Growing Enthusiasm Alumni share inspiring careers at public garden
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue. Photos by Cindy D. Meixel, except as credited.
Three recent Pennsylvania College of Technology graduates share a common refrain: They feel blessed. Their daily task is to showcase – for hundreds of thousands of visitors who travel each year to admire their handiwork – the beauty this earth can offer, all the while preserving a piece of history. Their days at the prestigious Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square begin early, hours before visitors begin arriving at the public gardens that were created by Pierre S. du Pont, whose great-grandfather founded the DuPont Chemical Co.
"Longwood is about displaying ordinary plants in extraordinary ways," said Patricia Evans, communications manager at the gardens, where du Pont strived to offer an education in horticulture to the public.
Accordingly, Penn College has cultivated a strong relationship with the gardens. Students in Landscape/Horticulture Technology visit the gardens regularly, four graduates have earned internships since 2005, and two have since joined the staff of just 23 full-time gardeners.
Dean Dietrich, who earned an associate degree in ornamental horticulture: landscape technology emphasis in May 2009, earned an internship in the gardens' Research and Production department.
Among Dietrich's assignments, he took on a student project to combat a virus that has begun plaguing Longwood's canna collections. In addition to the display stock, he also takes care of Longwood's research canna lily stock. "Longwood has created a number of cultivars special to Longwood history," he said.
"If I'm not working on a large seasonal display, I'm working among the flowers," gardener Lauren Hoderny said. "I'm watering the grapefruit trees, spraying a shower over the historic Strelitzia or giving a haircut to the Bougainvillea, an original plant of the Conservatory from 1921. I'm splashing around in the Exhibition Hall floor (shown) beneath the tropical Cyathea from Australia, and I'm sharing all this excitement with the thousands of visitors who come to experience Longwood Gardens a year. Yes! This is the life!"
"It's not just horticulture; there's art (in the work at Longwood Gardens)," Dietrich said. "Longwood strives to show a unique side of horticulture that people have never seen."
"It's been amazing," Dietrich said of his yearlong internship. Ornamental peppers are among plants waiting to be transferred to the gardens for late-summer display. Plant production – where his work was concentrated – begins months in advance of a plant's display in the 325 acres of the gardens that are open to the public. Part of Dietrich's summer work was devoted to training giant chrysanthemums for display inside the conservatory during the gardens' Fall Festival and growing poinsettias for Christmas displays.
"I have been incredibly blessed," Hoderny said. "At the oh-so-young age of 24, I wake up every morning to go to work at one of the most prestigious and beautiful gardens in the United States, maybe even the world." She heads up some of the most intensive garden displays, involving hundreds, sometimes thousands of plants each week. Her work has included a living wall of orchids, a floral carpet and an indoor cranberry bog.
April Bevans, a gardener on Pierre du Pont's first garden, the Flower Garden Walk, spent 20 years as a costume designer before seeking her second degree (her first was from the University of Delaware). A presidential scholar and student ambassador at Penn College, she earned an associate degree in landscape/nursery technology in 2005. "I always loved gardening," she said. She spent a year interning at Longwood Gardens before taking on a full-time job at the public facility in 2006.
Bevans recalls watching a man enter the Flower Garden Walk without looking up until he turned the corner. There, he stopped in his tracks and uttered a simple "Wow." "Those are the moments – when you're out here sweating, planting caryopteris – that it really makes it all worth it," she said.
Working in the Main Conservatory, Lauren Hoderny, like Bevans, graduated from Penn College in 2005, completed a one-year internship immediately after, and became a full-time gardener in 2006. She doesn't recall her first visit to Longwood Gardens: She was 3 years old and a guest of her grandmother. "My grandmother loves it (that I work here)," Hoderny said. "She says she planted the seed."
The color palette and the borders have not changed on the Flower Garden Walk since du Pont built it in 1907, just a year after he purchased the property. From time to time, when working alone, Bevans imagines she can feel his presence. "I wish I could look over my shoulder and see him," she said. The 600-foot walk – which begins its annual explosion in early spring with 130,000 tulips – remains the most popular of Longwood's outdoor gardens.
About 11,000 species, varieties and cultivars grow at Longwood, representing more than 200 plant families.
Dietrich was also heavily involved during his internship in training Longwood Gardens' Thousand Bloom Chrysanthemum. "This style of growing chrysanthemums comes from Asia. Specifically, Longwood's style comes from Japan," said Dietrich, who explained the technique is a high-skill art form. "The end result is a single chrysanthemum plant with 1,000 blooms framed in concentric rows." In 2009, Dietrich worked with Longwood grower Yoko Arakawa to produce the gardens' largest Thousand Bloom yet, and the largest in the United States, with 718 blooms. "For this project, I was the only intern working specifically with the grower, and it was an amazing learning experience," he said. Photo courtesy of Dean Dietrich.
"The opportunity came to work at Longwood, and I grabbed it," said Bevans, one of only 23 full-time gardeners at the 1,050-acre facility (325 acres open to the public). "They always want to do everything better, so it makes you always want to do better."
Hoderny pulls a hidden hose from a receptacle in the floor to water a giant hanging fuchsia. "That's something Pierre did, so this is historical. He was a very smart, innovative man."
"He (Pierre du Pont) just liked to try new things, to experiment," Hoderny said. His tradition continues. "We're lucky. ... It's a great place to be."
Built by Pierre du Pont in 1921, the conservatory at Longwood Gardens encompasses 4.5 acres under glass. The tall glass windows cost du Pont $10,000 when he built the inspiring indoor gardens.
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