These are the leading minds in the field of horticulture.
Meet Mark Weathington. Mark, thanks for sharing with Gardening with Confidence! And thank you for all you do!
Please visit the Garden Talent (on this blog) for other interviews of bright horticulture minds.
Name: Mark Weathington
Years of work in profession: 21
Occupation: Horticulturist (actual title is Assistant Director & Curator of Collections)
Current place of employment: JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University, Raleigh, NC
What is your earliest garden memory?
I wish I had one of those memories of learning to garden at my grandmother’s knee but I did not grow up in a gardening family. I do remember eating figs off a bush in my great-grandmother’s New Orleans garden which is probably my first memory of eating something straight from a plant.
What made you decide to enter the field of horticulture?
I started in college as an architecture student but dropped out of that program after a semester and a half. I bounced around through various other programs (I was a business major for exactly 20 minutes). I took a plant propagation class on a whim and knew by the second class that I finally figured out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To say my parents were relieved is probably an understatement.
Please tell me about your specific horticultural position?
I have one of the best jobs in public horticulture. I work with staff and volunteers who are passionate about plants and their importance in people’s lives. I travel around the state, country, and world to talk about plants and to collect plants to evaluate for landscape potential. People come from all over to visit the JC Raulston Arboretum so I get to meet interesting folks from all over yet we are small enough that everyone here has input on what we do and how we do it. We all overlap in our responsibilities so there is never a feeling that horticulture is separate from development or education and vice versa, definitely a team effort and ethic.
I personally work with a great director in helping set the direction for the Arboretum from an administrative point of view but also work closely with our horticulture staff to set the priorities for collection development. I write grants and am active with plenty of outside organizations including the American Public Gardens Association and the International Plant Propagator’s Society.
Something different in my position than in many other public garden jobs is how closely I work with the nursery industry to try to bring new plants to the public. That drive has been the inspiration behind the JCRA from the beginning and was part of the reason I wanted to come here from my previous position.
How long have you been in the horticulture business?
I started working in horticulture about 23 years ago doing retail horticulture and landscaping while in college.
What is your personal garden style?
I have no style. I simply love plants so I randomly plant things that interest me and make me happy in my own garden. Unfortunately I currently have 2 plant-eating dogs so I have not done a great deal of planting in recent years.
Tell me about your first plant love?
I’m not sure I remember my first plant love. I didn’t know plants at all until I began the horticulture program at VA Tech so every plant I learned was an exciting revelation for me. I do remember that Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ was the first tree I learned in my first Woody Plants class.
I also remember when my eyes were first opened to the fact that the learning process was never going to end. I had learned dogwoods in class and felt pretty confident that I was pretty well on top of them. I knew Cornus florida, kousa, and stolonifera. Then I saw a Woodlander’s catalog with 3 pages of dogwoods which blew me away. Then I saw Forest Farm’s dogwood listing – probably 10 pages and knew I was never going to bored with plants.
Who inspired you in your career and how?
I had a series of fantastic women who inspired me on the job. My first boss at a retail nursery, Karen Ziegler, was fantastic. My first boss in public horticulture was Mildred Pinnell Foeckle at the Atlanta Botanical Garden who really cemented my love of public horticulture. I remember her pointing out a person who came to a lecture at ABG and saying “he was a real plantsman” and me thinking that I would really like her to think of me in that way at some point. I also worked closely with Ann Parsons at Norfolk Botanical Garden who inspired me to look at the bigger picture and delve deeper into what a botanical garden could be beyond the plants.
