How did you get into the industry?
My dad was a horticulturalist in Louisiana and had a landscaping company on the side that included an arborist. My mom was a gardener and my grandparents were sugarcane farmers, so I guess it runs in the blood. Originally I thought I’d be in academics and went to grad school at UGA and then to NC State for my doctorate. But I ended up in the public garden world in North Carolina, Tulsa and now Bellingrath.
Who do you admire?
Tony Avent is one of my mentors. I worked at his nursery while working on my doctoral degree, and we really got to be great friends. He’s an amazing plantsmen—perhaps the country’s greatest horticulturalist ever.
What are the biggest challenges facing the industry?
We’ve seen good and bad with the pandemic. Retail, mail order and seed are going well but some in the landscape sector have been hit hard in some sections of the country. It’s hard to know what 2021 will bring. With plant production, you’re working with living organisms that must grow. It takes time. You can’t crank them out of a factory. If we see mass layoffs, that would impact housing, which could impact landscaping and allied trades. It’s a hard time to figure things out.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is working for an institution that brings joy to people’s lives. As one of my former staffers in Tulsa said, you never feel guilty about planting too many flowers. Bellingrath is so beloved in here in the South. We are here to provide a spiritual experience through nature and beauty, while also providing education. We offer the tangible and intangible.
Do you focus more on plants or the design?
I’ve always been known as a plant nerd. I love plants. It’s my true passion. But I’ve come to appreciate design in the last 10 to15 years. Great design can really enhance your appreciation for plants. I don’t like design that doesn’t explore the plant palette. Why limit ourselves? We are known for azaleas here, but there are hundreds and hundreds of different kinds.
What’s something you’re doing to make the world more eco-friendly?
We’re on Fowl River which is a natural estuary. We have a lot of huge opportunities to teach our visitors about our ecosystem.
Neutral or colorful?
Colorful but not gaudy.
Formal or casual?
What’s one thing that would make the industry better?
There is a burgeoning interest in the natural world, but I think the industry really needs to have a hard look at itself and how we pay. We talk about how we can’t recruit the new generation, but we don’t offer competitive pay. We have to look at robust benefits plans. A lot of young people won’t come to the industry if the pay isn’t there—because the work is hard.
We also need to bring in people with different backgrounds, and they will being different perspectives and that will lead to a wider market. And we need to support our traditional educational centers, our community colleges and universities.
What’s your ideal Saturday?
Going to a nursery and buying cool plants or botanizing … looking at plants in the wild.