Always Becoming: Lucy Dinsmore's Path to Horticulture
For March Featured Horticulturist, we're so delighted to introduce one of our own, Lucy Dinsmore. Lucy has been involved with Women In Horticulture since its early days, joining in Fall 2017 to spearhead social meet ups in the Delaware Valley where the group was founded, and quickly becoming a core organizer. She was first drawn to how approachable the scene within WinH is, and in many respects we have Lucy to thank for cultivating an atmosphere that is welcoming to newcomers at any point in their careers, for opening up dialog by creating a space that is safe and encouraging, as well as bringing her craft and voice as a writer to countless entries on our blog.
Lucy holds a Master of Agriculture in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. However, her first concentration was in studio art, which she studied at Macalaster College in St. Paul. Today, she is the Azalea Meadow Horticulturist at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, with a long list of previously held positions that trace her pursuit of warmer growing zones and reflect her training in humanities. Many of our readers local to the Philadelphia region will likely recognize in Lucy the cold hardy and warm hearted horticulturist they know from regional events, and we are so happy to have the opportunity to shine some light on her personal values and practice in the interview that follows.
And lastly, Happy Women's History Month! Check back often this month for a suite of special profiles and histories befitting the occasion, including a piece by Lucy Dinsmore herself about her influential great-grandmother who was an early woman landscape architect, and much more...
Image Captions: 1) Hiking in the Wissahickon to admire the Pennsylvania State Champion European Beach with colleagues from Morris Arboretum, Friends of the Wissahickon, and the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation. Pictured on far right of Lucy Dinsmore is Rachel Burlington, co-founder of Women In Horticulture
2) Lucy Dinsmore saving baby turtles that have wandered onto the main drive at Morris Arboretum; she cautioned us to share that she didn't actually kiss it!
3) Lucy Dinsmore and 2015-2016 intern Paige Ida are pictured with students from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf after a mulching project.
WinH: Lucy, your background exemplifies the two pillars of horticulture: fine art and science. Can you tell us how your undergraduate degree in studio art informs your work as a gardener?
LD: Sure. Well, an artist is taught to observe and pay close attention to their subject. I started out in sculpture, but then focused on painting. Whether it's sculpting in clay or putting paint on a canvas, you're looking for details that will define your piece. On a canvas, nothing is left out; the background is given just as much attention as the subject, whether that’s a portrait or a still life. My senior year of college I focused on landscape painting, and being in Minnesota, I learned how to paint snow and see all the colors and hues that go into 'white.' I think my art training definitely helped my ability to visualize gardens or spaces in terms of colors, heights, and textures, and I wonder if that's true for anyone who’s studied some art form. For example, when I’m pondering where to locate a young tree at the Arboretum, I'm seeing it as a mature specimen, either standing alone or incorporated into a garden bed of flowering shrubs and perennials.
WinH: What led you do pursue a graduate degree in horticulture?
LD: I was in my early twenties and floundering, switching jobs about every year. At one point, I thought I wanted to be an art teacher, since I studied art. So I signed up to do a year of AmeriCorps service, tutoring elementary-age children in Minneapolis. It was a rewarding but very challenging year, and I realized then that teaching young people was not in my future. However, AmeriCorps awards its recipients with an education stipend, so while i didn’t have much savings, I had money to use for classes. I knew I needed more direction, and I was inspired by some of my mom’s friends who were garden designers. With a desire to design and work outside, I set about researching programs at the University of Minnesota, as I was living in the Twin Cities and it was the only place I wanted to call home. I researched, applied to, and was accepted to both graduate programs in Landscape Architecture and Horticulture, and after a long internal debate, I chose Horticulture, because I thought it meant more time with plants and less time in the studio or at a computer. One of the pre-requisites for the graduate degree was Plant Propagation, and after my first day in that class, I was hooked.
WinH: How would you describe the horticulture scene in the Twin Cities during the time that you were there? Specifically, how did the zone 4 climate either positively or negatively challenge you?
LD: Ufdah, as they say in Minnesota. As I saw it back then, there were two ways of gardening - there was the camp of Belgian block patios, Japanese barberry, and Karl Foerster grass. And there was the camp of native plant front yards, growing wild and woolly with echinacea, asclepias, and sporobolus. I preferred the wild look, and for several years I worked for a design-build company that only used native plants. The zone 4 climate meant that my plant vocabulary was pretty limited, and by the time I left to come east in 2011, I was itching to be warmer and do more. That being said, the Twin Cities definitely has a vibrant horticulture scene with a strong network of garden designers, garden centers, urban agriculture, and youth gardens.
WinH: As a horticulturist currently employed at a public garden, how do you satisfy your creative side?
LD: In the winter, the horticulturists plan and order all the plants for our yearly plant sale over Mother's Day weekend. Going through catalogs and ordering plants is one way that satisfies my creative side. I order what I'd want in my own garden, so it's a chance for me to dream a little. Winter is also time to order for the garden. In my quest to cover all the ground in my section so as to weed less, I'm learning how to design with ground covers. During the growing season, I'm constantly adding or editing out plants. Sometimes, the job is just 'mow, blow, and go,' as we say at the Morris. And those days are fine, too. Those are zone-out and zen-like days. That's why I take pottery classes; so I can use my hands to make things of beauty. Writing is also an outlet for me, so I'll write articles any chance I can get.
WinH: Is there a piece of advice you would share with your younger self?
LD: Oh, so much advice. Take a course in public speaking. I never did and am making up for lost time now. Apply to as many scholarships, especially travel grants as you can. I would have loved working abroad, learning in a different climate with different plants and people with accents. Be willing to be vulnerable by sharing of yourself and asking questions. Asking for help doesn’t show failure - rather it shows interest and willingness, and people love helping especially if it shows off their knowledge and talents. I could go on an on here, but life is all about personal growth, so there's still time for us!
WinH: What’s something that you learned early in your career that you feel made you a better gardener?
LD: I learned early on about the amount of maintenance that landscapes require. I started out working with the maintenance crew for a small design/build company in Minneapolis, and it was just weeding all day. Learning about plants by how much work they require really gave me perspective on garden design and the work that I do today.