Women in Horticulture Series: Christina Salwitz , The Personal Garden Coach

In my Women in Horticulture Series, I interview green industry professionals about their experiences as a woman, and harvest advice for success for other women in the industry.

Name: Christina Salwitz

Profession: Author, Photographer, Garden and Container Designer, Horticulturist, Speaker

Company/Position: The Personal Garden Coach

Age: 50

Q: Where and how did you start in your career in Horticulture?

Back in 1995, my husband and I had bought our first home, a little condominium in Bellevue, Washington. I was a stay at home Mom of my 2-year-old at that point and disillusioned with my lack of adult interactions being limited to my baby play group. So, I had a “come to Jesus meeting” with myself and decided that I had better figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up. Since I had been playing with gardening on my balconies at various apartments we’d lived in and now in the ground floor garden in our condo, I decided that applying for weekend work at the nursery 2 blocks from my condo was the ticket. I got hired on immediately and thankfully, the human adult conversations sparked something in me that I knew I loved even as a child, helping people realize their garden dreams.
I positively soaked up information from any and all sources I could find. I devoured information as fast as I could find it. Co-workers taught me so much as did researching every question that customers met me with daily and that was before the internet!
After a couple of years, we moved to our first home, which also meant moving nurseries for a more convenient commute. The new nursery was much larger, much more demanding, but also afforded me much more opportunity to grow professionally. Within a short period, I was given the assignment of writing articles and creating small designs for the nursery to publish in their newspaper. (Those things we used to read before email newsletters!)
Eventually, I was encouraged to take the horticulture exam and never looked back. I was hooked on this learning and my timing with the dawn of computers was perfect. As well as being in the heart of the same area where horticultural luminaries the likes of Dan Hinkley reside, I was amidst a renaissance of plants!
After a number of years working at that nursery, it was time to move home again when we built our own dream home which also came with a property that could truly be my own private training ground for my own garden. As my child grew, I knew that I was going to end up working at this profession long term and soon found a position at another local nursery full time.
I was given a HUGE amount of freedom to help buy plants for the nursery, design displays and begin running my own side business as The Personal Garden Coach with the blessing of my boss to help customers on the side on my days off. After nearly ten years, I worked my business plan consistently while also working 3-4 side jobs (all hort related) at once to eventually work myself out of my corporate gig and into my own business.

Q: Where are you now in your career in Horticulture? Do you consider yourself a leader?

Now that it’s been a number of years working as my own boss, I have come a long way. I have co-authored two successful books on design, I have taught nearly every conceivable topic at college level and in speaking to public and private groups at events all over the US and Canada and my photography has been used in numerous books and magazines. I write a monthly column for a trade magazine and my business has tripled since 2015. I’m at a delicate expansion point right now where I’m currently looking for land so that I can hire an employee, buy more vehicles to get on the road and possibly even seek out the possibility of franchising the business.
I do consider myself a leader. I am in the unique position of straddling both industry and the public sides of horticulture and that’s fairly unique for any business. I love to help mentor the next generation whenever I possibly can.

Q: What accomplishment, that you specifically have contributed to your professional success, are you most proud of?

First, co-authoring Fine Foliage and Gardening with Foliage First were by far the two most instrumental projects that propelled me. Certainly, writing books is not something anyone does for the money anymore, but it did afford me giant opportunities for networking that would not have been available to me otherwise. Second, my passion for photography has brought me great exposure in my career. I never in a million years expected that I would become so obsessed with it, but it became necessary to learn at lightning speed to provide photos of quality for the books and blog posts. I am looking for ways to practice my craft almost daily. Third, learning as a constant about every topic in my business that I possibly can is essential. From the technical to the sublime, I keep my eyes and ears open to be able to learn in every situation I can.

Q: How would you describe your career path, specifically as a woman in the green industry; specifically, did you experience any challenges (for flat out discrimination or even harassment – if you feel comfortable addressing it) you felt were unique to you as a woman?

