Autumn, so new only a few weeks ago, is slipping quickly away. What students might not notice, however, is the fading of the flowers around campus, covered in a last attempt to preserve them a few more weeks from the greedy reaches of the frost.
For Angie Girdham, the campus horticulturalist, the end of the botanical year is fast approaching. December marks the beginning of her preparations for a new year. Girdham is busy year-round, planting flowers, planning beds, watering, weeding, and pruning from January to December. She works in the greenhouse and does vocational teaching and plant research.
“I’m in there working all winter with the flowers that you see now,” she said. “I try to do a different color scheme every year.”
Her job is complex. She personally designs every flower bed on campus, considering things such as pests, soil quality, and amount of sunlight. This requires her to grow 5,000 plants every year by hand in the greenhouse at Hayden Park. That represents 150 different species.
Girdham said her previous work has prepared her well.
“I really think this job has been a beautiful combination of all my past work,” she said.
She grew up near Hillsdale, although never had any connection with the college prior to working here. Her local high school had an excellent vocational program in horticulture, and Girdham quickly got involved and enjoyed it. She studied horticulture in college, and went on to make it her career.
Previous horticulture jobs include working in a greenhouse in Litchfield, vocational teaching, and plant research.
Seed companies need to know how new seeds will work around the country. They give new seed varieties to various test gardens around the country, which conduct tests for two or three years before the companies release the seeds.
“We would get all of the new varieties that the seed companies or the vegetative producers were looking at releasing to the public,” she said. “We would take notes on bloom quality, what temperatures it survived at, how many weeks it took us to finish, and give that back to the main companies.”
Fourteen years ago, Girdham took her job at Hillsdale College. She is glad she was able to find a job close to home.
“Typically for a very good horticulture job you need to go to Florida or California, so I feel very blessed that I was able to get in here,” she said.
Girdham continues to take on new challenges. Recently, she began a plant therapy program at the college.
The plant therapy program meets monthly. Each activity is meant to help students destress and engage in a meaningful and purposeful activity that will leave them with something tangible. Last month, students planted a symbolic herb garden, while an upcoming session on Oct. 25 will feature arrangements of cut flowers.
Girdham is also excited about the extension of the greenhouse. The extension will add 48 feet to the length of the greenhouse and is scheduled to be finished sometime this week. The extension will enable Girdham to grow flowers for the graduation ceremony, which previously had to be outsourced due to a lack of space.
She also recently received training in arboriculture, the care of trees. She will now be better able to conduct tree risk and hazard assessments, so she can identify when limbs or whole trees need to be removed.
Girdham is in charge of all the tree-planting on campus. This year, she said, she has worked with planting trees on central campus as well as in an area near Galloway that was disturbed by construction. She keeps careful track of when each tree was planted, as well as if there is a story behind the tree, as many trees are planted in memory of donors or former students.
A hobby of hers has been to find out the history of some of the older trees on campus. Among the oldest trees on campus are an oak near Howard, and the sycamore by the old snack bar.
She has researched articles that reference tree plantings to find out the ages of many of the trees around campus, and has talked with the college historian as well. Unfortunately, it is hard to find much information. This has inspired Girdham to be meticulous in her own record keeping.
Fortunately, Girdham doesn’t have to work alone. A team of four students join her, putting in a collective 24 hours each week. Many of those students work with Girdham all four years, and in exchange, she will often provide free flowers for their weddings.
Among those students is junior Arena Lewis.
“It’s so fun,” she said, speaking of working with Girdham. “It’s like an older sister and a mom all in one.”
Lewis appreciates how much care Girdham takes to teach her horticultural techniques, especially after Lewis expressed interest in a horticultural career.
“She’s not afraid to let us try things and set us off on our own,” Lewis said. “She just trusts us.”
While many students might not notice the flowers around campus, the work is important, Lewis said.
“We always say, ‘People don’t notice the things we do to make the campus pretty, but they would notice if we stopped doing it.’”
That’s not a problem, though, Lewis said.
“I kind of like that it’s an unnoticed job,” she said. “You just do it for your own joy.”
Another of Girdham’s student helpers is junior Adrianne Fogg, who said she enjoys working with Girdham.
“She’s such a patient, understanding person,” Fogg said. “Her passion is to do horticulture therapy, and she wants to reach people through plants. She just has such a caring heart for the plants and the people together, it’s just a really beautiful thing.”