Interns Bring Special Interests, Creativity to Gardens Fieldwork
By Caroline Luckie
Each summer, the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens gives young people with a keen interest in plants an opportunity to help with hands-on projects and educational initiatives while also exposing them to the world of public gardens. Past interns have contributed to projects from species mapping to stormwater management to environmental education programming and outreach and gone on to pursue research related to blueberry production, pasture lands, and plant genetics.
With analysts predicting that the green industry will be at the forefront of urban growth and development in 2020 and beyond, jobs currently outnumbering horticulture graduates 2-to-1, and interest in gardening at an all-time high, these internships open the door to the possibilities of a career in environmental education, ecology, and more.
“We have had some absolutely terrific summer interns through the years, and this year is no exception,” says Director of Education and Visitor Experience Brooke McMinn. “They work extremely hard and help us accomplish important projects while they are here. We are able to provide our college-age interns a stipend thanks to the support of our members and donors and dedicated organizations such as the Rotary Club of Shades Valley and would love to find additional sponsor support to help us host even more students. We provide a framework that allows them to explore their particular areas of interest through the lens of the work that needs to be done—a true win-win.”
Meet Native Plant Intern Phillip Barlow
A rising senior studying horticulture at Mississippi State University, Phillip is the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ 2020 Native Plant Intern. From a young age, Phillip has harbored a fascination for plants, intrigued by the growing process of the vegetables and ornamental flowers he cultivated in the garden with his mother. Now, his childhood passion has matured into a desire to study plants, gardens, and natural areas as a career. Working closely with Kaul Wildflower Garden Curator John Manion, Phillip will spend time this summer maintaining and propagating plants for the wildflower garden, putting finishing touches on the garden’s bog, and working to define patches of specific plants.
“The use of native plants in the Kaul Wildflower Garden makes that area of the Botanical Gardens feel so natural and untouched,” says Phillip. “It truly feels like you stepped from a city garden into nature.”
Phillip’s post-internship goals include attending graduate school, where he will continue studying plant science and garden management.
Hunting for Heartleaf
One of Phillip’s special projects this summer will be to curate the Gardens’ collection of Hexastylis. Commonly called heartleaf, these evergreen plants are closely related to deciduous Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense). Ten species of Hexastylis are native to the Southeast; Alabama is home to five of these, one of which is found growing naturally only in a few counties in our state. Phillip will identify and research the species growing at the Gardens, arrange a collection for educational purposes, and develop interpretive materials.
Meet Rotary Club of Shades Valley Intern Katie Stahlhut
A former high school intern with the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Katie has returned to the place that inspired her to pursue an education and career in plant science research. “Before I worked at Birmingham Botanical Gardens in high school, I was afflicted by ‘plant blindness.’ I didn’t appreciate the plants around me as anything more than trees, grass, and flowers,” says Katie. “It was through my first internship that I began to recognize the incredible amount of diversity around me, and it seemed there was a whole new world available to explore.”
As 2020 Rotary Club of Shades Valley Intern, Katie will spend the summer planting and learning under the guidance of Director of Education and Visitor Experience Brooke McMinn. Together they will develop sustainable garden programming in the Bruno Vegetable Garden while Katie additionally works on a personal project testing the effects of incorporating a beneficial soil microbe called rhizobia into the garden.
Following her internship, Katie will attend Miami University to pursue a PhD in evolutionary biology.
In traditional agricultural systems, fertilizers supply plants with the nitrogen they need, but adding too much can negatively impact the environment, causing groundwater contamination and harmful algal blooms. Rhizobia are bacteria that convert nitrogen in the air to a form that plants can use to grow. “Incorporating soil microbes into our garden ecosystems is one step we can take to create vegetable gardening practices that are cheaper and more sustainable,” says Katie. “Because all of the food produced in the Bruno Vegetable Garden is donated to shelters around the city through a program called Harvest for the Hungry, increases in vegetable yield through new sustainable endeavors will directly benefit the food insecure in the Birmingham area.”
Meet High School Intern Ann Inskeep
Ann’s passion for gardening began when she was a child, raising tomatoes with her family on their back porch each summer. Her interest with the planting process continued to grow, and when the opportunity to intern with the Friends presented itself after touring the Gardens with her Leadership Mountain Brook class, Ann jumped at the chance. Throughout the 2019-20 academic year, she spent two hours every weekday at the Gardens with Garden Assessment Project Leader Molly Hendry discovering the ins and outs of garden maintenance. “I’ve definitely learned it’s not easy working in a public garden. It’s a really large group effort,” she says.
From her winter work planting bulbs in the Southern Living Garden’s perennial border to her help in documenting the life cycle events of native species in the Kaul Wildflower Garden, Ann helped set in motion a number of projects during the 2019–20 school year that are set to flourish this summer.
In the fall Ann will begin her undergraduate schooling at Auburn University studying biosystems engineering, the sector of engineering that revolves around renewable energy, water conservation, and dealing with soil samples.
Kaul Phenology Project
During her internship, Ann contributed to the Kaul Phenology Project, which tracks blooms in the Kaul Wildflower Garden through each week of the year to monitor how long different species are in bloom. As part of the project, Ann helped research the plants’ hardiness zones, preferred conditions, and growing habits. The tracking will help provide an in-depth understanding of the plants as the Friends team maps out a plan for reinvigorating the Kaul Wildflower Garden.