Of course being a plant guy I have been inspired by people who are really passionate about plants. When I read Roy Lancaster’s Plantsman’s Paradise: Travels in China I was inspired to collect plants in the wild. I was like a giddy fan-boy when I was able to spend the day one-on-one with him and stay at his house and talk plants until late in the evening and then get up early and talk more plants with him. Tony Avent inspires me but also depresses me every time I visit his garden and realize it would take me 2 lifetimes to put together the collection he has assembled and 3 lifetimes to know the collection as well as him. Dan Hinkley is an inspiration. His joy for plants is infectious, I remember waiting for his catalog like my children waited for Harry Potter books to be released. Ted Stephens at Nurseries Caroliniana because even after a lifetime spent with plants he still gets so excited about something new. John Grimshaw at the Yorkshire Arboretum and author of the magnificent New Trees is a more recent inspiration. He is a throwback to the gardening botanists of old with a keen scientific mind but also great skill in practical horticulture.
What is your favorite garden setting?
I love shade gardens personally but really any garden that is using interesting or new (to me) plants is exciting. I was recently in New Zealand where the flora is so different from what I am used to seeing and I spent hours and hours in the native plant sections of those gardens trying to get a grip on the native flora.
What is your favorite planting style?
I’m a big fan of any style that puts lots of different plants together whether it is a mixed border or a collection of Japanese maples. I appreciate and enjoy formality especially since it is a style I rarely use but I quickly get bored with any garden that uses a minimum of different plants.
What advice can you give others considering the field of horticulture?
I will be specific to the field of public horticulture since that is where I have spent the last couple of decades.
If you want to be in public horticulture, be prepared to move. Gardens are spread out and it can be difficult to move up the ladder at any one garden (that isn’t always true but is a good generality).
While you are young – in college and just after college – try to get internships wherever you can and especially look into opportunities around the world not just in the US.
Get involved with professional organizations, especially the American Public Gardens Association. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from the more experienced members of this group. The conferences are expensive but worth saving up to go. Consider submitting programs or posters which can help convince people to fund your trip.
If you are a plant lover, learn business, personnel management, marketing, etc. Plants are easy, people and budgets can be more difficult.
If you could go anywhere to see gardens, where would that be?
Probably Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden in South Africa. I have never been to that area of the world and would love to have the opportunity to study that flora and have heard wonderful things about the garden. Visiting there would also give me the opportunity to get out into the wild in South Africa.
If you could go with any one person, who would it be?
Probably my wife. Mary is the best person to travel with and she would drop me off to explore the garden on my own since she would have no interest in seeing it. The best way to see a garden for the first time is on my own for me.
If I were to see the garden with someone, it would probably be someone from my “inspiration” list. Roy Lancaster would be a dream since he is so enthusiastic and has a story about every plant. Tony and Dan as well. Tony has such a broad knowledge of not only the plants but who is growing them and what forms they have. He has such a great eye for small differences in plants and what would be a good garden plant. Dan is so interesting. I had a chance to walk around Atlanta BG (where I had worked for several years) during a Maple Society meeting with him and seeing it with him gave me a completely different perspective. Perhaps at the top of my list (with Roy) though would be Ted Stephens. His incredible enthusiasm and excitement for plants is really second to none. I get a smile every time I think about travelling to Japan with him and hearing, “Oh my word! Mark, Mark… come here. You have got to see this!”
What was your most valuable training?
At this point in my career, I’m honestly not sure I can credit anything in my horticulture degree (undergraduate or graduate degrees). My favorite classes were the plant materials and propagation classes but those were all easy for me and I would have picked all that up pretty easily on the job.
I do have a degree in sociology as well and some of those classes have been extremely useful in understanding how groups think and work. Social research methods has been especially helpful. I really wish I had more marketing training than anything else.
How can people contact you: email, fb, LinkedIn, Twitter, website, etc.?
Anything else you would like to share?
Regarding public horticulture as a career, I always tell folks that it is one of the most satisfying careers available. In large measure this is because there is more filthy lucre to be made just about anywhere else so the people who are working at public gardens really love what they do and believe they are doing good work. When I come in everyday at around 7am for the last 20 years, the other folks I see are all happy to be there even when the temperatures are going to be in the 90’s with 90% humidity. It is pretty hard to put a price on working with dedicated, intelligent, interesting, and happy people on a daily basis.