Library hires first garden programmer

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by Tammy Keith, courtesy of River Valley & Ozark

Sean Ott, the first garden programmer for the Faulkner County Library in Conway (AR), was wrangling some raspberries “that were getting kind of gnarly” onto a trellis, he said.  He’s come a long way for someone who said he grew up “a total city kid.”

“I grew up a military brat,” the 26-year-old said. He said most of his family is in Pittsburgh, but he moved with his parents to Gravel Ridge in about 1996.  “I can’t say I’m an Arkansan, but I would definitely say Arkansas is home,” Ott said.

Ott started the new part-time job in August. He will help the Arkansas GardenCorps service member with programming for the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project, a community garden north of the library. He’ll oversee the Garden Club for kids; a book club, which he wants to gear for adults; and the seed library.

This is the last year the library will have an Arkansas GardenCorps service member, said Nancy Allen, adult services and reference librarian. The Arkansas GardenCorps program is a three-year program, and this is the third year.

“It’s going to be on the library from here on out to maintain the program,” she said. Allen said the new position that Ott filled “is kind of cutting edge, I think.”  Ott, who lives in Jacksonville, said he started in 2008 as an art-history major at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

His mother, Geannine Ott, who died last year of cancer, was a bookkeeper for Pathfinder Inc. in Jacksonville. She taught art before that job, he said. Ott worked with special-needs adults at Pathfinder Inc. during the summers and at Christmastime.

“That really made me want to teach special education,” he said. “It just really clicked — the advocacy, working with special needs.”

Ott switched his major to early childhood education and did his student teaching at Jim Stone Elementary School in Conway. He moved to Sherwood and taught in 2014-15 in an alternative-learning classroom at a North Little Rock elementary school.

When his mother got sick, he resigned and went to work at a garden center and helped her, he said.  He didn’t grow up around gardening, but “my grandfather, because of World War II, got me interested in bonsai [trees] in middle school,” Ott said.

“What really got me interested in agriculture was when I spent a summer living at Heifer Ranch in Perryville,” he said. That was 2011, and he was an education intern.  “I taught classes, guided tours, tended a garden, and it was pretty much the first time I’d played around with agriculture,” he said.

“As soon as I got back, I talked to Cliff Beacham, one of my professors. He’s one of the people who started the [Faulkner County Farm Project] garden,” Ott said.

Ott started volunteering with the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project, which was created in the fall of 2009 as a competition among Conway’s three institutions of higher education, and he was its volunteer coordinator for a couple of years.

Sandra Leyva, executive director of the Faulkner County Urban Farm Project, said Ott was one of its core volunteers.

“He was part of the garden board of directors for a couple of years, so he’s always been really invested in the garden,” Leyva said. “When he learned about this [job] opportunity, he thought it would be a perfect way to get back to what he loved. It’s a great accomplishment to have someone who is actually staff, an employee of the garden.”

Leyva said the idea of the Arkansas GardenCorps program was for the garden to become sustainable and institutionalized, which is happening with the addition of a library employee to help with it.

“It’s a success story,” she said.

Ott said he will work with Arkansas GardenCorps service member Austin Yockey, who will start in the position next week.  Ott said service members Kim Doughty, who just finished her term, and Crystal Bowne, who was the first, did wonders with the garden.

“They did such an awesome job; it’s amazing what progress they made with the garden,” he said. “I think it’s just so cool that it went from that original competition between three colleges, to now it’s actually a community organization.”

The majority of the garden’s produce is donated to the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church food pantry in Conway.  Sustaining the garden is important, Ott said, but he has other goals, too.

“That’s one of the things in this position. … The title is garden programmer, and I wanted to be more than just the Urban Farm Project,” he said.

Ott has worked at retail garden centers through the years — he quit one to take the library position — “and you can see the intimidation some people have with gardening,” he said. Although he said he’s not sure how he’s going to do it, he wants to ease the intimidation factor of gardening.

“You can spend $5 on tomatoes; $10 on a pot, fertilizer and soil; and you don’t have to go all in,” he said. “You can just do a little bit. A little bit’s better than nothing.”  At his home, he does more ornamental gardening than anything, he said.  “I’ve got a major thing for camellias and hydrangeas — and bonsai. I have way too many,” he said.

“The library is a service for the public; it’s part of the community. Gardening, whether it’s ornamental or edible — I really want to try to help as an education resource.”

He said the Garden Club for kids ages 7 and older will be held at 4 p.m. each Thursday at the library.  “This past week, we talked with some kids about saving seeds — why you should save seeds, the cultural heritage of it, taking the best varieties, … picking out selective traits. We made little seeds packets; the kids loved it,” he said.

Even total city kids — maybe especially them — are invited.