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Innovative Programs for New Careers in Horticulture with Garden Futurists UBC Botanical Garden

Articles: Innovative Programs for New Careers in Horticulture with Garden Futurists UBC Botanical Garden

Summer 2024 

Listen to the podcast here.

We are highlighting examples of innovative programs in the Pacific region that are truly preparing students for the future of horticulture within a variety of careers.

There has been some alarm in the last decade around the loss of horticulture and plant related degree and certificate programs. Can we get to the bottom of the conflict in views between talk of a “botanical education extinction” and evidence of younger generations’ growing interest in plants? 

Garden Futurist spoke with Douglas Justice, Associate Director, Horticulture & Collections at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden on UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program. We also spoke with recent graduate of the program, Christian Bendsen. 

This article was sponsored by:

Sarah Beck: You’re listening to Garden Futurist, I’m Sarah Beck.

For a new set of Garden Futurist episodes, we are highlighting examples of innovative programs in the Pacific region that are truly preparing students for the future of horticulture within a variety of careers. There has been some alarm around trends in horticulture and plant programs in the last decade or so.

Since we’re talking about academics, I looked at a few current scientific articles on the topic, and I’ll include those in the references of our transcript resources.

A “downward trend” was noted by a 2019 article from Brigham Young University, citing a 53 percent decrease in horticulture-related degree programs in the US between 1997–2017. 

A parallel conversation on botany and plant science programs has yielded articles in North America and the UK declaring “The End of Botany.” A 2022 paper in Ecology and Evolution is titled: “The botanical education extinction and the fall of plant awareness.”

Listen to Garden Futurist Episode XXXIX

This is all pretty intense. There seem to be some conflicting views between “botanical education extinction” talk and the evidence that is growing around younger generations showing interest in plants. The Garden Media Group, which writes an annual Garden Trends Report says that the youngest adults being tracked right now in media, Gen Z, is predicted to “reshape the future of the horticulture industry.”

Which perspective is more accurate? Where are the Garden Futurists found today?

We are going to explore this topic anecdotally and we’ll start with a conversation with Douglas Justice. He is the associate director of Horticulture & Collections at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. We spoke about the UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program. This is a comprehensive eight-month, full­-time program for those who are interested in careers in horticulture, gardening, forestry, or landscape architecture.

We’re also going to speak with a recent graduate of the program, Christian Bendsen.

We begin with Douglas Justice.

Douglas Justice: What we do here at UBC Botanical Garden is we have an eight-month horticulture program and we’re training people in the garden. The Faculty of Land and Food Systems is what runs the applied biology and the sustainable agriculture and environment degrees. Those are undergraduate degrees. So those are as close to horticulture, I think, as we get academically at UBC.

A few years back, we decided—well, and partly for selfish reasons—that we wanted to train people so that they could come and work for us.

We created this program, and we designed it so that people had experience in garden techniques and design and careers in horticulture. We tried to jam as much in there as possible and give our students about 50 percent of the time, in fact, working in the garden, along with the gardeners and the curators who work here.

This has been extremely powerful, I think, in terms of motivating students. So people who now go through the program, they understand what a botanical garden wants and needs.

They also understand that they’re in high demand from all of the local municipalities, including the City of Vancouver. We could employ every single one of our graduates. The City of Vancouver would take them all.

They told us this from the very beginning. We’ve now passed, I think, 10 years in this program and every year we could have full employment. But not everybody wants to work for the municipality. There are various municipalities and people live in different parts of Greater Vancouver.

So we have people who have gone into business for themselves, which would not be surprising. People who are doing landscape work, high end landscape work and also more typical landscape work. People have gone into floristry, people have gone into nursery production and propagation, and, of course, probably the majority of people have gone into work in the public sector.

We’re very happy to actually be employing at least a half a dozen people who have graduated that program here.

It comes with the certification. It’s a landscape technician certification, which they can ladder into what we call the Red Seal, trade certification.

We have a pretty strong union movement in Canada that that looks after horticulture among other things.

Sarah Beck: Let’s go back to what you were saying about sort of the foundations of your program because the hands-on piece, while that might seem painfully obvious to people who actually practice horticulture, maybe it isn’t totally obvious when designing, programs for students for certificate training purposes.

Can you talk a little bit more just about the structure of the program and what you think makes it innovative?

Douglas Justice: The starting point is that we feel that it’s important for students to see sort of the broadest range of horticulture. So not only just gardening.

Plenty of gardening is weeding. So when we designed the curriculum, there’s time for getting out in the garden and doing some weeding, but we were very careful to say that all of these other goals in the curriculum have to be satisfied.

So we have kind of a checklist and we say, “Well, okay, there’s an activity. Does that activity actually check those boxes?”

Because we believe very strongly that people need experience in training, but they’re not going to learn a lot just by weeding. Well, they learn how to weed, for sure, but there’s a lot more to that.

