May 11, 2012

Alumni spotlight: Riz Reyes (’06) loves gardening and plants, and he’s not retired

By Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Written by Sharon Dana

Rizaniño “Riz” Reyes is a 2006 environmental horticulture and urban forestry graduate. In 2005 he received the Mary Gates Venture Scholarship to engage in independent investigation of the native flora of Sichuan province in southwestern China. The samples, seeds and live plant material he collected from the mountainous region of Sichuan were sent back to the Otis Hyde Herbarium and the Washington Park Arboretum. He currently works part-time at the Center for Urban Horticulture, owns his own business and is part-time faculty at Edmonds Community College.

Riz’s love for plants starts and some tips for gardening in small spaces

Riz PhotoMy love for what I do goes back to when I was little. I grew up in the Philippines on a fruit plantation, so I’m a country boy. That was my early exposure to plants and produce. We went to markets and brought a lot of the things that we grew to the market. Even to this day I love farmers’ markets. It goes hand in hand; growing plants, understanding where food comes from. That’s really important to me. Then I moved to the U.S., and especially here in the Pacific Northwest, there are so many plants here and I just wanted to learn about every single one of them and how they grow.

[Gardening for small spaces] depends on what catches your eye. A lot of things you can get started now, like berries. You can get blueberry and strawberry plants at the nursery right now, and they’re pretty easy. Strawberries you can do in a container if you don’t have a lot of space, just make sure you keep them well watered throughout the season. Blueberries are incredibly popular. There’s nothing better than a fresh handful of blueberries from the garden. They actually have dwarf varieties of blueberries at nurseries that you can grow in a pot. They’re really small, they’re really tidy and they’re easy to take care of. Buy 2 or 3 plants and they’ll produce fruit throughout the summer.

If you just want something pretty to look at, and you don’t have to eat it, the best thing to do is to go to a local nursery and see what they have blooming that looks good to you. Choose like 3 or 5—we do things in odd numbers in design—different plants, get a container and put them together and see how they look. You can get tips from someone at the nursery about what kind of plants you should choose based on your space and time. Have fun. Have color. Grow things that catch your eye. If it lives and continues to do well, then great; if not, try something else.

One of my favorite plants, especially in the late winter, is daphne odora. I’m a big fragrance guy. The scent is just out of this world. I had my nephews and my nieces smell it, they’re young kids, and they said it smelled like Fruit Loops, the cereal. Its [blossoms are] incredibly powerful and fragrant. It grows outside, and you can even grow it in a large container if you’d like. It does well in our area. Overall the plant itself is kind of a background plant and you don’t really notice it, but in late-winter-early-spring period it will waft through the air.

Where Riz is now and how he got there

After I graduated I got a position in the Center for Urban Horticulture with the UW Botanic Gardens. I’m basically a part-time gardener there and part of the horticulture staff. I’ve been there five years. I’m there half time, and the other half of my day is my own business. That business is Horticulture & Landwave Gardens.

Basically I’m a garden designer, consultant and I do maintenance for several clients and I teach part time as well. I’m part-time faculty at Edmonds Community College. I also speak, lecture; you kind of have to do a little bit of everything in my industry because it’s not 9 – 5. It’s traveling with clients, talking to groups, shopping around for plants—which is a really fun part. It’s sharing what I love to do.

I got where I am now by being at the UW—just being at a campus that is like a classroom; beyond plant identification classes. The space is great, there’s the activity of the libraries for studying and those sorts of things but there are also places of refuge, places to relax, pieces of nature. Yes, it’s artificially constructed and maintained, but it’s a nice place to unwind and be inspired. If I hadn’t traveled to China collecting plants with my Mary Gates Venture Scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now, either. That opportunity was tremendous.

It’s interesting when you’re young, really young, interested in something that typically old people get into, they really take you under their wing and embrace you as if you’re their own child. It’s hard to name off one person, but it’s a community of people that invited me to their gardens and shared little starts of their plants for me to try. They’d let me tag along to garden tours and visit nurseries and that sort of thing. Plus my professors were all very supportive. Being an instructor myself now, there’s no greater joy than having a student immersed in what you love to do and teach. I’ve developed a lot of great relationships.

The thing with this industry is it’s all older people, so at times when you go to a meeting and a lecture, it feels kind of odd. They cater to an older audience so sometimes the jokes aren’t really that funny. [laughs] They paved the way. [UW alumnus and plantsman Dan Hinkley] and I traveled together in China collecting plants a few years back, introducing plants to gardeners here. In the plant world, these are my mentors, people who work hard and are very passionate about what they do. When they talk about plants [you say], “Who knew you could be so eloquent when talking about plants!”

Figuring out how you want plants in your life

One question I’m always asked by my colleagues is “How come no one around your age is more engaged in horticulture?” I remind them that I’m kind of an exception. I got involved really early and I’m a total plant nerd. Most people my age are still either in school, finishing school, starting careers or starting families. I can’t even begin to think of those kinds of things yet.

I think as soon as you really want to get involved in gardening it’s tremendous. There’s a lot of information out there, but it can be overwhelming. I would say start small. Think about how you want plants in your life, whether it’s house plants, having a potted plant outside your door or having a raised bed if you want to try to your hand at growing vegetables, which is becoming very popular now. People want to know where their food comes from.

There’s no denying it’s a lot of hard work. You can grow a good head of lettuce and it’s great and rewarding, but it’s just one head. How do you keep producing? Then again, depending on the weather too, you’re dealing with nature. There are a lot of things you have control over and no control over. Experiment and take on just a single project. Go to a local nursery and tell them what you want to do and they can direct you to whatever you need.

Asking yourself how much time you have is important also, because gardening can be a hobby, a luxury for a lot of people, and it’s one that people do when they retire [because they] have a lot of time. But there is always a capacity to have some sort of plant life in one’s life. Even just getting flowers is very special. It doesn’t have to be full-on landscaping. Start small and learn as you go.

Follow Riz’s blog or learn more about his business and community work.

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