a group of people smiling and walking next to a glass greenhouse

Celebrating 50 Years of Changing Lives

By Crystal Huff, on

Let’s take a journey back to Longwood in 1970. Fresh off the installation of the Eye of Water and Meadow, and three years before the East Conservatory opened to much fanfare, 1970 was the year in which the Professional Gardener Training Program was founded. Combining extensive hands-on gardening experience with classroom work, the two-year, tuition-free program fulfilled founder Pierre S. du Pont’s wish for a practical school of horticulture and floriculture at Longwood … and, 50 years later as the Professional Horticulture Program, it continues to do just that … and so much more. Just last month, we were thrilled to welcome 120 Professional Horticulture Program alumni—including a student from the very first class—back to our Gardens for our Professional Gardener Alumni Association 50th Anniversary Celebration to, together, share their stories and successes since their time here at Longwood.

When Longwood’s then-Director Russell Siebert, Education Department Head Lois Paul, and Paul’s assistant Dave Foresman founded the Professional Gardener Training Program in 1970, I wonder if they imagined a 50-year anniversary of the program? Did they dream of the impact the 327 program graduates (to date) have made on the world of horticulture, and the world at large? One of the first accounts of the Professional Gardener Trainee Program was in the July-September 1970 Longwood Gardens Quarterly Report: July 13 saw the actual initiation of our long-anticipated program for the training of professional gardeners. Six trainees were selected from 50 applicants. The trainees will “live in” and on-the-job for 20 months.

In July 1970, I, for one, was a nine-year-old in Telford, PA, a mere 50 miles away from Longwood. My neighborhood and small town were my world. But those mere 50 miles away, Longwood was excitedly welcoming the first class of Professional Gardener Trainees. Soon, special visits to Longwood would become a part of my young life … and, just maybe, those visits inspired me to pursue a career in horticulture. In January 2021 my path led me back to Longwood and today as director of domestic and international studies, I have the honor to become a part of the legacy of the Professional Horticulture Program. 

Held on October 16, the 50th anniversary celebration included tours and talks with former alumni and plenty of opportunity to reminisce and reflect. Photo by Dave Shoemaker.

Fast forward to today, with our current class of 10 Professional Horticulture students who were selected from more than 80 applicants, the program remains an immersive, two-year program in which students live, rent-free, in former tenant houses on Red Lion Row (although we may not use the terms “live-in” and “on-the-job” as was included in that 1970 Quarterly Report). Today, students engage in hands-on learning alongside our expert staff in one of the great gardens of the world in this personalized program with practical applications. During their two-year journey, our students learn from talented instructors to earn college-level credits in horticulture, participate in experiential learning projects, collaborate on a student exhibition garden, and study abroad. We place a special focus on personal growth and foster that growth throughout the program … and our students cultivate lifelong friendships and connections along the way.

Current Professional Horticulture Student Rowan Nygard leads alumni on a tour of Longwood’s new Nursery Production Greenhouse Tour during the day’s festivities. Photo by William Hill. 

Over the last 50 years, these experiences have developed professional horticulturists who have shared their knowledge and skills in horticulture throughout the world. The result is a network of 327 graduates making a real difference in horticulture. Of those graduates, 26 worked, or continue to work, here at Longwood. Many graduates work at other public gardens as horticulturists and leaders in horticulture. Others have become entrepreneurs as landscape designers, landscape architects, and consultants, as well as specialists and leaders in commercial greenhouse and nursery production, landscape construction and maintenance, or other commercial horticultural industries. In addition, some graduates have become educators and inspire the next generation of horticulturists.

Our graduates, however, represent much more than a professional network. As I had the pleasure of observing at last month’s anniversary celebration, each of the 34 classes is a family with shared memories, successes, losses, and so many stories in common. All the stories fondly start with the words, “Do you remember when…?” Other remarks I repeatedly heard at the program? “The program changed my life,” and “The program provided me with an opportunity that I couldn’t even imagine.” 

Susan Maney (Longwood’s education department leader [1999–2001]) and Allan Summers of the Professional Gardener Alumni Association class of 1990 greet one another at the 50th anniversary celebration. Photo by Dave Shoemaker.

The power of those words goes far, and can be seen, for example, in an exercise I have conducted with the 2021 and 2023 program classes, using author Larry Smith’s Six Word Memoir project in which people are asked to use six words to describe their life. When I asked students from the class of 2021 to share six words that described what the Professional Horticulture Program meant to them, these were a few of the examples (and sometimes six words were not enough):

  • A two-year life changing experience
  • My biggest life changing experience ever
  • Driven, plant-focused community striving for horticultural excellence
  • Life changing, life-long friendships, inspiring, mentorship, personal and professional growth, enlightening, the best but most difficult life event thus far

And from the current class of 2023, who are just two months into the program:

  • A place to learn and grow
  • Working to understand and grow plants
  • Path to discovery, connection, and beautification through plants
  • An incredibly valuable opportunity with direct access to industry professionals

My favorite six words from a student from the class of 2023? “Living and learning immersed in horticulture.” Sounds a lot like live-in and on-the-job from 1970.

The next 50 years look very promising indeed.

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