Interviews with animals (that love plants)

Pro-plant person Sarah Owens on getting rosey, but staying real

Sarah Owens is an amazing animal. As a professional horticulturist, ceramic artist, former rosarian for Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, and current James Beard award winning cookbook author and baker, she goes “all in” on the natural world. We caught up to hear more about how she has managed that tricky path called “having a creative career” especially as it relates to gardening and cooking.

all photos by Ngoc Minh Ngo

What got you started with plants?

I always felt more connected with the outdoors. When I was young, I was more inclined to go outside and play in the creek than stay inside. For Christmas, I would get plant ID books, and I collected all the Audubon guides! I was proud to take them outside and identify things in the natural world.

What made you realize working with plants could be a career?

As a teenager my first job was on a landscaping crew. I was 15 and learned how to manage tasks in the field like planting and weeding; it was really satisfying! I was raised with a very strong work ethic, and it felt great to look up and know that I did that even if it was just planting a million pansies.

But, I was also raised with the idea I should be a doctor or a lawyer, and felt like I should do something less menial. Both of my parents felt that I should use my academic brain to get ahead in life, rather than my strong back. So even though I liked landscaping, I pursued a degree in International Business, but learned that accounting and economics didn’t do much for me. I became smitten with gardening and art, and switched my major to sculpting.

After graduating, I worked for 6 years but struggled to balance the feast and famine of being a professional artist. I wanted a steady job, but didn’t want to just “get a job.” At that time, I was on the craft circuit and a friend asked me, “Why don’t you pursue what informs your work?” — and I was like that’s a great idea and started looking at horticulture programs. I applied [and was accepted] to NYBG SOPH program.

[As part of the curriculum] I chose to do an internship at Battery Park Conservancy and was able to meet Piet Oudolf. I think that working in a garden that was designed by him allowed me to see there is a lot of creative expression in the use of plants.

So, you’re a rose expert. What got you interested in them?

I think it’s my background as a sculptor. You have to learn a technical skill before you can become expressive. So, I like to pick a topic and dive into it. Also, both of my parents both loved collecting roses.

I became really fascinated by roses, while I was studying at NYBG — I formed a great working relationship with Peter Kukielsky and his gardeners. At that time, he had initiated a renovation of their famous Peggy Rockefeller Rose Gardens and by getting involved with that work as a student I discovered that roses have an amazing deep history.

[That led to a position at Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where] I initiated a renovation of the rose gardens there — because of the problem with the Rose Rosette Virus — and then converted the garden to an organic regimen. There was a lot of both sheer physical work and responsibility. And, that garden had been managed with a lot of pesticides.

It was really difficult. Here I was, a new hire in a time of layoffs, wanting to make all these changes. There was a lot of resistance from the public and it created a lot of tension.

Why?

The main difficulties in converting a chemically dependent garden to organic is that it takes the plants a while to re-establish their relationships with the soil. So it takes a lot more labor and time, and for a while the plants don’t look that great.

What gave you the confidence to know all the challenges you would be facing, and say, bring it?

I was at a point in my life when I knew I could do it. I love a challenge.

I thought, this is going to be a great experience and I will learn a lot and grow professionally. So I said yes. It wasn’t easy, sometimes I wonder if that was the best decision, but I’m glad I did it.

You’ve now worked in the private sector as well. What’s the difference between working at public parks or for private clients?

Working in a curatorial role in a public park is great because you make and execute decisions. It gives a lot of confidence to a gardener and leads to people caring about their work. With a private client, you are pleasing and educating the client. You have to develop and align with people whose values reflect your own, while earning a living. You have to compromise, sometimes.

But, there are people that want to learn more and want to make better decisions.

I try to listen as much as possible to what the client wants and be really open minded about what that is. For example, I have a client whose garden is located at his vacation home and he’s there for three months only. So, he wants his roses to perform for those 3 months.

And if you crank them full of fertilizer they will bloom their heads off! However he has children, and grandchildren, and he understands the relationship between soil, people and plants. So my job became a little bit about educating him about what cultivars perform better in his conditions, without the help of pesticides.

How do you feel about yourself as a woman, doing this work?

I think as a women your self-worth is constantly evolving throughout your life.

I became aware of this when I made a trip to visit a friend who was interning at an eco village in South Africa, (formerly the Transkei.) They set up tours of the nearby tribes but I wanted a more authentic experience; all I wanted to do was work a day in the field as a woman in that world. I wanted to see how that culture did that. So, they put me in the field with a group a women, from 70-year-olds to 20-somethings.

We sat in a circle and beat clay with a stick. At first they were suspicious of me, until we had a break. I was offered, and managed to gag down a local drink, a very sour fermented corn porridge. And I love fermented things, but it was tough to finish it! But after that they totally opened up. Even though there was a language barrier we covered everything: having children, what their lives were like; they asked me how old I was and wanted to know why I didn’t have kids.

At the end of the day, we were sitting together and they asked to see my breasts. And I was like, I don’t understand. And they took their shirts off, so I could see theirs. And I realized how much pride and identity they took in their ability to feed their families with their work and their bodies, and that their breasts were a symbol of that.

I became so aware of my feminine identity.

There were men were standing around watching us work, and it was embarrassing but I took off my shirt. You know, I grew up as woman, I have the right to vote, I have an education, I can chose to be married. But, I don’t think it was until then I thought about my identity as a woman.

What is it like to work in the landscaping industry, which can be very male?

In the private sector it can be hard. Working at a company or organization that has an HR department can be very helpful.

I had an experience where I was hired to design and install a garden on a property that was managed by a man who really resented my knowledge. I tried to be as gracious as possible, but he ended up screaming at me in front of all the other men that had been hired to help. Then he just walked away, off the site.

I was shocked and didn’t know what to do, so I just grabbed a shovel and started digging. And what was amazing was that the rest of the crew got together and said, “we can tell you know what you’re talking about. What should we do and how can we help?”

I think once they saw that I knew how to hold a shovel, and wasn’t afraid to start doing the actual work, they got it.

You have to prove yourself.

You have to be so strong. You have to create a tough skin and pretend that things don’t bother you.

It’s so powerful to hear this, especially for women who are working and dealing with these issues. If someone wants to find or follow you, where is the best place they can do that?

Find me on Instagram!


Sarah’s book is terrific

Biophilia is a collective of plant professionals. It is also a publication. We publish new articles, photos, and how-to’s here several times a week. We welcome submissions, feedback, seed packets and dandelion fluff. Kindly address all those things to >> plantsvnature@gmail.com.