5-10-5: Brie Arthur, Horticulturist and Propagator
Brie and I met during my visit to Camellia Forest Nursery two years ago - she worked as the propagator there, expanding the inventory of woody rarities that make Camellia Forest Nursery a destination for serious plantspeople. She is now a horticultural consultant who lectures frequently throughout United States and she will be speaking on hardy camellias at this year's Philadelphia Flower Show (February 28th 2015 at 3 pm in the Gardeners' Studio). ~Eric
Please introduce yourself.
Thank you for including me in your thought provoking interview. My name is Brie Arthur, professional horticulturist, propagator and garden industry communicator. I am pleased to announce that I have joined the PBS TV show Growing A Greener World for season 6 (airing summer 2015) as the Foodscape and Garden Design Correspondent.
The arts or horticulture? Both… horticulture and gardening is an art form often referred to as “the slowest of the living arts.” Gardens are always evolving; you will never see the same scene two days in a row. To garden is to experience art in its most entrancing, incomplete form and as a gardener you are an artist with an endless canvas.
How did you become interested in horticulture?
My involvement with 4-H in southeastern Michigan as a child was my true introduction to the art and science of growing plants. My first botanical Latin was taught to me during the Monroe County Fair, where I entered Echinops ritro and received a blue ribbon. That motivated me to grow flowers and vegetables to enter each year and hone my skills as a young gardening enthusiast.
I also had the great fortune of having grandparents who were very skilled gardeners. I admired the order they created in their suburban landscape with perfectly clipped hedges, an immaculate lawn and most of all their abundant, organic vegetable garden. Kohlrabi quickly became my favorite fresh from the garden snack and the smell of marigolds on a cool autumn morning instantly reminds me of times long passed.
After you worked for the large wholesale annual company Heartland Growers, you had varied experiences beginning with Nancy and Crawfurd Goodwin's Montrose in Hillsborough, North Carolina. To my best knowledge, Montrose is a beautiful 19th century estate blessed with clay loam ideal for growing plants, and the garden abound with rarities like cyclamen, snowdrops, and uncommon herbaceous perennials. How did Montrose shape your aesthetic and design sensibility, and the use of plants?
My experience of working at Montrose will always be an influence on how I approach seasonal design, plant selection and production of plants from seed for mass plantings. Nancy Goodwin is a wealth of practical horticultural knowledge; she taught me many ways of working smart, rather than working hard, a critical component when managing vast garden space. "Always balance burgundy with a pop of chartreuse OR silver, never both" I recall Nancy explaining on a walk through the shrub border. Her keen eye for combining rich colors and textures while maintaining a noteworthy collection is a unique attribute that is quite enviable.
Most importantly Nancy taught me the seasonality of growing and maintaining a garden from seed. As a midwestern, Zone 5 transplant, I had no idea how to go about gardening year round in a mild Zone 7 climate. The efficiency of growing vast borders from direct sown seed is a skill I utilize constantly both with edibles and ornamentals. This style is very cost effective and results in an appealing cottage garden style with very little effort.
Plant Delights Nursery and Camellia Forest Nursery regularly top the lists of mail order nurseries from which discerning American gardeners order plants each year. Their lists are a long way from the bread and butter annuals you were once tasked at the Heartland Growers. In addition, the individuals who run them are consummate plantsmen: Tony Avent and David Parks, who took over the reins from his parents Kai Mei and Clifford Parks. If Montrose awakened your interest in artistry with plants, then how did Plant Delights Nursery and Camellia Forest Nursery shape your horticultural evolution?
Working as production manager at Plant Delights Nursery advanced my career and understanding of the green industry in many ways. I am so fortunate to have had this experience working with talented people and the most interesting herbaceous plants in the world! The network I developed during my tenure at PDN continues to help me as I navigate in this ever changing industry.
