At the Chicago Botanic Garden, variety is truly the name of the game. After all, the Garden is home to more than 2.6 million plants—both native and exotic—with 26 gardens and four different types of natural areas. But plants aren’t the only aspect of the Garden both numerous and varied: so too are the Garden interns, the young, intelligent, hardworking, and hilarious behind-the-sceners whose hard work is essential to keeping the Garden the world-class, varied, and vast living museum that it is today.
But who, exactly, are these young people who have forgone relaxing, carefree summer days to toil in the soil? Sitting in a room with five of the interns quickly reveals a surprisingly wide variety of interests and personalities. To intern at the Garden, apparently, one does not necessarily have to be a Birkenstock-wearing, granola-chomping nouveau-hippie (though full disclosure: I did not look at their feet nor peer into their breakfast bowls). Instead, each one of these interns is approaching the work from a different place, with different backgrounds, fields of interest, and long-term goals.
For example, there’s Patrick Hogan. Patrick is from Wheeling, Illinois, and is a graduate of SIU in Carbondale. At school he studied landscape design but his real interest, he says, lies in plant propagation, pollination, and crossbreeding. At the Garden, Patrick interns in the production department, which involves all three tasks. “My goal,” he said with a grin, “is to one day have a plant named after me.” Patrick also seems to have an interest in human propagation—his first son was born nine months ago, and he says he looks forward to expanding his family in the future.
Also interning in the production department is recent Colorado College graduate Johanna Hutchins. In school, Johanna studied biology with a focus on plant ecology, and says that her interest in plants has been lifelong. She explained, “Plants are so complex. The way they respond to things, the way they’ve evolved…they’re really fascinating.”
The display garden interns are also a diverse, dynamic bunch. Take Mei-Ling Schmid, for instance. Originally from Thailand, Mei-Ling studies landscape management at Brigham-Young University and sought summer work at the Garden to “see how a larger botanical garden is managed.” Her work at the Garden is all about aesthetic: “You want the Garden to feel a certain way,” she says. “You want to create a mood. It’s about color, combination, composition…like art.” Yet, Mei-Ling attests that she’s learned most about the importance of effectively managing other people. “I see that you have to be smart about how you manage people and time to get things done. People think our work is just about plants, but nothing could be achieved if we weren’t able to work together.”
Iowa State University student Kyle McGreevy also interns in landscape design at the Garden. Kyle originally studied landscape architecture, but switched to landscape design after deciding he wanted to better incorporate his interest in horticulture. Kyle explains that in landscape design, you think about things that require deep knowledge of plant biology, such as placement. He has learned “what types of plants grow best together and which locations work best for them.” Kyle says the best parts of his work here at the Garden are “learning how plants have personality and tie into each other, discovering the character of each garden, and seeing how people interact [with the gardens].”
Mel Jensen, an SIU student majoring in landscape horticulture, would agree. Interning under the expert tutorage of horticulturist Tom Soulsby in the Rose and Heritage Gardens, Mel creates planting designs and then does the planting, along with mulching, weeding, and almost every other aspect of the gardens’ maintenance. Mel says that the Heritage Garden is her favorite to work in because of its variety and the unique methods used to organize the plants. “We’ve planted in evolutionary order, from least to most complex,” she explains. “They’re grouped by region and plant family and are constantly being switched out to make room for new displays. We can do an entire seasonal turnaround in a matter of a few weeks.”
These young people are exploring interests in horticulture, landscape design, production, and just about every aspect of Garden culture and strategy—literally—from the ground up. For the college-age and recent grads interested in biology, or design, or anything in between, an internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden can be an informative, productive, hands-on, and (most importantly) enjoyable way to spend a summer among the plants, and among the plant-minded.
An aside: not all of the internship opportunities at the Garden require hours of hard outdoor labor. Mine, for instance, requires hours of hard indoor labor. I’m only partially joking—I am consistently being challenged. As an intern in the PR department, I’ve been tasked with a little bit of everything the PR team does, from writing press releases and sending media alerts to producing blog posts and videos. Of course, to do all that I’ve had to learn quite a bit about horticulture and the immense amount of behind-the-scenes work necessary to create and run the many community projects, classes, events, and gardens here. So, if you’re interested in nonprofit work or improving your communications know-how but haven’t got a green thumb, don’t rule the Garden out yet. There is a lot of interesting, engaging work to be done here from behind a desk, too.