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The Smith Gardens: The Perfect Place for a Summer Internship

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

On a humid Monday morning in July, Rachael Cain ’08, dressed in jeans and a Smith College Botanic Garden t-shirt, was busy pruning, nestled among the pastoral greenery of the campus, unconcerned about the heat and satisfied to be outdoors. She was halfway through her 12-week internship apprenticing with the botanic garden staff and on the first day of her two-week “tree rotation” with John Berryhill, chief arborist.

Like the other five interns in the program, Cain wore a leather holster on her hips with a pair of Felco pruners tucked inside, a sign of her hands-on engagement with the plant collection on campus. “Everybody carries these garden clippers on their belts,” she notes, referring to her fellow interns. “Michael and Gaby hooked us up with these, and they’re proof of the professional gardener.”

Cultivation Education: Jamie Duncan AC ’07; Gaby Immerman, laboratory instructor in the biological sciences; and Rachael Cain ’08 discuss how to thin the interior of a young maple.

“Michael and Gaby” are Michael Marcotrigiano, botanic garden director, and Gaby Immerman, internship coordinator and horticulture lab instructor. They developed the concept for the pilot internship program to introduce students to the practical training and insight necessary for stewardship and maintenance of a historic public landscape with a significant plant collection such as Smith’s.

“There is a delightful rightness to this internship,” says Immerman, who organized the schedule and supervised the daily routines of the interns. “Smith has always valued the botanic garden as an academic asset, but until now, student opportunities to fully exploit this unique and valuable resource have remained confined to academic classes, with little possibility for practical learning. Now, this program is a simple and elegant way to make the botanic garden a year-round resource to students.”

Stephanie Jones AC weeds the ivy slopes below Sage Hall.

The Campus Landscape: A Lush Resource

The Smith campus was planned and planted more than 100 years ago as a botanic garden and arboretum designed by the landscape architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. Today the botanic garden encompasses 125 acres, densely planted with diverse, mature and in some cases rare specimens; the Lyman Plant House; and a variety of specialty gardens.

While many horticulture internship programs exist around the country for college students, this one is unique for Smith, says Marcotrigiano. Previously, landscape maintenance on campus was handled by summer help, often high school students with little or no interest in the profession. Not so any longer. “The Smith students who applied for these internships had already taken one or two courses in horticulture and wanted to get some direct experience with how a botanic garden is maintained,” he notes.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Immerman adds. “The Botanic Garden gets an infusion of trained labor and enthusiastic help for the summer. And the students get a really coherent educational and professional training.”

It’s Not Just About Mulching and Pruning

In addition to maintaining the gardens, each intern must complete an independent project of her choosing.

For her project, Cain, a sociology major, focused on invasive plant species on campus—identifying, mapping and, when possible, removing. She identified the plants in two categories: the ones that are accessions to the collection and those that show up, uninvited, on campus. In some cases, she received the okay to remove the plants herself, others the grounds crew would expel.

Mo Speller ’08 pinches mums in preparation for the annual fall chrysanthemum show.

Jamie Duncan AC ’07, an English major with a minor in landscape studies, was drawn to the internship “by the opportunity to synthesize my academic work into practical, hands-on experience with both horticulture and the collective courses I’ve taken in landscape studies.

“Working with the botanic garden staff has given me insight, perspective and practical experience with what it takes to design, implement and maintain a historic landscape,” she adds. The emphasis of her independent project was landscape sustainability in the context of the 1996 campus landscape master plan, created by landscape architects and Smith alumnae Shavaun Towers ’47 and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander ’44.

“What better place for a horticulture internship than on the Smith campus, which is a preserved and beloved landscape?” asks Immerman. “I’d love to see this internship as a stepping stone to a career in public horticulture.”

Although this year was a pilot run for the program, Marcotrigiano and Immerman hope to see the botanic garden summer internship become a permanent offering.

Among its advocates is Charles Staelin, associate provost and dean of academic development for the college. “This summer seems to have been a great success for both the interns and the college landscape,” he notes. “Funding is pretty much in place for next summer and I’m hopeful that it will become permanent.”

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