Get to Know Us: A Virens Q&A
Nov 3, 2022
You may have noticed that we’ve made some changes lately. A new name and a brand-new website! So, while we’re are still offering all the same great horticultural practices and blogs that you’ve come to know we've also added a few new things. Expanding our eco-planting design services to include consultation for urban greening and writing in a freelance capacity.
It also feels like a good time to add something new into the mix for our blog posts, a fun exercise to help get to know other horticulturalists. It’s a new take on a Proust questionnaire, a kind of modern parlour game. In which we ask each participant to answer the same 15 questions and see what their answers reveal. All with a touch of humour and always in good will.
In the interest of fairness and as a way for you to learn more about the partnership behind Virens Studio, Alicia and I will kick things off!
Here we go, the very first, Virens Questionnaire…
1.What is the strongest horticultural memory from your youth?
My earliest memory is picking lilies of the valley with my Mom in our little corner of suburbia. The scent always reminds me of her.
To this day I have strong memories that connect certain plant material with important people in my life. Nasturtium and Forsythia are my Nan, huge frilly red poppies are my Grandma Q and fresh mint and peas are my Auntie, who had what seemed like the world’s biggest veg patch where my brother and I got to plant pumpkins every year.
The house I grew up in was on a quiet tree lined street in northern B.C. We had a set of 5-8 concrete steps to the front door and the typical suburban foundation garden beds. On one side of the steps was a Peony the other side a Potentilla. Often throughout my childhood I would sit on those steps waiting for my friends, parents, or just daydreaming. As I did so I would pick the petals off each flower to expose the beautiful star shaped ‘flower’ underneath. To me the shape, texture and colour of this star ‘flower’ was so much more attractive than the bright yellow papery petals. To this day I am partial to more monochromatic angular forms in the garden.
2.What got you interested in horticulture as a career?
I first got interested in hort and making it a career when I was in my late 20’s. My work in the arts had come to a crossroads and I’d been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I had a list in the back of my mind of the things that I wanted my next step to encompass. It had to be creative, flexible and therapeutic, also something that I could take with me anywhere. Horticulture just seemed to fit, it was new and exciting, always changing and never boring. I really enjoy challenges, solving problems and helping others and hort offers all that and more.
My parents were in no way gardeners, we had a grand total of 3 plants in our yard, the aforementioned Potentilla, Peony and a Cerastium tomentosum ‘snow in summer’. I did however spend my formative years rambling around the massive city park behind our house. I knew I wanted to spend much of my life outside so I started looking at careers that could facilitate this. A friend told me about an information session at the University for the horticulture program. When I was there they had a microscope set up with plant parts. One look and I was done! Forever hooked on experiencing and understanding plants.
3.What/Who inspires you?
I’m drawn to people that push boundaries and aren’t afraid to embrace new ideas.
In hort, I’m really inspired by Piet Oudolf and the Naturalistic movement. Tom Stuart-Smith’s combination of historical reverence, beauty and functionality. And confident trailblazers like Vita Sackville-West, Beth Chatto and Claudia West. True horticultural badassery!
In creative pursuits, I always start with something that speaks to me; I like things that have a unique point of view. A planting design, for instance, can start with inspiration from a handcrafted object, a favourite experience or a pattern found in nature. A Beduin carpet or waves of sand found on desert travels or even a scientific paper on the ancient gardens of Amarna. I use an aspect of these things as a jumping off point to create something new. Sometimes I combine them or add a twist, it all depends on what parameters are involved. I’m curious by nature so I tend to file things away and depend on them to pop up when needed. I feel like there’s always a better idea just around the corner and if you trust yourself, it will come.
In my life, it’s my family, both biological and chosen. I love when you meet a person that just fits and you can’t remember what your life was like without them. Like my horticultural other half, Alicia. A remarkably smart and kind woman, business partner and friend, and quite possibly the most observant person that I know. I feel like we all need people to see us and keep us on the right track and luckily I have those in spades.
This is a long continually changing list. So I will go with my top four, all women! Beth Chatto, for so many reasons but mostly her adage “right plant right place”, that no matter what climate change brings us will ALWAYS be applicable, in EVERY garden. Claudia West for her seamless application of hardcore science to useable feild work, her ability to inject these principles into every project she does. Margie Ruddick for her no compromise constant cheerleading of her five strategies: Reinvention, Restoration, Regeneration, Conservation, and Expression. She implements her Wild by Design approach and designs landscapes that breath, live and give so much. And lastly Sara-Jane, for her tenaciousness for what is right in an urban greenspace, her confidence in my abilities, and her uncanny ability to absorb knowledge at breakneck pace and patiently reiterate concepts and projects.
4.How would you describe your work?
Hopefully it’s a combination of many things, functional and practical yet beautiful and evocative. Since we go into detail about out ethos on the site's Design page we won't repeat ourselves here, we'll spare you this time hahaa.
5.How did you get where you are today?
I started with a diploma program at a local university and tried several jobs including nursery and greenhouse work. Eventually I saw the potential in civic gardening and joined a local city parks department working my way into a Horticultural Technician posting. All along the way I continued to add more education, skills and experience. In 2019, I started a small company with a good friend and coworker that evolved into something greater that could feed our horticultural passions and our bills, hello Virens Studio.