So we focus a lot on field trips. We go to different parts of the university campus. There are some activities that students have been able to do, renovate beds or do pruning.

UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program Students in the field. Credit: Douglas Justice
UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program Students in the field. Credit: Douglas Justice

There’s a farm on the campus, and so we trade a little bit with the farm. So students get an opportunity to do some—pruning blueberries, for example. We have 15 blueberry plants here. At the farm, they have a couple of hundred. So it’s a much easier place to do that.

The other thing is that students get to experience the curatorial aspects of botanical garden work, that is, recordkeeping and labeling and understanding ex situ conservation and those kinds of things.

The advantage of being in a botanical garden is that we have a huge diversity of plants. So they’re going to have the benefit of learning to grow and maintain those things, that they might not ever see again, but what that does is that it gives breadth to that training.

We have our own nursery at the botanical garden, and so they get an opportunity to do some work in the nursery. Of course, growing plants teaches you something more about horticulture than just cultivating around plants or pruning.

Those are kind of fundamental parts of the of the program. I think what’s important to us is that people understand that plants are a benefit to society. And you can say that—I mean, that’s motherhood—but directing people to ways of understanding how that actually works. What are those ecosystem services and how do they function? Are there ecosystem services that are provided by intact ecosystems or manufactured ecosystems? Those issues are really important.

So we do a kind of plant biology in the beginning of the program, just to set people up. So they understand some ecology and they understand some biology, and then we go outside and look at those things and work in those environments.

We pack a lot in, I have to say.

Sarah Beck: That’s fantastic. Something I’m hearing from you is, on the list of how to be innovative and effective here, use a botanical garden as a living laboratory for your students.

Again, that can’t be understated because you just described this incredible array of knowledge types that these students are absorbing. I’m sure it’s just at a massive rate because they’re just soaking this up—all of these different elements, like the conservation piece, the ecology piece—and they’re out there doing things. Obviously, learning while you’re doing is has that stickiness.

Can you talk a little bit about, just again, these sort of outcomes? And do you have any sense of percentage-wise what you’re—I mean, I’m assuming you have small enough classes, you’re able to pretty much track people’s careers that they’re moving into?

UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program Students in the field. Credit: Douglas Justice
UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program Students in the field. Credit: Douglas Justice

Douglas Justice: Yeah, I would say that every cohort is different. We have 20-somethings and we will accept people who are changing careers midway.

Sarah Beck: Yeah, because mid-career changes are very common in horticulture, right?

Douglas Justice: Yeah, exactly. We have a lot of diversity in age. We have plenty of diversity, which is common in horticulture, just in general.

So in any class, there’s a social aspect to that class. We do the entrance interviews and find out what people are interested in. There’s a fairly narrow range of what people are interested in, what they think that their career is going to be. Then when we look a couple of years down the road, after they’re finished, there’s a huge variety of careers that people have moved into. On some level, that is because we’ve exposed people to the broadest range that we possibly can.

I mean, that’s what’s so great about horticulture. People who are technologically interested can find a niche there. People who are good at convincing people of the worth of something can go into sales positions. People who are meticulous and don’t like talking to people can go into propagation. Whatever it is.

And those opportunities, they’re out there. We try to help people find those. I haven’t got the figures in front of me now, but I would say that more than 80 percent of the people who have gone through the program are employed in full-time horticulture or some aspect, and 100 percent are employed immediately after graduation.

Sarah Beck: Just thinking about some of these broader planetary issues that we’re facing these days, I’m curious to hear you just briefly speak to—whether it’s climate change biodiversity loss, other pressures—I know students are generally very attuned to a lot of these issues. They’re paying attention. They’ve been hearing about this.

Do you feel like there is, not that it’s positive to have to have these sort of climate challenges, but are you seeing shifts in the way that you’re giving guidance to those graduates around what is their place in the world and what is our work in horticulture going to be like as we continue to adapt to these challenges or to find paths forward?

Douglas Justice: Absolutely. I’ve been teaching horticulture in one way or another for more than 30 years and the thing that stands out to me is that people are enthusiastic, students are enthusiastic, and the people who are attracted to horticulture are naturally optimistic people.

You have to be optimistic, you have to want to change the world and make it better. I mean, that’s what horticulture, for the most part, that’s what horticulture is about.

The big change has been in the last five years, I would say primarily since the pandemic, that people are a little more sensitive about everything.

My approach to teaching has been to be maybe no less passionate about what I love, but maybe a little more gentle. Because I think they may be optimistic, but I think they’re also scared.

There’s a lot of stuff happening, not necessarily related to horticulture, but those things about climate change, they’re big unknowns. That I talked about a talk that I gave the other day, and I was talking about, we have to convince people that trees need water. And that it’s not about planting trees, it’s about growing trees.

