The flow of flowers
CHRISTY SWIFTHighlands County's new horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator David Austin doesn't have 20 years of extension office experience under his belt. In fact, when he was hired on in November of 2012, it was his first foray into extension.
Published: March 6, 2013
Published: March 6, 2013
What he does have is over 25 years of horticulture and landscape experience, big ideas and a sprinkle of zen.
In 1984, Austin graduated with a horticulture degree from the University of Florida. He began working in a foliage nursery in South Florida, but Hurricane Andrew destroyed the business, so Austin moved back to Highlands County, his home since the age of 15.
He opened up Greenscape in Lake Placid in 1988. "My idea was a wholesale nursery, but I realized I wasn't making enough money to support myself right off, so I picked up a contractor and started doing landscaping."
Austin said he is self-taught in landscaping and design, and that the aesthetic side just comes naturally to him. He also opened Rustic House Pottery Store and expanded into hardscape design like ponds and pavers.
In his role at extension, Austin now finds himself training a new crop of 16 Master Gardener volunteers, who will join approximately 31 active members in teaching Florida-friendly practices to the public, answering gardening questions and doing community outreach.
Austin is putting a heavy emphasis on plant identification and concepts like water conservation and right plant/right place. But teaching is not new to him. He taught a college-level landscaping course at SFSC to a small class. "I found out I was kind of a tough grader. No one got an A," he said.
Of course, managing a group of volunteers is something new to him, but Austin said he enjoys working with people, especially his Master Gardener volunteers. "We all have a common goal as Master Gardeners, with common projects and outreaches we're getting ready to get into," said Austin.
One of those projects includes a community garden at the Sebring Boys and Girls Club. Similar to the Avon Park Housing Authority's community garden, which is done in cooperation with the Master Gardeners, Austin is in talks with Boys and Girls Club executive director Woodraun Wright to bring horticulture to the after-school program.
In fact, the club already has a "good start" for a garden, but "I could see they were struggling," said Austin. "There were some small corn plants with little ears on them."
While visiting the club to talk about the project, Austin said he was very surprised at the large number of children using the Boys and Girls club services. He expected to see 20 or so kids in the after-school program, but said there were about 100 present that day.
The project is very much in the planning stages, but Austin said there are many exciting ideas being passed around the table. "We were talking about sending kids home with vegetables and a recipe. Vegetables are easy. A parent can cook them in minutes and have something healthy on the table."
That appeals to this dad of a 3-year-old son, whom he hopes to eventually take with him to karate classes, another passion of his.
"I like the health aspect of (martial arts) and the way of treating people and things in your life rather than being aggressive and reactive," said Austin, who considers himself "totally high strung."
"It's a kind of zen," he added.
Another big project on the horizon is the spring Master Gardener plant sale. It will be held March 9 at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center, located at 4509 George Blvd in Sebring. Proceeds go to scholarships, and the plants available will come from Master Gardeners, Austin's own stock of butterfly plant cuttings, and donations from local nurseries.
There also will be square-foot gardening boxes available for sale, as well as a number of seedling vegetables including tomatoes, cabbages, collards, eggplants, peppers, beans and more.
If you're lucky, you might also get some free landscaping advice from Austin himself.
"You need to design for low maintenance; not have an inside corner where you can't get a mower," he recommended, adding, "Do long, sweeping curves. It looks better. You can flow plants and everything blends together better."