Foreign Gardeners: Ryan, from California to Jordan
Ryan's studies and experience has taken him through Longwood Gardens and also the Jersusalem Botanic Garden, two places I know well and have been lucky to experience . So when I learned that Ryan accepted a position in Jordan, I knew that his experience in Israel at the J.B.G. would be a great benefit to him and looked forward to seeing what kind of work he was getting into. This series provided the perfect opportunity to learn more about Ryan's work, what he is witnessing in the landscape and see how it is progressing. Enjoy his story and his stunning images. - James
Hello Ryan, would you be so kind as to share with our readers your name and what is your current work position?
Hello, I am Ryan Guillou, the Nursery Manager at the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan.
A cross-section of life in California
Where are you from originally in the United States and when did you make the move abroad?
I am from Venice Beach, California and I moved to Amman, Jordan in November of 2015 for my position.
What was it that spurred the big move halfway across the world to Jordan?
I wanted to move back to the Middle East and I liked the idea of playing a role in a budding garden's development.
"Though my staff did not work with growing plants previously, they have a good eye for recognizing and distinguishing plants because of what is palatable or not for their herds...."
Nursery work in the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan (click on image for more)
What an exciting, and admirable, reason for your decision. With that sort of role you must be responsible for some interesting tasks in the garden, can you give us some background on what those responsibilities include?
As you might expect my job is to grow native Jordanian plants for the garden (we only grow natives), but because horticulture as we think of in the West is not as widely appreciated, the role has expanded a great deal. My staff are from the local community whose primary income before working at the garden was herding sheep and goats. I spend much of my time working with my staff and teaching them about how to propagate and grow, where the plants come from in Jordan, and how we can use different methods and materials to expand production and make our facilities more efficient and organized. Though my staff did not work with growing plants previously, they have a good eye for recognizing and distinguishing plants because of what is palatable or not for their herds.
stunning views, camels and plants: details of past trips (click on image for more)
Another large part of my job is to go on collecting trips throughout Jordan. All of our plants at the garden are wild collected, so I can be in the field 1 to 3 times per month for several days collecting with the botany team and bringing members of my growing team along when space is available. Most of my staff have not seen much of the country, so it is vital that they understand where the plants we grow are from in order to take care of them properly in the nursery.
Carpets of native plants, Anemones and Lupines (click on image for more)
Tell us about a typical day for you in the gardens at work?
On average I spend most of my time checking on various growing and development projects between my two nursery sites, giving out money then threatening them (jokingly) for receipts, and managing expenses. I swear, we gardeners get into this profession to work with plants hands on, but as we rise in position we find ourselves more and more behind a desk!!! We have hundreds of thousands of plants to grow, so we have many deliveries of various materials coming in to keep operations moving and expand facilities. It is not very often that I get to actually plant anything anymore, but the staff are becoming more and more experienced and knowledgeable so it allows me to work on planning for other projects.
Plants of the Eastern Desert and Wadi Araba, Jordan (click on image for more)
Living in another country is a much different experience than visiting other countries. What do you think are the benefits of living abroad and working in the horticulture field?
There is a great deal of habitat disturbance in Jordan, and gardening is not as developed here as in the West. When I tell people what I do and then explain the role of a botanic garden, people are always shocked and smile. I think the best benefit is the appreciation people give me for having such an unusual job in a country that is surrounded by such conflict. Many people I meet tell me that it is refreshing to finally meet an expat in Jordan that does not work in the humanitarian field.
There must be some difficulties that you have encountered while adapting to living in Jordan, what types of struggles would those be?
The two biggest would be the language barrier and a lack of openness to new ideas. However, my Arabic is improving and I can function quite well with most day to day issues along with communicating ideas and directions with my team. As for trying to get others to accept new ideas...... I have learned to adopt a more local method by ignoring and doing things the way I want them to be done. When in Rome.....or the Middle East!
Were there any surprising changes that you didn't expect but have welcomed and enjoyed?
