Hedging His Best

This Botanic Garden employee grew his way to a dream job

February 11, 2013

Cleo Calloway uses animal-shaped frames, moss and seedlings to grow the topiaries on display at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Cleo Calloway, 46

Salary: $48,000

Position: Member of the displays team at the U. S. Botanic Garden

What he does: Calloway and his colleagues create the vegetative displays at the Botanic Garden, including the topiary animals on view during the holiday season. He also helps care for all of the garden’s plants by growing new seedlings, transplanting older seedlings and watering all the plants, including those at its 85,000-square-foot off-site facility.

How he got this job: “I’m one of the lucky ones,” Calloway says. Most of the Botanic Garden’s 30-some gardeners and horticulturists have horticulture degrees (offered at nearby schools including Northern Virginia Community College). Calloway actually started as a laborer, moving boxes around, sweeping up leaves, emptying trash cans and the like.

He worked his way up slowly, first to groundskeeping and gardening. Because of his interest in topiaries, a few of the higher-up staff members gave Calloway an on-the-job education: “A lot of advanced gardeners showed me a lot of things, and I began to repeat what they said to do,” he says. A year ago, he landed a job on the displays team.

“When I first started here, I always imagined myself [creating the displays] and people thanking me for my work,” he says. “It was kind of a dream come true.”

Who would want this job: Patience is required for growing topiaries. Calloway starts with a frame shaped like an animal. That frame is filled with sphagnum moss (a growing medium) and then planted with seedlings. “You go into McDonald’s, you get it right away, but if you want a good meal, it takes time,” he says.

And it’s kind of a rush, Calloway says, to help something grow. “It kind of gives you that God syndrome to watch that grow from a little seed and say, ‘Wow, I did that … I planted this tree and I was taller than that tree — and the tree’s 20 feet tall now.’ ”

How you can get this job: Take a horticulture class or pursue a degree in the subject from a local school. You can get a degree online from Oregon State. Calloway learned on the job and continues to learn. “I take different courses here and there. You can do bonsai, you can have your own little garden.” The Botanic Garden recruits volunteers who have a horticulture degree or a Master Gardener certificate, which you can get from colleges around the country, including the University of Maryland.

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