I am on the edge of a precipice and I cannot wait to jump! I have spent the last few years giving serious thought to what horticulture can be, what it can give. How it can be experienced. There is so much more we can do than what we have been doing. I have a solid background in education and experience but I think the most valuable skill I have is observation. I have learned so much by observing the way a landscape behaves when input with different stressors, maintenance changes, plant choices, public usage, and climate change. All this combined has brought me to this time where I can be excited about the future of horticulture.
6.What are you most proud of?
Always striving to find better ways to do things and never giving up.
I’m most proud of both my problem solving and my observation skills. Both of these skills make it easy for me to analyze and find solutions to most problems easily.
7.What is the most significant challenge in horticulture today?
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying, climate change. It’s such a huge challenge and something that no one person can change on their own.
Climate change and a close secondary to that would be public knowledge of adaptation to climate change in both an individuals power and ability and how green spaces actually look and function like when addressing this issue.
8.How do you enlighten others about your work's environmental, cultural and social value?
At Virens, we've tried to bypass some of the elitism that we experienced early in our careers. Even the most experienced horticulturalists don't know every Latin name!
Instead, we try to plant seeds with others through social media posts, writing (articles and ebooks) and good conversations. Any way that you can connect with others in an encouraging and positive light, without being too sappy or preachy is good with us. And of course listening is important too! We believe that change happens in little movements, median adjustments, that add up too paradigm shifts.
9.What is the future of horticulture?
I feel like it’s all about flexibility and adaptability. Moving with environmental shifts and helping others along with you.
I think that we’ll see more of the industry choosing to work with nature rather than against it, in a science-based holistic way. Plus more interdisciplinary interaction from Landscape Architects, Ecologists and City planners right down to citizens. Removing traditional barriers and creating new job titles that combine science and art in horticulture.
My goal is to normalize intelligent planting that gives back to our environment in ecology, user experience, and builds a foundation for our future.
We need to make a few shifts as an industry to accomplish this. First and foremost we need to work together across all industries.
10.how do you cultivate connections with others in the horticultural trade?
What we use the most right now is social media, but that will continue to evolve as we come out of the pandemic. We're so excited to start travelling again, seeing gardens first hand and connecting at horticultural events. Making connections is always a fuller experience in person.
11.What is the question that people ask you most?
‘What is that you do again?’ Because Virens is a combination of disciplines, some people find it hard to label. There’s a bit of, so you're a gardener then?
By the way, my answer depends on who’s asking hahaa.
So what is it that you do again? Then a lot of squinty eyes and far off looks as I try to explain. For me the most important thing is explaining what we do in a way that makes sense to people who don’t care about ecological health and design (maybe they just think green = good). This is the demographic that is voting in our government and will be the ones driving what our parks systems look like.
12.How do you manage stress?
Both of us try to be mindful and recognize what we're feeling, which seems to get easier all the time. And rather than let it build up until your body breaks (no one wants a serious injury), we let the stress out through healthy physical activity. There's nothing like a good sensory forest walk and therapeutic gardening of course. Even sitting and watching pollinators at work breaks the stress cycle if you only a few minutes. Nature is great at getting you out of your own head and helping you to see the bigger picture.
We're both artists as well. It's another area where we're each very individual but converge somewhere in the balance. So, whether it's silversmithing, crafting or home decor, we put a lot of our energy and emotion into creating. It's really all about sharing and connecting with things outside of yourself.
13.What does your daily routine look like?
At the moment it’s always different. I’m not someone that likes to do one thing all day long so I often split my day into lots of smaller tasks. Writing and researching on the computer, site visits and meetings are often piled in with friendly visits, tea breaks and free time.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m not really a nine to five person. I've never understood how you can care for living things on a strict schedule. Instead, I accomplish more when I go with what I feel, like following the seasons in a garden. Action-packed days when needed but mixed with easier ones that allow time to relax. These days I strive for better balance.
At the moment all over the place! I have my hands in many baskets at the moment trying to find my most productive and fulfilling self. I am a busy mom but despite this or maybe because of this I spend a lot of my day thinking about change and how ready we are for it, especially here in the PNW where there is so much potential for progress.
14.What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most? and the least?
I love the beginning of a project, when the possibilities are endless and there’s a lot to learn and process. The joy of creating and then the ongoing maintenance tasks. Always trying to make better choices as you go along.
My least favourite parts are the bits in between that aren't necessarily about the work itself. The politics of getting the resources and support that you need to make something that's truly extra-ordinary.
I really love the problem solving, There is so much that goes before it that is unseen. The hours of observation and research. Finding a solution that works is so beyond exciting and fulfilling.
I can’t stand the projects that continue as status quo. Following horticulture practices that are outdated and not beneficial for anyone or anything. I guess that’s why we don’t do those anymore!
15.Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Just that the complexity of horticulture is something magical. And, I’m glad that I get to experience that and do something that I truly love.
That I can’t wait! Edge of my seat, biting my fingernails excited for the future of horticulture, here in my home where I can see it and experience it through the eyes of my community. We are so ready!!
We hope that you enjoyed the first go at our, Virens Questionnaire. Alicia and I aren't exactly the most comfortable with putting ourselves out there in the world in a personal way, but we felt like it was time to share a bit about ourselves.
And, hopefully you'll be seeing more of these profiles in the future, it's all part of the greater exercise of sharing the best in modern hort. Our goal is to include other small businesses, educators and gardeners so that we can all learn from each other.
-Sara-Jane at Virens Studio
You can find us at virensstudio on Instagram or email us today at email@example.com we'd love to hear from you.
© Virens Studio 2023 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)
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