Camellia Forest Nursery provided me an opportunity to be very creative as a propagator, an unusual experience even for mail-order production. My approach was to tour gardens and select from specimens that were exceptional in the landscape. This enabled me to produce a unique collection each season to offer CFN customers. I love the stories behind the plants; the tales of who found it, where it came from and why it is a valuable "cant live without" plant. These are the elements that are lost in the new plants market of today, making a shrub just a commodity rather than something more meaningful. In the future I hope the history of plants will become a greater priority.
Seeing a seedling break forth from the embryo coat or the roots beginning to lengthen from a cutting is a gratifying experience and I can't tell how jubilant I become at seeing these signs of life. I imagine that the same feelings led to your passion for propagation. What were your first experiences with propagating plants?
Like most people I started propagating vegetables and annual flowers from seed. Obviously it is rewarding to start from a tiny seed and finish with pounds of produce. I am still fascinated with how much biomass can be produced in a few short months.
It wasn't until my college Plant Propagation class that I realized how vastly interesting the process of asexual production was. That course gave me the confidence to know that I was destined for the horticulture industry. I love putting roots on a cutting more than anything else; I don't claim to be well adjusted, I claim to be a propagator!
Whether grafting heritage fruits, coaxing recalcitrant seeds to break dormancy, or raising large quantities of plug plants for restoration projects, propagators are often the unsung heroes of horticultural and ecological professions - without them, we would be poorer with plant choices and custodians of a less green world. You have a wonderful knack for all feats of propagation - no challenge seems too small for you - and taking on the social media chair for IPPS (International Plant Propagators Society) will broaden your expertise and submerge you fully. How do you view propagation and its status in the profession?
Propagation is truly the heart and soul and the plant business but this career is in flux. Mechanization and the box store market have changed the way plants are produced, how they are valued and the work force that supports the industry. During a recent lecture at the IPPS Southern Region meeting I asked 230 participants "how many employ a full time propagator?" Less than 20 responded which is a clear sign that the business of making more plants is adapting to an efficient, global market where mass production and cost are the main considerations.
Most nurseries now rely on liner producers to access young plant material, rather than hiring an in house propagator. As branded plant lines and patents mold the new plants market individual plant propagators, like myself, have to be creative and embrace this opportunity to produce unique collections to attract a different consumer.
It is high time for a renaissance of the professional plant propagator. The industry must diversify and recognize the needs of the millennial consumer and begin to prioritize sustainable growing practices, plants with a purpose beyond the aesthetic and increase edible crop production to help reduce the 'food miles' crisis that lies ahead. Talented plant propagators can play an important role in steering the industry in a new, exciting direction.
Despite technological advances, propagation is a skill dependent on timing, dexterity with tools, and cultural practices. Even tissue culture requires surgical precision to extract plantlets and condition them for outdoor conditions. What has been some of your successes and failures in propagation?
To date my biggest propagation success and failure involves Sassafras tzumu, the Asian sassafras. Of the thousands of cuttings I have stuck over the years I have managed to only root and over winter 12 plants, which sold out over night. I like to approach woody propagation as if they were herbaceous perennials. When people ask "how do you root...?" I almost always answer "juvenile, softwood cuttings in heavy mist, no bottom heat." Understanding the facility you are working in is the most critical element to being a successful propagator. Study the airflow, general humidity and light conditions and then begin to experiment with types of wood and varied hormones. Failure is just an opportunity to learn, try again and institute a new method for success.
In addition to tackling the social chair for IPPS, you and your husband David take on charitable activities that increase publicity and fund raising efforts for public institutions. Last May, you two co-chaired the annual gala for the J.C. Raulston Arboretum, as well as host the annual tomato tasting festival. Those in the horticultural profession are by nature generous individuals and our age group (late 20s to 30s) by definition of the 'millennial' are especially civic-minded. What has been your experience with the millennial attitude towards gardening and growing unusual plants?
