Sarah Snow is a professional gardener with a wealth of unique experiences in horticulture spanning the Eastern seaboard. After graduating with a BS in Geology from Florida State University in Tallahassee, she became an NYC Civic Corps/Americorps member working at the Gowanus Canal Conservancy in Brooklyn, NY as their gardens and compost coordinator in the early stages of what is now a robust nonprofit environmental stewardship organization. After spending several seasons as a grower at a conservation nursery near the Florida Everglades, and at a fine gardening nursery in Nantucket, Sarah formalized her education by enrolling at the School of Professional Horticulture at New York Botanical Garden. As part of her internship rotation, Sarah worked as a horticulturist at the Oak Springs Garden Foundation in Upperville, VA, the estate of the late Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, and learned the signature pruning style of their hundreds of apple tree groves, hedges, and espaliers from some of the region's finest gardeners. Today, Sarah is a horticulturist for a private estate in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley where she manages everything from the care of a diverse collection of orchids, to topiary clipping, to the kitchen garden.
In the interview that follows, Sarah reflects on some of the formative plants and places that forged her into the gardener that she is today. I had the privilege of meeting Sarah in New York City in 2013 in her days with the Gowanus Canal Conservatory, and with every passing year have come to admire her independence, candor, and approachability. I reckon her many teachers, coworkers, and colleagues past and present would say the same.
Women in Hort: I'm so intrigued by your being a Floridian! How does your home state manifest in your style or values as a gardener?
Sarah Snow: Something that I love about my home state is the biodiversity of its native flora and fauna. Florida is one of the most ecologically diverse states in the nation, especially where endemic species are concerned. An area that comes to mind is north central Florida, where you can peer through the crystal clear water of the springs to the limestone bottom covered in eel grass. The banks are lined with live oaks, cypress, and cabbage palms all covered in epiphytic ferns and Spanish moss. There are lower areas with slash pines as far as you can see, and a dense understory of saw palmettos. The vegetation looks almost prehistoric. Areas like this are intermixed with citrus groves, and one thing from childhood I will never forget is the way the orange blossom scent literally filled the air when in bloom. You couldn’t escape it, and as an adult, coming across orange blossom scent is the most comforting. Unfortunately, most of the citrus groves and pine flat woods/oak hammocks I grew up around were razed in the name of development. All of this has helped me appreciate the wild side of gardens, the importance of nostalgia in regard to garden design, and the value of native plants especially in areas undergoing copious amounts of development, which seems to be most places nowadays.
WiH: Tell us about your work with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy in Brooklyn, New York. Do you have a favorite canal "weed"?
SS: I worked at Gowanus Canal Conservancy through the NYC Civic Corps. It was a very formative time for me, and will always have fond memories. I was introduced to the horticulture field and taken under the wings of so many amazing gardeners, landscape architects, builders, ecologists, compost masters, and community members. At the time, it was a very small grassroots organization, so I was given a fair share of responsibility. My main task was to help organize the monthly ‘clean and green’ volunteer events where we’d spend the day working around the watershed cultivating native gardens in abandoned areas, street tree maintenance, building and turning compost windrows, or maintaining our native plant nursery. It was an interesting time for Gowanus, pre Superfund cleanup. The Gowanus Canal was then still a very industrial setting, and the juxtaposition between the gardens and the industrial landscape made it particularly captivating. My main project was to project manage the development and installation of a native wildflower corridor for NYC wildflower week. With the help of coworkers and volunteer coordinators, we fundraised for materials and built a series of planters, which we installed with wildflowers to provide a pollinator corridor between the Gowanus Canal and Prospect Park. We rallied community members and businesses to ‘adopt’ a planter located nearby and maintain it for the season. Every aspect of the project, from the construction of the planters, potting up and growing on of the native plugs, installing of planters, and maintenance afterwards was done by volunteers. It was a community effort at its finest. I’m really proud of this.
My favorite Gowanus weed is stag horn sumac...Because who doesn’t love this plant? But I also want to give lambs quarter a shout out for its ability to perform phytoremediation in soils. Gowanus can use all the help it can get in that regard.
WinH: What are some telltale markers of the Virginian vernacular landscape? These could include structures, hardscapes, or plants that strike you as particularly regional.
SS: I can speak for the Shenandoah Valley, where a combination of aspects creates an almost idyllic American countryside pastoral scene that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s a seemingly perfect mix of rolling hills of pasture, stone walls (many of which were built by slaves and deserve their own recognition), wild plants scattered throughout such as little bluestem, elderberry, honeysuckle, and mullein, a lone tree in a field allowed to grow unobstructed and reach its full form, and of course, the blue ridge mountains always somewhere in the background.
WinH: MVP garden tool or hack?
SS: I’m never without my soil knife aka Hori Hori. Also, the spear head spade from A.M. Leonard has been a lifesaver for me in these rocky clay soils.
WinH: Is there a topic in our field you would like to see discussed, addressed or explored more often?
SS: The importance of soil science in any gardeners education. The more I learn the more my mind is blown.
WinH: What's something you learned early in your career that you feel made you a better gardener?
SS: The power of community in gardening. Whether it’s physically lending a hand, picking a gardener’s brain, seeing a garden you’ve spent hundreds of hours in through another’s eyes, or just enjoying plants with one another. The horticulture community is so generous and is the main reason I was drawn to the field.