Native Floridian Erin Alvarez comes from a multi-generational family of gardeners. She describes her relationship with nature as starting “at birth” and has been gardening with her family for as long as she can recall.
“In gardening, my biggest inspiration would have to be my mom, no doubt, and her grandmother, my great-grandmother,” said Alvarez, who reminiscences about visiting the food and flower gardens of her great-grandmother as a child. “Her garden was like something you would see in Martha Stewart. It was gorgeous. I thought it was just childhood hindsight, but I have seen pictures as an adult and it was beautiful,” she said.
Nature and plants always played a central role in Alvarez’s life, but pursuing a degree in a related field did not even cross her mind when she first arrived in Gainesville to study at UF. As an animal lover, she thought her end goal was to be a veterinarian and enrolled in pre-vet courses. After working briefly at a vet clinic and assisting on a graduate research project in zoology, she quickly realized that she loved the science, but did not like the process. Ultimately, Alvarez graduated with a bachelor of arts in English. She worked at the Alligator newspaper during and after graduation, eventually managing their advertising office.
It was not until Alvarez’s mother returned to school in her late forties to study landscape design that she considered working with plants as a career path rather than a hobby. Inspired by her mother, she enrolled post-baccalaureate at UF to study horticulture and public gardens management. “I needed plants. I thought it was animals, but once I got into horticulture, it was no turning back,” said Alvarez.
As a horticulture student, Alvarez was excited to learn that there was a public ornamental garden on the UF campus, Wilmot Gardens. She visited the space with a group of faculty and students in attempts to locate a Japanese maple tree. “Back then it was just a wasteland,” said Alvarez of the gardens, “it had been defunct for so long.”
During this same time, Dr. Craig Tisher and Linda Luecking were busy recruiting volunteers to initiate the restoration of the Wilmot Gardens. In 2006, under their direction, a team of dedicated volunteers began efforts to clean up the greenspace, from hauling trash to cutting brush or pulling invasive weeds. It was in this capacity that Alvarez first became involved with the project.
Alvarez completed a bachelor of science in interdisciplinary studies and public gardens management from UF in 2004, followed by a master of science in plant science in 2006. Following graduation, she accepted a lecturer position in the Department of Environmental Horticulture in UF/IFAS.
In 2011, Dr. Tisher invited Alvarez to join the Wilmot Gardens’ steering committee to consult on a proposal for the Open Spaces Sacred Places grant program. Alvarez was excited to become involved in a more formal capacity. She was especially enthusiastic to work alongside Elizabeth Diehl, a registered horticultural therapist, who joined the team shortly thereafter in 2012 to start the therapeutic horticulture program. With her interest always leaning toward people-plant interaction, Alvarez was eager to learn more about the discipline of horticultural therapy from Diehl.
However, in 2012, Alvarez accepted a position as the UF/IFAS Extension Agent for Sarasota County and left Gainesville. “Leaving Wilmot Gardens was definitely the hardest part of leaving my job here. Well, Wilmot and the students,” said Alvarez. “It was so exciting because we were getting stuff done and it was going to be a garden again. The therapy program was starting, and that’s really close to home for me, so it was hard to step away.”
During her time in Sarasota, Alvarez visited the gardens several times. “It was always amazing to see how much progress had been made – stuff I had only seen on paper coming to fruition,” she said.
In 2015, she returned to Gainesville to join the Department of Agronomy in UF/IFAS as a plant science lecturer where she presently teaches classes such as “Principles of Plant Science” and “Plants that Feed the World,” among several others. She strives to break through what she calls the “plant blindness barrier” to get students interested in how plants relate to their research or degree interests. In her new position, she would hear regular progress updates about Wilmot Gardens from colleagues and friends, but felt it was bittersweet watching from the sidelines and longed to be more involved again. Coincidentally, in 2017, hearing of her return to UF, Dr. Tisher invited her to rejoin the steering committee.
While Alvarez stays busy as a full-time working professional balancing home life and motherhood, she still finds time to stay actively involved at Wilmot Gardens in a volunteer capacity. She continues to serve on the steering committee and actively instructs the outdoor gardening component of Wilmot Gardens’ therapeutic horticulture program for young adults with autism spectrum and related disabilities. The program consists of two 3-hour sessions each week, composed of a 1-hour greenhouse session led by Elizabeth Diehl, 1-hour of outdoor gardening instruction with Alvarez, and 1-hour of classroom time with Jennifer Weis, a certified professional life coach and counselor.
“The group loves Erin,” said Diehl, director of the therapeutic horticulture program at Wilmot Gardens. “She always has a smile on her face and her incredible knowledge base makes learning about nature and plants fun and interesting.”
In the outdoor gardening component, under the direction of Alvarez and a team of trained volunteers, participants presently grow herbs, different types of vegetables and fruits, and flowers. They also actively monitor for pollinators, and discuss how the plants engage with and rely on the insects. Participants are encouraged to engage in sensory stimulating activities, such as touching or smelling the plants, and tasting the edible plants. Alvarez has embraced the unique challenges of instructing the group and has diversified her teaching approach to encourage active participation. “It’s less of a disability and more of looking at what their abilities are and how to channel those to get them interested and engaged with plants,” said Alvarez, who shared that the program has helped her personally to grow as an instructor by learning to be more process oriented rather than goal oriented.
“Coming here is therapy for me, because I am so used to thinking about plants from an administrative standpoint or from a curriculum standpoint or just getting stuff to grow or stay alive in a teaching garden, that to use them in a therapeutic manner kind of gets me back in touch with why I love plants,” said Alvarez, who has been considering becoming a registered horticultural therapist since 2008. “This is something that we do. We change how people feel with plants,” she said.
Alvarez is optimistic for the future of Wilmot Gardens and the therapeutic horticulture program. “I would love to see it become part of a degree program or at least a certificate, because there are so many students who are interested in it and that don’t know about it. If it was here, I think we are poised to be a really significant part of the university experience for a lot of students,” she said. Alvarez partially credits her involvement at Wilmot Gardens with shaping her own educational path, especially her exposure to the field of therapeutic horticulture and the influence of Elizabeth Diehl.
In the future, Alvarez hopes to see a formal members or “friends of” group formed to capitalize on the community interest in Wilmot Gardens and increase engagement. She would also like to see additional funding for full-time employees to meet staffing needs for office personnel, maintenance and program delivery, allowing for overall expansion of the project. “This place has a significantly greater potential than we are currently able to meet, and I think the labor aspect of it is the key. Getting a college to buy in and really sponsor this, or at least form an inter-college coalition to support for the growth that can happen is crucial, because it is ready,” said Alvarez.
By Bailey Hillman