Horticulturalist Kyle Harger on potting — and pot! — and the dirty job he loves
While many of us spend the Texas summer in an ice-cold office with the A/C cranked up, 24-year-old Kyle Harger spends his workdays getting hot, dirty and sweaty … and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s a greenhouse supervisor at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, who brings beauty to life before his eyes.
A recent transplant to Texas from North Carolina, Harger says while his job demands manual labor, it also requires intense study to keep the plants and flowers blooming and disease free. He also has advice for would-be daters about how choosing a plant can be a lot like choosing a life partner.
— Jef Tingley
Name and age: Kyle Harger, 24.
Queer career: Greenhouse supervisor, Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden.
Is this something you thought you would be doing as a child? The first thing that I can remember wanting to be, looking back, was a pastor. I find it funny now because anyone who knows me would find the idea of me being a religious figure in a church hilarious, and so do I. After that, I wanted to be a nurse because that was what my mother was, but that dream was short-lived. My passion for horticulture started after my parents split when I was in eighth grade. My father then married one of those evil stepmother-kind of women that Disney likes to make movies about. She used to punish me by making me spend time with her weeding in the garden. We developed a friendship, and she took me to my first greenhouse. After that I was hooked! I worked for a small greenhouse operation in Wisconsin when I was in high school and have worked in greenhouses ever since.
How long have you been doing this work? [Knowing that I loved plants] I worked on achieving my bachelor of science degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin River Falls — also known as Moo U — Go Falcons! I was uncertain what I really wanted to do with my degree. I landed my first professional job right before I graduated, for the North Carolina Arboretum. It was there, working with all the amazing staff, that I found my calling: public gardens. I worked there for exactly two years, to the day. Being the young, career-oriented professional that I am, I realized it was time to advance, which lead me to the Dallas Arboretum. I moved to Dallas in June.
How do you describe your job to people at a cocktail party? I tell them about what I do and why it is important for our community to have public gardens. When I tell them what I do, most people say they wish they had my job.
What’s your favorite part of your job? My favorite part is when I see the public walking through the gardens and going crazy over something I have grown. Anyone who has worked in a public garden will tell you that every now and then, as staff, we need to “stop and smell the roses.” I love when I am walking through the gardens and see people writing down the names of plants. I feel that the true purpose of my job is to help educate and inspire the public by introducing them to a wide variety of plant material.
Least favorite part? I am not sure if I should answer this! In general, I have not enjoyed washing pots or scrubbing algae off floors. Both are good at making you question your decision to become a horticulturist. Sanitation in the greenhouse is one of the best ways to prevent disease and insect problems, so I just keep telling myself that when I am scrubbing. In all honesty though, my least favorite thing about my job is the horrible tan lines I get! I have noticed they are a lot easier to even out here in Texas.
What are the most common questions you get when you tell people about your job? I get a lot of people jokingly asking me if I could grow them some good pot. Just like any crop, I could research it and probably produce a high quality crop, but I like to keep it classy and stick to growing legal stuff.
What are the biggest misconceptions about your industry? As a grower, one of the biggest misconceptions I feel people have is the idea that we just stick seeds in pots and they become these beautiful flowers they see out in the landscapes and nurseries. If only it was that simple. There are so many different factors that have to be managed in order to grow a successful crop. We have to manage disease and insect problems, environmental factors (as best as we can), watering, feeding, height control, crop timing, etc. For a couple hundred plants, this would not be too hard. Here at the Arboretum, we are growing hundreds of different types of plants and some times thousands. I have lost many nights sleep worrying about crops that I was growing at the time.
I also feel that people have a hard time understanding all the hard work and sweat that my job entails. Most people just see the beautiful gardens and can’t grasp the idea of how much work it takes to make them look great and keep them looking that way. There are days that all I do is fill flats with soil, wash pots, weed, transplant seedlings. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and working hard doing manual labor. I grew up milking cows in Wisconsin, so I have always been accustomed to hard work. But this type of work is not as glamorous as people may think it is.
What does your significant other think about your queer career? I have recently found a great man who has been working on changing careers the past couple of years from being a zookeeper to a registered nurse. He just bought a house with his sister and their yard is a blank canvas. We have been having fun working in the yard together doing different projects and learning together.
For me, the best part is that we both have (or had) careers that people just think about the fun parts but don’t understand all the behind-the-scenes work. People think he got to just sit there and train animals but most of the time is spent just doing the non-glamorous stuff. I like it because when I go home I don’t have to explain why I am tired and just want to sit, have some cold beers, and do nothing the rest of the night. He gets it.
You’ve said that working with plants is like being in a relationship. Explain that more. Think about owning and caring for plants as an intimate relationship, as your partner: Just like your partner, plants are not always going to tell you what’s wrong. You will need to learn their love language and how to best accommodate their needs. The relationship, just like any real one, will take dedication, time, and sacrifice. We all know there are many different types of relationships. If you are a “serial dater” afraid of commitment, I suggest sticking to potted annuals. They are great at providing short-term season pops of color and require little maintenance. When they start to look tired or you get bored just get new ones, like you would dates. If you are ready to commit but not sure if you are ready to settle down and get married, try a vegetable garden. It requires more planning and care than the annuals, but is still seasonal. If you are truly ready to hunker down for the long haul, then I suggest a perennial garden along with the other options. A person’s yard and/or plant choices can say a lot about them.
Do you know someone with an unusual or dirty job — a Queer Career — deserving of a moment in the spotlight (even if it’s yourself)? If so, email your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 19, 2014.