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A Gardener of Color In a Mostly White World

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page H01


By tomorrow, Sherry Santifer will have entered close to 60 pots of forced bulbs in the Philadelphia Flower Show.

It is a quest that starts alone in a chilly greenhouse, where the bulbs are potted up, and ends under the very public spotlight of the most prestigious flower show in the land.

Sherry Santifer surveys her wins and losses at the Philadelphia Flower Show. (Jim Graham For The Washington Post)

Santifer, who has amassed approximately 400 ribbons from the show over the past 12 years, belongs to a small circle of players in this rarefied world of horticulture who put their skills and reputations on the line each March in the expanse of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

She is quietly buoyed by wins -- losses set into motion a fierce but quiet determination to do better next time. As she greets friends and rivals (often one and the same), she seems in her element. But there is a difference. Santifer, an African American, is one of the few minorities in the field of horticulture. Asked if she knows of any other black horticulturists, she looks pensively to the floor and shakes her head. "No."

The labor force in the green industry is dominated by minorities, especially Hispanics. But for degreed horticulturists involved in the propagation and production of plants, the design and care of gardens and the supervision of crews, the landscape is still overwhelmingly white.

Jerry Williams, an associate professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech, said of about 120 horticulture majors, "right now, currently, I don't think we have even one" who is African American. "Not one." In 22 years at Virginia Tech, Williams said he could count the number of black students on his fingers and toes.

Steven Cohan, a professor in the University of Maryland's department of natural resource sciences and landscape architecture, said search committees find that "the applicants coming in aren't representative of what we would like to see, but we are at a loss."

The reasons for this are open to conjecture. For many blacks considering a life in horticulture, perhaps soil work recalls the periods of slavery and sharecropping. "My aunts didn't understand my going into horticulture," said Santifer, 56. "I think it was the idea that for African Americans, at one point you had to work in the fields."

Williams, who is also black, said that stigma persists, along with a general ignorance about the nature of horticulture and agriculture. "Middle-class black parents just don't think of agriculture as an area where they want their kids to move toward, and I'm not singling out black parents. It's a matter of awareness, and we haven't done a good job in our educational system of informing people of the opportunities that exist."

He and Cohan noted that horticulture is a booming industry as consumers routinely turn to large companies to install and maintain their home landscapes.

Traditionally, horticulture students would go into commercial greenhouse production of annuals and other garden center plants, and some still do, but the career emphasis now is less on raising plants and more on managing landscape services to consumers.

A graduate on a managerial career path at a big company will make a six-figure salary after a few years, said Cohan, but even with that prospect, potential students are turned off by the long hours in the peak spring season, the stress, and the fact that managers pay their dues early in their careers by working outdoors.

Other horticulturists such as Santifer venture into tamer areas, working as independent gardeners or in public gardens or for small nurseries where the salaries are much lower but they stay doing what they love: raising plants and getting their hands dirty.

Before becoming a horticulturist, Santifer had worked first as a talent coordinator for a soul music show on New York's Channel 13, a PBS station, and later as a promoter for CBS records, counting among her clients Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Patty LaBelle.

But she was burning out. She took a course at the State University of New York for her own vegetable gardening, which persuaded her to go on and get a degree in horticulture.

After graduating, she decided she would work for a handful of well-to-do clients in and around New York City, and, more than 20 years on, still does. She designs gardens, and furnishes and tends the plantings for beds, containers, hanging baskets, indoor plants and cut flowers. She has a client list of approximately 20, including a few celebrities.

She employs three people from March to December and one in the off-season, and works from her home and greenhouse in North Woodmere, Long Island. "I have never felt that I was up against any odds and I have never felt that I haven't had an opportunity" because of race, she said.

There have been moments, though, when she has encountered insensitivity and once, she felt a profound sense of isolation visiting a southern plantation as part of a study group. "You look at the house and you're considering the architecture and the design of the grounds, you're taking it all in and then you get to the slave quarters. And then you have a Long Island kid saying, 'That doesn't look that bad.' "

When New York had a flower show, she would enter plants for clients and herself, and friends in the business from Washington and Philadelphia encouraged her to enter the Philly show, the largest and oldest event of its kind in the United States. Overcoming her reluctance, she entered nine plants and won seven ribbons, and has been hooked ever since.

The idea of defeating doyennes of the show, many of whom have their own gardening staffs, has given her a deep satisfaction. "I now consider myself a major competitor, and has it opened doors? Absolutely, but I don't set out to beat the person. I set out to beat their pot" of flowers.

Sometimes, they beat her. In last Saturday's round (the second was held Tuesday, the third is tomorrow), she found her pot of daffodils named Small Talk sporting a red ribbon, second to a winner that had a shorter, more compact clump. "The pity is I absolutely agree" with the judges, she said. The winner "is more compact and perfectly symmetrical."

Later, she says, "I don't want to come off as competitive. It just comes over me. I'm already thinking about getting home so I can rev up for Tuesday."

Her husband of 30 years, Larry Rosenbaum, joins her to critique some of the entries.

People from all backgrounds and races, of course, have seen gardening transform their lives, whether or not they're professionals. Proceeds from this annual show go to a group called Philadelphia Green, a nonprofit that works with city neighborhoods, many of them predominantly black or Hispanic, to reclaim and plant vacant lots and urban parks. As well as providing materials and plants, the organization offers instruction on plant cultivation. "We do make gardeners out of people," said Eva Ray, the education director. The show runs until Sunday (www.theflowershow.com).

Another exhibitor at the show is the W.B. Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences, an unusual public school in a farm setting in northwest Philadelphia. The school has 37 percent African American enrollment and offers courses in animal and plant science, including greenhouse management and horticulture. Amber Walker, at the school's apple-themed exhibit at the show, said she was planning to enter Virginia Commonwealth University this fall to study landscape architecture.

Santifer said she doesn't consider herself a role model, simply because there are so few other blacks drawn to her field. But if she were to give advice, she said, "I would talk about the fact that horticulture today is a dynamic field and you can find your own little niche and make the most of it. The only thing that's required of you is to be willing to offer a service."

And, of course, to be willing to get a little grubby.

"There no shame to getting dirty," said Santifer. "It's how well you clean up afterwards."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company