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  • Writer's pictureMartha Keen

Well-Rooted: Sarah Dominsky is Right Where She Belongs

Updated: May 7, 2019

Sarah Dominsky has put down roots in central Virginia after spending the better part of the last decade bouncing between the East and West coasts training and practicing in the complementary and sometimes competing fields of landscape architecture and horticulture. When she graduated with a BLA at the peak of the Great Recession in 2009, job prospects were slim and the market had stalled, which is what led her to take a series of internships, including a long run at the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy in San Francisco, where she had the opportunity to work in the historic gardens surrounding Alcatraz, as well as perform invasive species removal and native plant revegetation projects in the Presidio. This experience led Sarah to a position at a design firm that specialized in ecological and habitat restoration, such as wetland mitigation, through the East Bay and Central Valley of California. However, despite finally arriving at the career she had originally intended to do, what Sarah missed was the grit of rugged work and the delight of being around plants all the time. And so, she went back to school, attending the two-year Professional Gardener Program at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and graduating in 2016. It's not often that someone gets a thorough education in both fields--often horticulture programs are light on design principles including illustration and placemaking, whilst landscape architecture programs can only devote a sliver of the curriculum to the vastness of plants.

Today, Sarah works as the Assistant Landscape Manager at Grelen Nursery in Somerset, VA. The company is uniquely positioned in the industry, providing design, landscaping, and maintenance services, as well as being an extensive wholesale nursery, retail garden center and cafe. Sarah is able to merge her skill sets in the broad view of design and site planning, with the nuance of plant selection, succession, and combinations. In the candid interview that follows, we narrow in on a bit of what makes Sarah tick, as well as showcase some of her own photography and floral work. Thank you Sarah, for your thoughtful replies!

Women in Horticulture: Sarah, you’ve lived on both coasts of the US and in many places in between. Please tell us why Virginia speaks to you.

Sarah Dominsky: My first year in the Professional Gardener Program, I attended Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina. It was my first year back on the East coast, and the first time in five years I owned a car, so I decided to make an extended trip out of it by camping along the way in Harper's Ferry, WV and Shenandoah National Park, VA, and visiting the Biltmore in Asheville, NC. I had never really spent any time in central VA and was amazed by how beautiful it was.

In selecting a college after high school, with one visit to West Virginia University’s campus I knew that it was where I wanted to go. The campus was so unique: a small city in the middle of wilderness and mountains. The same was true when I visited San Francisco for the first time in 2007; I instantly fell in love with the city and wanted desperately to move there. So I guess deciding where I want to live is mostly a feeling, a little luck, and the guts to move. The funny thing is you don't really know it until you are there.

What's great about central VA is that it's still affordable despite the second homes and vast estates. Within a few hours of where I live, there are loads of cultural and natural activities. It is also a great mix of urban and rural. Shenandoah is in our backyard and you can still get to D.C. or Charlottesville in under two hours.

Horticulturally speaking, there are lots of large commercial greenhouses, estates, public gardens, and little mom and pop garden centers. I also feel like there is sense of gardening without knowing you are gardening. It's fun to see the little vegetable plots pop up on people's' property; gardening and growing food seems to be a part of the way of life here. It's a reminder to me that gardening isn't just about pretty flowers and perennial beds; it provides fresh food for people on the cheap, creates windbreaks, divides parcels of land, and gives cows shade. We don't just garden and plant trees because it makes things look pretty, there is a utilitarian purpose for it all and I think that appeals to me.

WinH: A lot of landscape architects get a bad rap for not knowing their plants. I’d like to invert that question instead and ask you how your landscape architecture training has benefited you as a horticulturist?

SD: I was lucky with my training at West Virginia University. We had a great horticulture teacher who gave us a good foundation of learning plants. However, what most landscape architects lack in their training is actual exposure working with plants, whether it be in a greenhouse, gardening, or working in public gardens. For me, learning a few of the easy ones made me more curious about the ones that I did not know.

I loved my training as a landscape architect. The profession was a great fit for my learning style. Most of our classes were hands-on studios, with very few lectures and tests. Honestly looking back on it, I am not sure that I would have made it through college if it was four years of lectures and tests, and I am not sure that horticulture would have been the right course of study for me at college.

Learning the idea of the design process as a landscape architect also created a method for solving design problems in any situation. The design process never yields one solution and it’s a good way to weigh all of the answers to a question, not to mention helping to choose the one idea that you think will work the best. Personally, I think best on paper, so even if it's a simple sketch in plan view, that at least provides me a with a somewhat scaled base that I can sketch over with trace and thereby also document the process in which I was thinking. It's interesting to work this way and see which solution you choose, sometimes it's the first option that you came up with, and sometimes it's ten sheets of trace later.

Being able to communicate designs graphically is also important for getting your thoughts across to clients as well as organizing your own thoughts for progression. My training helped me with my hand graphics and integrating computer software into sketches to edit and manipulate. Not everyone can look at something in plan view and interpret what it would look like in real life, and being able to think about heights and sizes of plants in a perspective drawing also aids in designing as well as selling a job to a client.