If we don’t switch to growing trees, rather than just planting trees, then we’re just going to lose trees. Then where is the heat island effect going to be then?

But I wanted to assure people in the audience that we can do this, that we can actually make a difference. It’s not hopeless. We do have to convince some people to do the right thing, but there are certain things that we can do to make it better.

In Vancouver, we’re going to see less snowpack, more winter rain, less summer rain, and more evaporation in the summer. All that means is that we’ll have less water when we need it. So what we have to do is we have to conserve that, and here are some solutions to that.

People are very, very happy to hear about solutions, because all you have to do is turn on the news and it’s almost entirely negative. I don’t care what subject you want to look at, and it’s overwhelming.

I think horticulture, I think biodiversity is going to save our butts, and if we don’t look after biodiversity, we’re going to be in trouble and we’re going to discover too late that we have to fix something.

So we’ve got to start working right now. We’ve got to engage with people and our students are like a hundred percent behind us. They get it.

We can make positive changes in this world, and horticulture is a really good vehicle for allowing us to do that.

Sarah Beck: That was so powerful. Thank you.

It’s really true. We need to maintain that optimism and give them the tools.

I have definitely observed what you’re talking about and we all, as mature professionals in this field, I think we’ve experienced this for a long time and people who are new to this conversation do need that.

They need to be nurtured to that place and they need to have that foundation like you’re building because they can be the incredible champions of this work.

Let’s listen to my conversation with recent graduate of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program, Christian Bendsen.

Sarah Beck: I personally get really excited about the innovative programs that I’m seeing in horticulture now. There’s just nothing better than getting that view of somebody who’s just been in that program. And then now you’re launching a career and you’re doing real work.

Christian Bendsen: Yeah.

Sarah Beck: It must be actually pretty exciting, right?

Christian Bendsen: Yeah, it took a long time to figure out which path to go for sure. So it was very exciting to discover this program and then figure out that it was the right place to go for me, for sure.

Sarah Beck: I’m curious, what were the big factors in terms of picking the UBC program?

UBC Botanical Garden’s Horticulture Training Program Graduate, Christian Bendsen. Credit: Paul Sangha Creative

Christian Bendsen: Before even that, there was always just sort of an innate, born-with feeling and connectedness towards gardens and plants, like ever since I can remember. Looking back on it now, I very much feel that and can identify that, but at the time you’re kind of just a little kid in the garden, but you’d remember being fascinated or those with the memories that stick, right?

So there was always that, and I grew up on a farm, very rural. So I connected more with animals and plants than with people.

One of my friends had been into the program or was in the program at the time and they were just wrapping up, which is around this time of the year right now.

So I asked him about it and I was like, “Oh, okay, that’s cool.” Like, I didn’t really think there was much of a career in horticulture at the time, to be honest, and that’s a whole other thing. Like it’s such an underdeveloped area, I feel like, still, especially in North America. So I was like, “Oh, this sounds really neat.”

At the time I just started a job at a small plant shop, a community-minded plant shop, as well. She told me about this program, my good friend, and I was like, this seems like for me, and then the barriers to get in are quite low. You just need a high school diploma, and the cost is pretty great. I think all-in, it’s around $6,000, so that’s pretty amazing. Then also the fact that it was just being taught at UBC, there’s like a big name attached to that, and it’s the only trades program that UBC offers.

Also at the time, a big barrier for me was I felt really shameful about going back to school or even like entertaining the idea, because I was 32 and I’m like, “Okay, I’m too old for school.” It was like getting over myself a little bit to be able to do it.

Sarah Beck: What you’re saying about being an early mid-career professional, that is a very common thing for people to transition into horticulture and related careers, right?

Christian Bendsen: Yeah, it was interesting. Another nice thing is that it was a small cohort. There’s only 16 students. That’s amazing and unheard of. So I just really appreciated that part of it, too. Yeah, it was awesome.

Sarah Beck: Can you talk a little bit about what that program prepared you for and how you’re beginning your new career? Give me a little bit of framing of what you’re doing now.

Christian Bendsen: I work for Paul Sangha Creative as a horticulturalist. It’s a landscape design firm here in Vancouver. There’s so many talented landscape architects and designers in the firm. I didn’t really realize that landscape architect firms actually hire horticulturalists when I was in the program, even.

So that was really interesting to learn that and so needed, I think. Let the landscape architects do their job, let the landscape designers do theirs, and let the horticulturalist kind of help supplement both of those other professions as well so that a great job can be done collectively.

You learn in the program as a general, base knowledge for things are like plant sciences and plant identification, and soil management, design, park maintenance, and lots of nursery production. Also some soft skills, like just how to interact with people. Just being a student helps with what I’m doing now and more so.

I came into this job not really thinking about how client focused I would be, as well. For clients, they’re, lot of the time—and no judgment on them—they just want a really beautiful space to be in, right?

