Ellen Zagory's passion for plants was born over two decades ago under the harshest conditions -- during a frigid winter at the University of Connecticut.
"I took a class where we went out and learned to identify plants," she says. "It was snowing, and we couldn't use pens because the ink would freeze. We had to use pencils. I just loved it."
Thus began the career of the UC Davis Arboretum's director of horticulture. After a change of major and a cross-country move, Zagory found a job that she's still loving 20 years later.
Zagory moved west for graduate school after completing her undergraduate degree. She picked up a master's degree in environmental horticulture from UC Davis in 1981 and began working full time for the arboretum four years later. She worked on the development of the Orchard Park nursery and served as nursery manager before landing her current post five years ago.
Although she has taken a more administrative role in recent years, Zagory still manages to get her hands dirty. She recently designed half of the Arboretum Terrace Garden, the easternmost tip of the arboretum. She based her work on the theme, "gardening to attract wildlife."
Zagory has also been involved in improving the arboretum as a museum and educational tool. She trains docents who give public tours and is developing an outreach program called "Arboretum All Stars." The online service will teach the public about the best plants for gardening in the area and whether they're available through the arboretum.
About a dozen arboretum employees, including Zagory, work with 100 volunteers to keep up the approximately 100-acre garden along the banks of Putah Creek. It is an area that Zagory says is receiving more attention than in past years. "When I first started working here," she says, "everything from here to the Silo was an empty field. The arboretum used to be the boondocks. Now, it's the center of campus."
Although the arboretum features Mediterranean and Australian gardens, more than half of its specimens are native California plants, including the second-largest oak grove in the western United States. Zagory says her staff plans to renovate the oak grove to include understory plantings and educational signage.
Zagory spends much of her free time with plants as well, although she allows the vegetation around her Davis home to be a bit less disciplined. "My garden at home is constantly changing," she says. "It's an experimental garden." -- By Mike Sintetos