ONE-ON-ONE | Keith Kaiser Assistant horticulture director shows off green thumb
Q: What are the responsibilities of the assistant horticulture director?
A: My job currently is to oversee the education and visitors services of Fellows Riverside Gardens, but I'm also assistant horticulture director for our horticulture department at Mill Creek MetroParks.
So I assist with other departmental responsibilities because our department is responsible for all horticultural activities throughout the more than 3,000 acres in the Mill Creek MetroParks. The horticulture department is responsible for all the trees in the park, all the plantings, as well as Fellows Riverside Gardens.
Q: That's a large area to be responsible for.
A: I've been pretty focused at the building during the last year and a half. And actually, since I've been here, my main responsibility is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the gardens. But currently, I'm even removed from the garden planting and the design. I'm overseeing getting our education and visitor's services under way.
Q: What does the new 11,000-square-foot Velma and D.D. Davis Education and Visitor Center add to Fellows Riverside Gardens?
A: The Davis Education and Visitors Center plays a very important role in helping us accomplish our two missions -- being a pretty place, as well as a place for education. The center has significantly changed the way we carry out our roles
Q: How so?
A: [We have] classrooms, and auditorium for lectures. We never had a place where we could sit more than 50 people before. We have accessible restrooms and plenty of them.
We have all the things the visitors want when they come to a place like this. We have a gift shop; we have a cafe; we have a horticultural library to educate people; we have exhibits for them to look at; we have information that hopefully catches everybody's eye.
We are a tourist attraction as well as what we call a living museum. We are very much like a zoo, or an aquarium, or someplace that has collections of things, and our things obviously are plants. All our plant collections are documented with records that are kept track of in a computer so we know where they came from, where they're planted. Things like that.
Q: Some local, state and federal officials are working to improve downtown Youngstown through the construction of an arena. Do you feel that Fellows Riverside Gardens and the construction of the Davis Center help with efforts to improve the city?
A: It should help. We're only a few a few tenths of a mile away from the center of downtown and we are right in Youngstown. [The Davis Center] is just another very positive aspect of downtown, and one of the important new places that can help encourage people to come and visit this area.
Q: Do you find it frustrating when people complain about the lack of attractions in downtown Youngstown?
A: We help fill that role. Am I frustrated with it? Sure. I would say there's lots of work to do, we can't deny that. But hopefully having [the Davis Center] here is going to help that process.
Q: Fellows Riverside Gardens is known as an excellent location for wedding and prom photos. Does that reputation work against your efforts to bring people to the gardens on a regular basis?
A: Well, yes, and actually we have a huge job ahead of us to educate the public about why Fellows Riverside Gardens is still here. It isn't only here because it's a place for bridal pictures and prom pictures. It's a place for people to learn about plants and horticulture, and we have to continue to remind everybody of that. I think, again, with [the Davis Center], that's much more evident.
Q: How do you attract people to the Davis Center so they can be educated?
A: [We have] school groups come here. [We have] as many horticulture classes as we can. [We have] special events, like our rose festival just a few weeks ago and we had [more than] 3,300 people here. We'll have holiday shows and other special events throughout the year. That's how we get them here.
Q: You've worked at Fellows Riverside Gardens for 13 years. What has kept you at the gardens that long?
A: Well, it's a beautiful place. The gardens have a wonderful collection of plants. It's a place that's very popular and well-loved by the visitors, and that makes you feel good. You feel like you're doing a rewarding job when you're helping them enjoy the place. And I like northeastern Ohio.
Q: What first drew you to public horticulture?
A: I was in landscape and nursery at first. But after working at Kingswood Center in Mansfield, which is a state garden that is open to the public, I realized that the public horticulture and botanical garden work is where I wanted to be.
One of the reasons I've always liked it is because of the diversity in your job. Every day you're doing something different. You're not only in a greenhouse all day long, you're not only mowing lawns, you're not only doing flower arrangements in a florist's shop, you're not only doing design with a landscape architect. You get to do a lot of those different things.
Q: Do you ever get sick of flowers?
A: I guess it's my hobby, too.
Q: Do you have a garden at home?
A: I do. It's small because it's very hard to maintain when I'm also working in horticulture. I do like to garden at home.
Q: What do you have in your garden at home?
A: I inter-plant annuals, perennials and vegetables all into one large planting space -- I don't separate them out -- as well as small shrubs and bulbs. I particularly like planting and forcing bulbs in the winter months indoors.
Q: So you don't get sick of flowers?
A: No, and when my family travels we visit gardens.
Q: Which garden that you've visited ranks as your favorite?
A: My favorite is The Bloedal Reserve on Bainbridge Island in Washington, near Seattle. It's out on the island and it's a public space, but they only permit 100 people a day to go there. It's quite nice.
Q: What type of advice can you give to local gardeners? What should they do to make their garden successful?
A: They should not get all hung up on doing everything exactly right. Instead, do some trial by error. Plant and just have fun. If it grows, that's great. If you have some difficulty, try to figure out why.
Don't get too frustrated. But also plan and think about what you're doing. Don't tackle a job of planting a whole new garden space if you haven't prepared the soil well and removed all the noxious weeds.
XTHE WRITER/ Ian Hill, Vindicator staff writer, conducted the interview.