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Even an epic snowstorm couldn’t keep horticulturist Jeff Thompson from his job

Erin Grajek

By Teresa Sharp
Niagara correspondent
on February 22, 2015 - 12:01 AM

Jeff Thompson was sitting in his home on Coomer Road in Newfane in late November, fretting over the weather reports forecasting several feet of snow at his workplace 45 minutes away in South Buffalo – the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Thompson, the facility’s director of horticulture, knew a power outage could spell big trouble for the roughly 3,000 plants nestled inside the largely glass-topped buildings. But it was the fragility of those glass roofs atop the historic 1900 buildings that troubled him even more as the heavy snow continued to fall.

So, Thompson left the warmth of the 1850 Greek Revival farmhouse he shares with his wife, Kristin, and their three young children, packed a survival kit and pointed his Ford Focus toward the storm.

He got within a mile and a half before road conditions forced him to start walking and, with true Yankee ingenuity, this Massachusetts native used snowshoes to make it in the rest of the way. He camped out for three days, repeatedly shoveling snow off of the glass roofs’ snow shields to keep them from collapsing under the weight.

But how did he reach the roofs in a snowstorm?

“There was so much snow, I could walk up to the roofs (on snowshoes) and shovel them off,” he recalled. “We had 15 feet of snow is some places.”

He was joined by co-worker Kristy Blakely, who used cross-country skis to get to work, along with her fiancée, Travis Schmitt, for a portion of the time, as well as his boss, David Swarts, the facility’s president and chief executive officer. Swarts said he could not make it in for the entire weather event from his snowbound East Aurora home.

“We had a real crisis here, and this demonstrates Jeff’s commitment to and concern about the conservancy and collection of plants,” Swarts said. “He is a really bright, interesting and dedicated guy.”

Swarts said the facility lost around 160 panes of glass under the weight of the snow, as well as 170 to 180 plants in the 32,000-square-foot conservatory.
But the damage would have been much more devastating if Thompson hadn’t persevered in reaching the Gardens and in removing as much of the snow – and weight – from the roofs as he could.

“I just did what I needed to do,” he said.

Thompson said he has been fascinated with horticulture and gardening since he was a child and that sometimes he thinks “chlorophyll runs in my veins.” He and his family have 65 acres in the Newfane countryside, filled with gardens, orchards and even horses, goats and chickens. He grows everything from vegetables and fruit and nuts to hops – and it’s all organic.

He has been at the Botanical Gardens just two years and ran his own successful design/build business for 25 years before starting his new career. He recently took some time from his busy schedule to chat about his job.

Please explain exactly what a “botanical garden” is.
A botanical garden is a living collection of plants. Much like a zoo, we have a collection of interesting plants from all over the world, instead of animals. And there are so many valuable things related to this, not just the visual. We have a lot to do with the preservation of the species, for example, and (perpetuating) the collection with species that may be endangered. This (facility) allows people to see the co-dependency of plants and humans.

What led to your job as director of horticulture?
I studied landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After I graduated, I started my own design/build businesses and had that for 17 years in Massachusetts.
Then I met my wife, Kristin, who was from Newfane. When we were going to have our first child, we decided we wanted our kids to grow up in a more rural atmosphere and moved to Newfane. I re-established my business here and ran it for 10 years. Then, I went to a dinner party and someone mentioned they had seen an ad for director of horticulture at the Botanical Gardens. I applied, they offered me the job, and I took it.
What does the job entail?
I am the caretaker, or steward, of the entire collection. I have two full-timers and a part-timer helping me, and we really rely on our volunteers – they are a great group.
How many volunteers do you have?
We have more than 400 volunteers. Some come in religiously and some just for special events. Some work in the gift shop, while some help with the maintenance and upkeep of the facility. We also have super-passionate docents and interns. Without our volunteers, we probably couldn’t function.
What are some of the challenges of your job?
It all takes careful planning, usually six months in advance. People come here to see our plants, and the plants have their innate beauty, but they’re not really animated, so we have to try and create animation. And we have to constantly update or change the collection because that provides interest. We rotate them from season to season with different shows throughout the year and bring new species into the collection.
What do you do with the plants that aren’t on display?
We have to keep them healthy and growing. We have two greenhouses behind the conservatory and a new one attached to the administration building.
How do you acquire the plants?
We generally purchase the tropical plants from brokers in Florida. We also get plants donated by people who have collections and can no longer keep them. For our shows and displays, we try and use local growers from here in Western New York. Our collection is now quite full.
How do you keep track of all of these plants and know how to care for them?
It’s an ongoing learning curve, but it’s exciting and interesting, because of my passion for plants and plant materials. The plant kingdom, itself, fascinates me because of its historical and cultural significance to the entire planet.
We are currently creating a database for the entire collection of plants, inside and outside, and we think there are over 3,000 different plants here. Jeanette Williams, a longtime, dedicated volunteer, has put in countless hours of time cataloguing the collection. UB came in and created a database for us.
Your hometown is Marshfield, Mass. – not too far from Boston. Does Boston have a similar facility?
Boston is a great city, but it doesn’t have a botanical garden. This is a jewel. This building has been here 115 years and was designed by the Lord and Burnham Co. (modeled after the Crystal Palace in the Kew Gardens in England) and the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – who is kind of one of my heroes. It was the third-largest public greenhouse in the country at the time. And the fact that we have this here is truly an incredible thing.
Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

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