So I like to take that idea, which is a great idea to have, and kind of build upon that and say, like, “Well, let’s consider where we’re planting it and how we’re planting it and what we’re planting and because you can still have all these, you know, beautiful native species dependent on the region and form them into a way that is beneficial for native pollinators, and to promote water conservation,” and all these other things as well.

You have to get creative and figure out which plants can still work and still do things that the client would like to see and still is appropriate for the landscape and for the region that they’re in and work with climate change.

Sarah Beck: Without having done the UBC program, do you think you would have imagined being in that advocacy role with people? I mean, this sounds like such an interesting element of what you’re doing because you are being a plant specialist for a firm. Yet it sounds like there’s a little interpretation going on.

Christian Bendsen: Sometimes it feels a bit like a sales position in a way. I think it’s most exciting when you are working with a client and then they start getting on board with things.

That was the other thing that the program really provided me was confidence, again. I was fired from a job, COVID happened, like, I wasn’t feeling too great about myself.

So it gave me so much confidence and reignited a passion that’s always been there to be able to soundly talk about these things, and to help people understand why it’s important to really take care of your land and be a steward for it and allow people to inform you about that.

Sarah Beck: The confidence-building piece is interesting to me, too, because just thinking about the fact that you are allowed be working in a botanical garden, a public garden space. Those of us in the industry think of those spaces as being just sort of the elevated, like, “This is where the experts are. This is where the people who know plants work.”

What did that feel like when you were working just on that site all the time?

Christian Bendsen: Truly the way I think about it was like going to Hogwarts. Because you just walk in and from where you actually have to physically get off the bus or park, you still have to walk through the garden to get to the classroom.

So it would just be sort of this magical walk along the pathways of the garden, like early in the morning just to get to the classroom, right? So just that alone was just a lovely little morning hike, you know? So it just sets you up in this sort of idyllic situation to learn in.

Another amazing aspect about the program is you’re working with all these horticulturalists and business horticulturalists and gardeners that are really developed in their fields and you get to work alongside them, and take in their knowledge and experience as well, which is so beneficial. Just to be able to talk to a different person other than your main instructor. To pick their brain to get their aspect on things That’s such a unique part of the program, too, I think.

Yeah, and the other thing about the botanic garden, too, that I appreciated, that I didn’t quite think about—with especially botanical Gardens before—was sometimes they’re not always the prettiest gardens. The point is they’re kind of a learning area, anyway.

So I thought that was kind of cool, because I remember on our first day when we walked through, I was like, “Okay, this area looks a little weird.” I was like, “Why is that tree just like so dead or so scorched or something?”

And then, sure enough, we get to it, and there’s the whole reason why. There’s some sort of pest that’s attacked this specific tree. And now that this pest has become there, they’re seeing how it runs through, or how the tree reacts to it, and what happens to the companion plants around it, and stuff like that.

So I was like, “Oh, that’s really neat.”

Sarah Beck: Yeah, you get the research opportunity, too.

Christian Bendsen: Through the UBC program, I really did develop more of a respect for education, to be honest. So I see the benefit in that so, so much as well, that there’s just things in the classroom that you just can’t really learn on your own. Whether it’s connecting with your fellow students or professor or the plants that you’re with, it’s just such a unique opportunity that I have a lot more respect for now.

Sarah Beck: I’m so excited for you to be in the role you’re in and to be exploring the world of plants. And I especially love that you are really being an advocate. You’re already having a big impact. It’s really awesome.

Christian Bendsen: I think that, too, like the whole impact thing is, I don’t know if I’m going out there trying to make impact, but when I think about it, it’s more of that one-to-one impact with one person.

Because I am client based and in different properties, that’s where I feel like you can make a small little change in just one little spot. I think that’s still very rewarding for myself. That’s the win of the job, for sure.

Sarah Beck: That is a great scale to work at, because it’s pretty meaningful.

Thank you so much though, for your time. Really appreciate it.

Christian Bendsen: Oh, of course. Thank you so much as well. This has been really fun.

Resources

University of British Columbia Horticulture Training Program

Brown, Alyssa J., Phil S. Allen, Greg V. Jolley, and J. Ryan Stewart. 2019. The Downward Trend in Postsecondary Horticulture Program Availability between 1997 and 2017.HortTechnology 29 (4): 417–422.

Crisci, Jorge V., Liliana Katinas, Maria J. Apodaca, Peter C. Hoch. 2020. “The End of Botany.” Trends in Plant Science 25 (12): 1173–1176.

Stroud, Sebastian, Mark Fennell, Jonathan Mitchley, Susannah Lydon, Julie Peacock, Karen L. Bacon. 2022. “The botanical education extinction and the fall of plant awareness.Ecology and Evolution 12 (7).

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