I’ve never felt directly harassed, but discrimination, certainly. As much as anything, a feeling of complete dismissal might be more accurate. There are very few women of power in our industry who weren’t born into it from and already powerful family, money and privilege who get very far. At times, it was more disconcerting to face the challenges from other older women who sadly felt intimidated or threatened by me and helped men to keep the status quo. It’s changing now, and I believe that it’s going to change even faster for the next generation.

Q: If such challenges did exist along your path, how did you overcome…or if not totally overcome…how did you persist through these challenges and succeed despite them? Can you describe specific tactics you employed that helped you be empowered?

Luckily as a writer, I had special access to be able to write about such topics, albeit in VERY diplomatic ways as even just a few short years ago, we were not able to speak as openly as we are today in the days following the #MeToo and Women’s March movement. If I were to re-write some pieces today, they might have quite a different voice. Beyond that, I strive to connect with others who are in similar situations so that we can effectively band together for change as well as continuing to persevere with my own work and create openings for the next generation to shine.

Q: In what ways, if any, do you feel you used your strengths as a woman to help you gain advantages in your work, or reach your success goals? How would you recommend women today leverage their unique strengths as women?

I think being a stay at home mom for almost ten years gave me a lot of clarity for my own path. I didn’t have the finances to go back to school, so it was imperative that I be more strategic in my career moves than others. I simply didn’t have the time to take any gig that didn’t meet my needs for advancement to my goals for my business.
Women today have a great opportunity to prove their worth with smarts and strength that we didn’t have the option to do back 30 years ago. We had to be stronger, faster, more efficient whenever we possibly could be to be able to compete. Now, women can do all of this and more without the same pushback from society and they can get respect from men in our industry on a level that allows them so many more options!

Q: In what areas of business operations, management, and co-worker communications do you see opportunities for improvement when it comes to work parity for women?

In all of the above, I am seeing changes very quickly for the one simple reason that as garden centers are struggling to stay open in the age of box stores and ordering plants online, the “old guard” who have been running the industry the same way for 75 years is quickly falling away because they are being forced into it.
It’s simply unreasonable to run things as if its 1965 anymore. They are now communicating in equal measure with the next generation who have fabulous ideas and can’t deny the future the way they could when there was no social media.

Q: What future goals do you have for yourself as you continue your career in the green industry?

As I look forward right now, I’m looking at my last years in this industry and how I can make the most of them. Franchising is my next BIG thing for The Personal Garden Coach. It could feasibly take years to get there, but I have a plan and a vision and that’s really all we ever have, right?

Q: Do you mentor women in the industry, and if so how?

I get requests to mentor people frequently and I am always happy to do that whenever I can. It’s often a coffee chat, email connection or meeting at an industry event. Sometimes, a person needs details about steps they might take or confirmation of decisions from a subjective source and sometimes they want to learn what I do in my own processes. I was given an invaluable mentoring opportunity when I began, and we are still friends and valued confidants to this day. I am a firm believer that women use this ability the best because of our natural nurturing skills.

Q: Do you belong to professional organizations or networking groups (not limited to green industry) if yes, which ones do you find to be the most professionally effective– especially as a woman?

I have belonged to many over the years on and off. I am not really much of a “joiner” type. The only group that I currently belong to that has proven the most value has been the Garden Writers Association. FB Groups have given me more female support than anything formal.

Q: Name one thing that you do to stay relevant in the industry as times, trends, and technology change?

My column and my photography have been my ticket. I am able to be equally influential in print in more than one way.

Q: What piece of wisdom would you like to pass on to:

  1. Women of your own age in the workforce
  2. Women younger than you who are coming up in their careers

For as many fabulous options available to every woman out there, try to have a plan of some kind. Life will happen, and things will get in your way, but being adaptive is a woman’s specialty. Relationships, marriage, children are all going to create challenges to timing, finances etc. but keeping up with everything industry, retail, and horticulture related is imperative. Stay up with everything cutting edge as well as learning your craft from the old school ways too.

As for women my own age, it’s all about the technology. Get and stay up to speed and you will be far ahead for the coming changes in our industry that are happening fast. I am forever amazed at women who ask for my counsel and are so far behind that they will have much bigger challenges catching up to today’s standards.

Thanks, Christina!

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