The horticulture career

Rebecca Bakker, a nurse who has taken classes to become a certified arborist, waters the labyrinth in her Willow Grove yard.
Rebecca Bakker, a nurse who has taken classes to become a certified arborist, waters the labyrinth in her Willow Grove yard. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)

Some come to professional gardening as late bloomers, and are sublimely satisfied - never mind the hard work and low pay.

Posted: August 01, 2011

Doug Croft grew up in rural Virginia, a hobby gardener who studied finance at Virginia Tech and later took a job budgeting and forecasting for defense contractors. He had all the trappings of success. Then one day - epiphany.

He was outside his Alexandria, Va., home, "correcting the mistakes of a landscaping company hired by the condo association, when it suddenly dawned on me that this could be a career. I could get paid to do this," recalls Croft, who decided to return to Virginia Tech to study horticulture.

Now he does, as one of seven staff horticulturists at Chanticleer, the public garden in Wayne.

"In 15 years, I've absolutely never had any regrets about my career change. It's been everything I expected and more," says Croft, 48.

Powerful words, but you'll hear them again and again from gardeners who follow their hearts the second time around, according to Doug Needham, head of the education program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

"It's not necessarily that they were dissatisfied with their first career, more like they've always had a great passion and love of horticulture but didn't view it as a career," Needham says.

"At some point," he adds, "they look around and decide to pursue their first love, which was horticulture."

That would describe Rebecca Bakker, 64, of Willow Grove, mother of two, longtime gardener, and, for the last 27 years, nurse at Jefferson Hospital. "Somebody had to pay the mortgage," she says.

In 2009, after 6 1/2 years of squeezing classes at Temple University Ambler around her work schedule, Bakker received a bachelor's degree in horticulture. In June, she finished a one-year internship at Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, and this month she became a certified arborist.

Nursing and horticulture are "both caring and biology, but plant patients can't come to the office and tell you where it hurts. It takes intuition and know-how to figure out what's going on in a garden," says Bakker, who grew up in South America with missionary parents.

With her new credentials, Bakker is looking for a part-time garden or consulting arborist job to see her through retirement and beyond. Meanwhile, the 12-hour shifts in the operating room continue.

Jennifer Forrence, 50, has impressive credentials, too, having graduated from Yale Law School and served as an assistant attorney general for the State of Maryland, specializing in contract litigation. All the while, this sheep farmer's daughter was gardening - and loving it, even designing gardens for the paralegals and secretaries at work.

In 2006, Forrence had her moment of truth: "I thought to myself, 'I'm 45. I have 20 more years to work. I like what I do, but I'm not sure I want to do it for another 20 years.' "

She knew horticulture paid "significantly less." She also knew her husband, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, was solidly behind her.

In 2007, Forrence walked away from her promising legal career - "You're kidding," the boss remarked - and into the world of horticulture. She'd been taking classes for a while; she got a job with a landscape gardener, eventually becoming head gardener at Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore, near her home.

When her current summer internship at Chanticleer ends, Forrence plans to take all she has learned back to Cylburn. "This has been a great choice for me," she says.

Sara Levin's transformation came after a decade of studying Latin at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood and Colorado College in Colorado Springs, followed by seven years of teaching.

In the summer of 2008, just before she was to begin a master's degree in Latin at the University of Washington in Seattle, Levin signed up for an archaeological dig in Israel. "Suddenly I was doing manual labor for the first time in my life and I've never been happier," she recalls.

While studying in Seattle, Levin worked part time at an organic landscaping company, a job that "totally lit a new fire. I was hooked on plants," she says of her decision to forgo a Ph.D.

In June, Levin finished a Morris internship and is now studying for a master’s degree in public horticulture through the Longwood Gardens Graduate Program. She eventually wants to find a job that combines her love of teaching and urban botanical gardens.

Meanwhile, she enjoys giving talks on the Latin nomenclature of plants. "If you know what the words mean, you can learn a lot more about the plant," she says, "and you can breathe life into the discussion."

That's what Lisa Blum tries to do with her students at W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Roxborough, most of whom arrive wanting careers in animal, not plant, science.

Blum, who teaches greenhouse management and plant health care, has to overcome students' perception - still reflected in society at large - that "horticulture is always a hobby, never a career."

Although the growing interest in sustainability, "farm-to-table," and organic gardening is changing that perception, Blum says, "it's not hitting the high school age group yet."

"Everyone is trying to attract young people to horticulture," agrees Jenny Rose Carey, director of the arboretum at Temple University Ambler, where many of the horticulture and landscape architecture students are middle-aged or career-changers.

"So many of our young people are removed from the land. They don't understand our connection to nature," Carey says, citing two other factors that lessen horticulture's appeal: It's hard, physical work, and generally doesn't pay well.

Neither deterred John Moore, 39, who grew up on a 300-acre wheat farm in Watonga, Okla., and spent eight years as a hair colorist in salons in San Francisco and New York before chucking it all. "I wanted a slower pace, more balance in my life, and a way to get back to the land, which I've always felt a connection with," he says.

Moore worked at a garden center in Washington, D.C., and a landscape company back in Oklahoma before entering the Longwood program in 2009.

After graduation in December, he hopes to work in floral design, perhaps at a public garden.

"It feels right and it fits right," he says of his new career.

He could have been channeling Elizabeth Belk, who had a 15-year public relations career in the United States and Eastern Europe before signing up for the three-year horticulture program at the Barnes Foundation in Merion. There, she discovered her "one true career path" - historical garden restoration.

Long story short, in March, Belk, 50, was named horticulturist at Wyck Historic House and Garden in Germantown. Now, she says, "I spend my days in the garden doing what I love."


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

gardening


Hear Rebecca Bakker talk about the labyrinth she created at www.philly.com/hortcareers.


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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