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Editor’s note: You see the results of our horticulture staff’s work every time you visit the Arboretum, so we wanted to introduce you to the team who inspires our organization. Each month, we’ll highlight a different member of our horticultural team in our “Growing with” series.
By Liz Potasek
Whether it’s an orchid with microscopic flowers or a stinky corpse flower, Arboretum Greenhouse Manager Ricky Garza has grown it. Garza has spent the past 18 years working inside and outside at the Arboretum, growing annuals for the gardens, working with endangered plants, maintaining tropical plants and even sharing his personal plants with the Arboretum. “I have plants at home that I had originally collected as seeds from a prairie that was my childhood ‘stomping grounds’ — although I walked lightly,” he says. “I have also shared these plants with all of you. They are now well-established sights at the Arboretum, and include Wild Petunia, Illinois Bundle flower, Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow and Royal Catchfly.”
Garza seeks out and grows a variety of unusual plants at the Arboretum, including ghost orchids, carnivorous plants and bat flower. “This is how I find challenges, by growing things that can prove difficult or just things that are unusual or rarely seen,” Garza says.
Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?
Nature is a great healer. I can’t imagine not having beautiful flowers, birds and creatures great and small in our lives. Nature is also under threat from “development.” I have worked many years to protect and preserve what we have left. To teach people and share what I know about our natural world, this is what keeps me passionate about my work.
What do your job duties involve?
I work mostly in the greenhouses, but have spent many years working in our natural areas as well. I grow the annuals for the grounds. I maintain tropical plant collections for displays. I work in the Meyer Deats Conservatory. I also work with endangered plants. And, during the winter months, I keep the Koi from the Woodland Azalea Garden and Japanese Garden healthy and alive in the greenhouse.
What is your earliest memory of gardening?
My earliest gardening memory was planting marigolds and zinnias from seed tape when I was in second grade. Thoroughly amazed, I was soon occupying every available window in my parents’ house with tropical plants. Each year more of my parents’ yard was converted over to gardens.
Who taught you to garden?
My mom had a couple of house plants, and of course she bought me the seed tape. But it was my own desire to seek out more and more information about all plants that brought me to where I am today.
Do you have a home garden?
I have a small yard, but it is filled with flowers and plants. It’s a “collectors” garden, not planted for aesthetics. A lot of single plants with little space in between. I enjoy my tomatoes the most. Nothing like a homegrown tomato!
What is the most challenging plant you work on at the Arb, and why?
I consider my job very challenging, and I like to further challenge myself. I’m a grower so I like to grow things that I’ve never tried before. Timing things for the Flower Show in February and the sheer volume of plants I grow for the grounds are probably my biggest challenges.
Do you have any favorite gardening trick or tips you’ve picked up along the way?
Leave the leaves! They are what make our soil and provide refuge for the little creatures.
What houseplants can you recommend for beginners?
For a beginner, I would recommend Monstera deliciosa or Philodendron selloum. Both plants are dramatic and easy to grow. If flowers are what you are after, I would try an Amaryllis. They are easy, long-lived, and rewarding when they bloom.
How does your work at the Arboretum make a meaningful impact?
The most meaningful impact that my work affords is working with endangered plants. Most of the plants are not well known, and would be missed by few. However, diversity is what makes this world so amazing. In addition, I believe that the loss of even a single species would be devastating in its permanence.