As far as skills that were valuable, learning to read plans, understanding construction sets, and communicating ideas in a logical fashion have all proved to be useful during my training at Longwood Gardens as well as in my current job.

WinH: When designing a floral piece or planting plan, do you start first with color or texture? So many of your designs are rich in both aspects.

SD: I love texture in gardens, and textural plants are usually the ones that I find interesting and want to use when designing. I think I fall for textures that are fine and detailed, and when I am working on a project I have to remind myself that voids or blank spaces in gardens are a good thing. Wide bold leaves make feathery detailed textures even more noticeable.

Color for me is what I fixate on the most, and the rest tends to fall into place. Yearly I seem to fall in love with a new color, and develop a strange radar for that color; I see it in everything or see things that would match it perfectly. My current color obsession is based upon a terracotta bud vase that a friend gave me years ago from Heath Ceramics. Since then, I've involuntary collected new items that match it!

I was really able to express my obsession with colors while creating the Student Exhibition Garden at Longwood Gardens my last year of the Professional Gardener Program. The solution to our design problem allowed me to explore the importance and desire for the color blue in the garden. As orange is not only the color of the center of the Meconopsis Himalayan poppy, but the complimentary color to blue, I chose to design a garden highlighting these two colors in harmony. It was an interesting way to learn and garden with new plants, many of which were not commonly found in the trade; some of my favorite were Euphorbia myrsinites, Salvia apiana, Melianthus major, and lots of others that we grew from seed.

When working on a garden I feel as though I get so excited by all the different plants that can work together that gardens are more collections than an overall themed aesthetic. I think that's where my OCD with color comes in handy, because it keeps in me check.

WinH: What would you say is the plant(s) you reach for most often in your work, the plant(s) you can’t be without? Are there any favorite hardy perennials or woodies that you think are underrated?

SD: I think my palette is always changing depending on where I am living and what the project is. Here in VA, properties range from traditional estates with boxwood foundation plantings and historically specific perennials, to mountain folks who are native and local ecotype purists, so it’s fun for me because I don't feel like I have a definition or a moral obligation to pick a side.

Having worked and gardened in California, I also have an eye for less traditional garden plants. Working at the Gardens of Alcatraz exposed me to using Agaves, Aeonium, Yucca, and Aloe in the garden. And while here on the East coast we can't grow them nearly as well, you find other plants that reflect a style, which may explain my love of Kniphofia. It's a great example of traditional gardening but with an edge. I have always loved Heuchera, even though they can be over-bred and gaudy. My favorite is Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’ though: big bold leaves, dainty flowers, and it seems to thrive in most situations. It’s a classic but can also be wild and informal, serving in a native plant setting if you want.

Central VA is littered with Juniperus virginiana which can have so many different forms, all depending on the site conditions and if they have been topped under power lines. They can be mangled by the wind, have high canopies, or be round and low growing; when the berries set they give off a blue glow, while in the fall they turn a rust color. The older they are, the more gnarled and twisted the bark becomes. I have seen them used as specimen trees or serving a more utilitarian purpose, planted in a formal row to divide fields, or as allees to old estates. But they are also weedy and will grow anywhere including the crotches of other large trees! I like the idea of using a native of the landscape in so many different ways.

Prior to working in Virginia, most of my training was was with perennials because they were cheaper, fulfilled their role faster, and I could fit more in a smaller area. But now that I work on bigger properties with clients who are dedicated to long term investments on their land, it's a whole new palette and we are really making huge impact on the appearance of the land.

WiH: As a creative, how do you recharge and reset whenever you need to get inspired?

SD: If I feel like i just need to relax and do something that is not directly related to

productivity, I love to hike, garden for myself, and just be outside. Travel is also a great way to get inspired. Like others in the profession, I love to travel to botanic gardens and wild areas abroad. Seeing plants grow in their native habitat is one of the best ways to learn to use them in the garden. And seeing what others in the industry are doing is a way to get inspired or bring back new ideas, or to learn from others' mistakes (floral designers, please stop using pampas grass).

If I am working on a project or design and need to get inspired while in the design process, looking through old photos of past projects or places I have visited is a great way to remind myself of things that served as inspiration. Most of the photos I take focus on combinations of colors and plants that I like framed in a single image. It’s hard to think of combinations and maintain originality if you are only using things that you know will work; looking others and documenting their successes only add to a palette that you can use.

WinH: What’s something that you learned early in your career that you feel made you a better gardener?

SD: It's okay to make mistakes. I can’t tell you how many times early on I pruned a Hydrangea incorrectly or planted a plant in totally wrong conditions. It’s really okay to not do something right the first time, and there is only so much you can learn from reading and studying. With gardening it's all about physically doing things and practice, and the more you observe and learn from the mistakes you make, the better you will become. Gardening is the one thing that makes me pretty excited about getting old. Every year I get a little better and I can't wait to be somebody's kooky older neighbor who insists on showing off every single plant in my garden.

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