Fundraising and philanthropy are high priorities for my husband David and me. We want to engage with our community and encourage other young people to get involved. Events that attract a cross section of the population are a great opportunity to introduce new people to the joys of the gardening lifestyle and influence the communities we live in. Millennials seem to respond to this community outreach very positively, which fills me with hope for the future. We all have a responsibility to look and act beyond ourselves for the greater good. We hope to help influence a new generation to care about the communities they live in through gardening and the happy, healthy lifestyle it provides.
My observation regarding the next generation and their relationship to gardening seems to be centered around selecting plants that have a purpose related to environment, habitat, pollinators and food crops. I am thrilled to hear college students talk about a career in horticulture as a culinary gardener, a LEED designer or diversified farm producer; none of those careers existed when I was in school 15 years ago! It makes me realize how quickly the industry can change and I am pleased to know the field of horticulture offers the opportunity to meet the changing needs of our society.
You were the principal instigator/founder of Emergent, a Facebook forum for young voices in horticulture. Why didn't a platform for young horticultural professionals didn't exist beforehand? It just seems strange when you consider the number of young people involved in horticulture, private and public.
I do not know why this platform didn’t exist before considering the ease and accessibility that social media provides. It is imperative that we have a forum for "young" (perhaps the term should be "progressive" as young is quite fleeting!) horticulture professionals to have discussions without the burden of membership fees and meeting expenses. Emergent is a great place to list job postings, ask industry related questions, coordinate travel schedules and develop camaraderie with a diverse group of green industry professionals. I am very pleased to see that it has been well received and utilized!
Camellias seem to be a particular interest for you, undoubtedly encouraged by your time at Camellia Forest Nursery. Along with azaleas and magnolias, camellias are quintessential garden plants in the South. They too are remarkably resilient during dry periods as I remember them looking unfrazzled in the drought that gripped southern Australia. What are some of your favorite camellias?
Camellias are such an incredible plant; very drought tolerant once established, reasonably cold hardy into USDA Zone 6, great screening quality as a broad leafed evergreen and lovely flowers during the coldest of seasons.
I am intuitively drawn to the pre-1900 varieties that are planted through-out the southeast in iconic gardens such as Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC. These long lived specimens tell the stories of generations past and reflect the Victorian era with their large, colorful, showy flowers in mid winter. Most of these cultivars are no longer in production. Through ‘The Heritage Collection’ I hope to offer pieces of the past to the gardeners of the future, connecting them with the people, places and history that make these plants so interesting and worth growing.
The lesser known species of camellias intrigue me as well, such as Tea, Camellia sinensis, and the heavy blooming species like C. fraterna, C. grsjii, C. parvilimba and C. yuhsienensis. The variations within the species are contributing to an incredible new line of inter-specific hybrids that will change the camellia market of the future. The summer flower species Camellia azalea is proving to be influential in creating an ever blooming line of genetics. The future of camellias is very exciting!
What is your desert island plant? Something practical and edible: anything in the Brassicaceae or Solanaceae family. It is hard to make a decision between broccoli and tomatoes!
What places, gardens and people inspire you?
I am very fortunate in that I find inspiration daily from even the smallest nods to horticulture. From the romantic design style of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, SC to the formal castle gardens of Copenhagen, every garden I have had the good fortune to visit leaves me with a new sense of wonder and inspiration.
My dear friend and mentor Rosalind Creasy is an important influence as I direct my professional ambitions toward Foodscape Design. I am so grateful for all that she has accomplished through-out her successful career promoting edibles in the landscape and hope to encourage a new generation to embrace this style of gardening.
What do you look forward to the most in the future?
I look forward to continuing to showcase and promote the value of home gardening for future generations. Gardening is a hobby that positively influences all aspects of life; there is always something to anticipate and look forward to. Hope truly springs eternal in a garden. I want to show that growing food in an ornamental design is fashionable and glamorous. Most of all, I would like to eliminate the word "work" from the home garden equation. I also hope to have an influence on the content of garden related media. It is a broad subject that is difficult to consolidate and simplify. I look forward to being a voice of realistic encouragement for as many people as I can reach.
Thank you Brie!