works on her master’s degree, Lattier is also secretary of the OSU chapter of Pi Alpha Xi, a national honor society for undergraduate and graduate students in floriculture, ornamental horticulture, and landscape horticulture. The organization helms many projects in its community, including an outreach by engaging the CSC Youth Group in Corvallis. By working with this group to teach horticulture skills to at-risk youth, Lattier finds a way to share the joy of plants with people who, like her younger self, may have never considered it as a career path.

“My favorite aspect of horticulture is the people,” she says. “Which is kind of ironic since I chose this field so that I could work with plants, and not necessarily people. However, I have found that the people of horticulture is its strength. The people of horticulture are smart, thoughtful, resourceful and resilient.”

Family traditions

For many people, like Lattier, their first exposure to horticulture is through family. But many second- or third-generation nursery owners have sons or daughters that didn’t catch the bug, despite being immersed in it since childhood. A family connection to growing may or may not manifest itself as a career.

For Hunter Walker, it did.

The 22-year-old Texan decided to study horticulture after high school because of the influence of his Native American grandparents and his mother.

“They always had the most beautiful gardens and worked on their farm constantly until sundown,” he says.

Walker began learning about the art of horticulture from his grandmother. She taught him about the many native plants that Native American tribes used for remedies, healing and health.

Since he was young, Walker has grown a variety of plants with his mother. Today, the junior at Stephen F. Austin State University is the greenhouse manager at the campus’s Native Plant Center.

“My favorite thing in the world is coming to work and caring for the many plants that look to me to keep them happy,” he says. “I love having that sense of worth everyday when I wake up, it makes me a positive person, and I can almost feel the love the plants give back to me, especially when they bloom.”

Along with the horticulture bug, Walker was also bit by the entrepreneurial bug. Two years ago, he started his own small business, Happy Apache Apothecary. Walker uses the knowledge imparted from his grandmother to grow native plants organically or pick them from the wild and refine them into healing salves, soaps, tinctures, and lip balms. The products are given as gifts to family or friends and sold on his online store (happyapache.etsy.com).

Bryan Kottke, 21, of Fond Du Lac, Wis., also had a family that fostered his love of horticulture. His grandmother was an avid gardener who did not shy away from putting the grandkids to work. He also was involved with 4-H in grade school.

“Though I didn’t do as much hands-on with plants, 4-H is is where I really developed my passion for garden photography, which I think helped steer me down the path of ornamental horticulture,” he says.

As a college freshman, Kottke planned to go into plant breeding and genetics. A summer internship at Longwood Gardens changed his mind. After working at the Pennsylvania public garden, Kottke decided his path lay with public and ornamental horticulture, not research.

“I love to see people interact with and respond to the plants and garden spaces around them,” Kottke says. “If I’ve been able to evoke an emotion in someone through plants, gotten them to stop for a minute and engage with what I’ve grown, then I feel I’ve done my job.”

Rene Bhattacharya

New blood

Longwood Gardens offers a Professional Gardener program that teaches the needed skills for a career as a horticulturist. The two-year, tuition-free program is offered every year to 8-10 individuals who have obtained at least a high school diploma and have at least one year’s paid horticultural work experience.

Kottke is one type of student attracted to this program – the horticulture lifer, so to speak. But in recent years, the program has introduced a growing number of non-traditional students to the world of professional horticulture.

Adam Dooling is that second type of student – one who had a solid career in a completely different field and did not consider horticulture as an option until past his 30th birthday.

After high school, he pursued an undergraduate degree in music composition, and spent his early years touring in a punk rock band, before settling down to work as an art handler in Manhattan. Although he loved being surrounded by art, after seven years, he’d lost any passion for his work.

Then, he landed a temporary position working on the High Line, an abandoned railroad trestle that had been converted to a public green space. He eventually became a horticulture intern for the nonprofit park, and he realized that he had found his path.

“Falling in love with the work I was doing, I could see that horticulture served an important role in society,” Dooling says. “From that point on, I was hooked.”

After working on the High Line, Dooling knew that this was the right career path for him. But due to his age and financial situation, attending a university did not seem like an option.

“I had discovered Longwood by meeting and working with many talented professionals who had either been interns at Longwood, or been [Professional Gardener program] students themselves,” he says. “After seeing PG graduate Emma Seniuk speak at NYBG’s inaugural Hortie Hoopla, I knew I had to apply.”

Dooling believes a lack of support for skill-based professions is a problem that keeps students from considering a career in horticulture. Growing up, his education offered nothing related to horticulture or plant science.

“Learning from my classmate’s experiences, I can’t understate the importance of programs likes 4-H or FFA to get kids excited about horticulture,” he says. “Of special importance right now are the myriad of inspiring, developmental gardening programs offered through institutions like Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Kids are increasingly becoming detached from the natural world, and these programs serve an important role for the future of our planet.”

I no longer see just a forest, but a living, breathing ecological city.” – Rene Bhattacharya

Four years into his horticulture career, the 35-year-old New Yorker continues to be amazed by the diversity of the field.

“Regardless of the area you decide to focus in – whether it be public horticulture, breeding, nursery production, conservation, etc. – you are sure to be surrounded by passionate people and beautiful plants,” he says.

Jessica Gonzalez, a 20-year-old undergrad at Oregon State University, is the daughter of a firefighter and nurse. That didn’t stop her from choosing to study horticulture.

“I think that I wanted to do something really different compared to what a lot of my family studied in school, but it was also something that made me really happy and excited about going to school,” she says.

Student Hunter Jahnke (left) and SFA horticulture professor Jared Barnes discuss a project.

Gonzalez always loved plants, and was involved with FFA in high school. For three years of high school, she worked at a farm stand/nursery. Since then, she has worked at two wholesale nurseries in Corvallis and joined the horticulture club at Oregon State.

“I wanted to do something with plants, but I didn’t actually know that horticulture was something I could study in school until one of my former bosses informed me that is what he studied in school,” she says.

Chisholm Tessem is a 27-year-old from Plano, Texas, who wanted to be a mechanical engineer. Always interested in designing and building things, the gateway to horticulture for Tessem was a budding fascination with his fledgling vegetable garden.

“I started researching food production, growing styles, the effects of legislation and big corporations on food production, and fell in love with the Wild West-like state of the plant production industry where it seemed so little had changed on the large scale of things over the past decades,” Tessem says. “The recent boom of development in agriculture is bringing lots of innovation, integrating technology, and transforming the idea of what a farmer is. This is all extremely interesting to me and suits my personal needs to be outdoors, outside an office, and working with my hands.”

That was five years ago. Today, Tessem is an officer in the horticulture club at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he is majoring in horticulture.

Rene Bhattacharya is another member of the SFA Horticulture Club. A 24-year-old from Pasadena, Texas, she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in horticulture to learn the science of plants. Later, she plans to earn a master’s degree in landscape architecture. Despite that particular focus, her favorite aspect of horticulture is plant breeding.

“I am always pleasantly surprised by the unlimited possibilities of the plant kingdom,” Bhattacharya says. “It’s made me appreciate my environment so much more; I no longer see just a forest, but a living, breathing ecological city.”

Bright young minds will keep finding horticulture. But the efforts of groups like NJHA and the Seed Your Future initiative can only help strengthen the pipeline of students entering the field and becoming the next generation of horticultural leaders.