How I Found My Horticulture Passion

I remember the day, nay, the moment I realized I was in love with horticulture. I was a senior in high school, alone at home on our 5 acres planting some bulbs that I had no idea were dead (horticulturalists have a lot of hope). I sat back on my heels, felt a breeze in my face as I watched the sun headed toward the horizon and smiled. I thought about how happy I was “working,” and I was really happy and fulfilled by that “work.” It was a quiet, defining moment in my life.

To be clear, I had been around horticulture growing up–not professional horticulture, just playing in the landscape at home with my dad. He had made our first garden when I was in elementary school. I asked for a strawberry patch and got our first fish pond as a bonus. My dad has a lot of passions (eh hem, as do I), but this little project led to bigger and ever more elaborate landscapes at each home we lived in…always with a water feature and fish. Occasionally we had a big veggie garden, but the landscape around the house was always being expanded. I learned the very basics as I worked alongside him, but there was so much I didn’t know.

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Like the time we were on the local garden tour and a regional gardening television program came out to film a feature on our place. I was proud of it, but I also wasn’t sure about being on TV so I remember hiding (5 acres, remember). They waited on me and when the host interviewed me I basically repeated what she had discussed with me about the landscape, “So you’ve used mostly annuals in your flower beds around the ponds here.” “Yes,” I nodded, “Mostly annuals.” I didn’t even know the difference between an annual and a perennial! I knew nothing other than that I loved it and that it made me calm and happy. How do I do that for life?

I was overjoyed to discover that our local state university (Oklahoma State) had a landscape architecture program. Here’s how I found out: I was attending a summer camp for girls interested in careers in architecture and engineering. I realized pretty quickly that none of those options were for me and given that my home was just a few miles away, I was ready to pack it in. Then in a discussion with a faculty member in architecture, she mentioned landscape architecture (which isn’t even in their college–it’s in agriculture). I latched on to that comment like a fire had been lit under me. She wasn’t particularly keen on pointing me to another program, but it couldn’t be helped…I was home.

As I pursued my degree in landscape architecture, I found that I enjoyed my horticulture classes probably the most. I love knowing so much about landscape contracting and landscape design. However, drawing is not my strongest skill. One day, toward the end of my tenure in the 5-year landscape architecture program, I approached a faculty member that I admired and was very comfortable with. I told her I thought I was interested in teaching horticulture. She explained that I’d need a graduate degree for that kind of job. “You’ll have to do research,” Dr. Janet Cole said. I looked at her as earnestly as I could muster and said, “I can do that.”

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I can do that. And I love it more than I ever thought I would. My graduate program with Dr. Cole focused on nursery production. I found everything I learned about growing plants was fascinating, and that my passion came out when we visited nurseries. I still get a little giddy inside when I see something new at a nursery (which happens at conferences reasonably frequently). When it was time to finish my Master of Science degree, I thought I’d either get a job or see if I could find a doctoral assistantship somewhere (that’s when they pay you a very modest salary to do the research required in graduate school). So many things fell in place for that to happen for me. Right after graduation we moved to Auburn, Alabama, so I could keep working on nursery crop production research at Auburn University.

The three years I spent at Auburn shaped my life more than I ever imagined. It was a time of radically increased work load (much of which was unfamiliar, but learning new things is good for you!), tremendous friendships, and intellectual challenges. I loved it, and I hated it sometimes. I had opportunities to attend loads of conferences, many of which allowed me to learn even more about growing plants. Completing my PhD was a personal triumph, though not one without struggle. I learned a lot there and I’m forever grateful that my advisers, Dr. Charles Gilliam and Dr. Glenn Fain, took a chance on a girl from Oklahoma. Plus, who wouldn’t like to live in the forest for a while?

I interviewed for four faculty positions. One broke my heart, but wouldn’t have been a good fit in the long run. Two would have been fine places to work, but the last one…the last one had my heart the moment I got off the plane. I swear there was a halo over the head of the colleague who picked me up from the airport (to be fair, he was standing under a skylight). Everything was right about Kansas State University and my future colleagues in the Department of Horticulture, Forestry, and Recreation Resources (recently changed to Horticulture and Natural Resources!). But it was an Extension job and I didn’t know a lot about Extension. However, judging from what I’d learned in the interview, I was really impressed and ready to try. Little did I know, Extension would become such a huge passion in my life. I couldn’t accept the job fast enough.

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Fast forward to today…I love my job more than ever. I still love to help plants grow and figure out what makes that process tick. But I also adore my colleagues with whom I started the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement. Lauri Baker and Hikaru Peterson are among my closest friends, and together we do important, meaningful, fascinating work. Because aside from watching plants grow, I love to work with the people that make work happen. They get the same kind of joy and happiness out of working with plants that I do. But they’re also business people. They need to make this work–for their families, their employees, and the customers that they serve. If there is anything I can do to help make that happen, I’m game. If there’s something I can do that can make their businesses work even better…to be more profitable or efficient or good places to work…let’s do it. I love to help find solutions for the industry that I love–the green industry.

If you work with ornamental plants, whether that be growing, selling, planting or maintaining–you’re my passion. Helping you figure out social media? Cool–that’s fun and interesting and a different kind of challenge. Bring it on. I know the kind of people you are and where your passions are…not always on the computer. I know you know it’s important, but the tidal wave of information to figure it out is overwhelming. You know what, we (at CREE) can surf that wave and find the smooth channels to help you paddle through the water of online marketing until you can stand up and ride the wave yourself. Let us help. Plug in. Use the resources we create for you, and send us your next questions. We’re already anticipating what those questions are and working toward solutions, so you have the tools you need when you’re ready to make changes in how you relate to your customers online. We are all about that.

How about you? How did you find your passion? Is it horticulture? Something else entirely or even many things? Do tell. We love a good story.

About Dr. Cheryl R. Boyer

Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Ornamental Nursery Crops and Garden Centers at Kansas State University [K-State Research and Extension] Manhattan, Kansas

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