Assimilating into the Jordanian society and my transformation into a local. I love being able to just blend in and not have a taxi driver or a store clerk suspect that I am a foreigner. I have caught my self starting sentences with " In Jordan we...", and even my American accent has changed when I speak English. Whenever I visit the States people ask where I am from.
(click images for more)
You mentioned that there seems to be a lack of openness to new ideas there, so how has that affected you as a horticulturist?
The most direct struggle relates to my job. I spend most of my time trying to find growing materials, otherwise we would spend a fortune to import everything from Europe. We are so spoiled as horticulturists in the West with so many basic resources at our disposal such as ready made potting mixes, different types of containers and growing medias, and experts to ask for advice. Despite the struggle, I have learned to become very resourceful and creative with what can be re-purposed or made from scratch. As a plant nerd it can also be frustrating not to have the large variety of plants at retail nurseries like I had in California. There are so many plants I would love to grow at my apartment, but I can not get my grubby little mits on them!
How did you find your current job in Jordan all the way from California?
Oddly enough, Facebook. My previous manager who hired me posted the position on the Group for Emergent Professionals page. I responded, and here I am now.
What advice would you give to others who are looking to move from one country to another?
Make sure you do your research about the city where you are planning to move. It is vital to know if the position, cost of living, culture, and social seen together can provide you with a life that is affordable and keep you sane. Moving to a new country is a challenge and your overall happiness is most important to handle the stresses of the new environment.
Did you do anything to prepare yourself for this type of life change?
I had some long talks with myself about whether taking this job was the right move for me, and I made a pros and cons list. Once I decided to take the position I used different social media sites like couchsurfing.com to make friends before I arrived. For me it is very important to have friends to see after work, and they have truly become my family here.
Wadi: a valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season. (click for more)
Immersing oneself in a new environment is always a sensory experience, there is so much to see and absorb. Tell us about a great memory you have had so far in your new environment?
Definitely the first time I entered Wadi Rum in the south of Jordan. The massive sandstone mounts and sweeping red sand dunes still amaze me after visiting dozens of times.
What misconceptions do people usually have about what it is like to live and work in Jordan?
One of the largest misconceptions is that Jordan is unsafe due to the conflicts in the region. Though presence of ISIS in neighboring Syria and Iraq are not to be taken lightly, Jordan is a very safe and stable country and I do not feel that my life is at threat. Another misconception.......... yes, you can find alcohol and drink in Jordan. Amman has a variety bars and pubs, and Jordan even grows its own wine and produces a local craft beer.
If you could go back and give your younger self some advice before this change, what would it be?
Nothing really. Life is an adventure and you just need to accept all of the ups and downs that come with it. I am glad I moved, and I can honestly say that my younger self never expected to end up where my current self is now.
Flowering bulbs and Ryan for scale with Urginea maritima
New country and new plants, do you have a new favorite plant that you can grow now that you weren’t able to before?
That is a tough one because I am from a Mediterranean climate and now working in another Mediterranean climate. Probably many of the bulbs like Fritillaria persica which need some cold to flower. Coastal Southern California is too mild for many commonly grown geophytes to flower properly, if at all.
It sounds like you have found your place and its wonderful to see you thriving and happy in your position there. If and when you return home to live, what horticultural or life lesson have you learned from your current country, that you will remember and take back with you?
The importance of putting effort into your happiness. Living here is not always easy and it especially was not in the beginning, but I put a great deal of effort into meeting friends, creating my community, and improving my work environment in order to create a life for myself that is fulfilling. It is up to me to decide if I want to be miserable or happy, and I will take that mantra with me to wherever I move next.
Thank you for being a part of our Foreign Gardener Series, it has been a pleasure to look into your world and seeing the incredible experience you are having through horticulture. If you would like to reach out the Ryan, please leave your comment or question below and we will happily pass it on. To do some further reading, click on the link below. Thank you again Ryan. - James