Manager, Horticulture – Shaw Nature Reserve
After more than 30 years at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri, Scott Woodbury retired this summer from a long career in public horticulture to start Cacalia Garden Design and Wilding, a consulting and design business in St. Louis. Over the duration of his career, Woodbury has seen native gardening grow from a niche corner of the horticultural industry to a popular home gardening style that is now attracting widespread, steadily growing public interest—and with good reason. Native gardening offers many benefits to people, pollinators, and the ecosystem as a whole. Woodbury has been an enthusiastic advocate from the beginning, spending the past several decades working in native gardens and teaching others how to plant their own.
The Bascom House overlooks the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo by Tilda Adams.
A Love of Gardening at First Sight
In the fall of his seventh grade school year, Woodbury got a job raking fallen autumn leaves for a woman in his community. He loved the work, so she invited him back to work in her garden the following spring. It was then that something clicked: this was what he wanted to do with his life. “If you consider middle school to be ‘always,’ then I have always known what I wanted to do,” Woodbury said. “Not everyone gets to figure it out that early.”
There were a lot of stops along the way between that first backyard and winding up at Shaw Nature Reserve. As a young man, Woodbury worked at gardens and arboretums in Wisconsin, Italy, Pennsylvania, Long Island, and Washington, D.C. It was in his role at Tudor Place in Washington, D.C. that he really began to dig in to his work with native plants. There, he worked in a woodland garden area where Tudor Place had started to experiment with native gardening. “Using native plants in gardening was a new concept then,” Woodbury said. “There were only a handful of books, with Harry Phillips and Sarah Stein at the forefront. I read everything I could get my hands on.”
The Gift of Whitmire Wildflower Garden
Even as he was ravenously learning about this exciting new concept, Woodbury longed to move back to the Midwest. Meanwhile, back in Missouri, local businessman Blanton Whitmire was planning a special gift for his wife, Peg. Shaw Nature Reserve was a very special place for the Whitmires, who were longtime regular visitors. On Peg’s 70th birthday in 1987, the Whitmires came to Shaw Nature Reserve as they had done many times before. This time, Blanton had a surprise for Peg: the promise of a garden in her honor. In what was then an unmanaged woodland overgrown with invasive honeysuckle, the Whitmire Wildflower Garden would grow. Woodbury was hired in 1991 to bring it to life.
Blanton and Peg Whitmire with horticulturist Scott Woodbury in the 90s.
Over the next two years, Scott and former Shaw Nature Reserve Horticulturist Joyce Davit led a small group of volunteers in the restoration of the area and construction of the garden. The Whitmire Wildflower Garden was officially dedicated in 1993. Today, it offers accessible paths through five plant community areas (woodland, wetland, glade, savannah, and prairie) and a home gardening area that includes a native perennial garden, rock garden, prairie garden, water garden, woodland garden, and rain garden. Over 500 Missouri native plant species are on display.
The Whitmire Wildflower Garden includes five different plant community areas, including the wetland areas pictured here. Photos by Tilda Adams.
Native plants are often destroyed en masse when their habitats are eliminated in favor of human infrastructure or non-native plantings. The animals that depend on those plants disappear with them. Without plants, native pollinators suffer; without these insects, native birds suffer; without native birds, small predators suffer; and so on.
“To garden with native plants is to garden with a purpose that is maybe a little deeper.”Scott Woodbury
Reintroducing native plants to the landscape on your own property is a powerful way to create a little oasis for those plants and the life that returns along with them. And, as many gardeners are learning, native plants will reciprocate the love that you are showing them by making it easy on you: once they are established, they are easy to grow. After all, they are perfectly adapted to grow here. “Native gardening is not just a job,” Woodbury said. “It feeds the soul.”
Spreading the Native Plant Gospel
Beyond hands-on gardening, Woodbury has spent much of his career cultivating the public’s affection for and awareness of native plants. He is a frequent featured speaker at seminars and gardening interest groups, and he has long been involved in all kinds of local native gardening efforts beyond his work at Shaw Nature Reserve.
In 1998, Woodbury started the first chapter of Wild Ones, a community of gardeners that educates and supports home and business owners as they learn to develop their own native landscapes. In the beginning, there were only a couple dozen members. By 2006, the group had grown to over 100. Today, Wild Ones has more than 350 members, making it the largest chapter in the nation.
Scott Woodbury stands in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden on his last day at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo by Kristina DeYong.
“To be able to connect with people is the most important part of my job,” Woodbury said. He considers himself an introvert and recalls being terribly nervous for the first phone call of his professional career. “It was so hard. But it’s important,” he said. “I think I’ve been able to influence people. That’s what I like to do—to make an impact on someone and to get them to change their gardening ways.”
These days, Woodbury spends more time on community work and education than he does in the garden. Shaw Nature Reserve now has several full-time horticulturists who work in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden, along with a sizable crew of volunteers. “I don’t have dirt under my fingernails anymore,” Woodbury says, “and I miss that part of the job. I can’t do everything, but I do miss it.”
Starting Your Own Native Garden
For those who are ready to get some dirt under their own fingernails and dig in to native gardening, Woodbury had four key pieces of advice.
- Learn from local resources that are available to you. Grow Native is a great place to start, and Shaw Nature Reserve’s Native Landscaping Manual takes a deep dive into native gardening essentials. The William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening has a number of resources as well, including a guide to naturescaping and visual guides to native and pollinator-friendly alternatives to common garden plants.
- Include a place to sit in your garden. Native landscaping is still a relatively new concept, and not everybody is on board just yet. It is fairly common for home gardeners to face resistance from outdated zoning laws or uncertain neighbors. To the untrained eye, ornamental grasses and tall wildflowers may just look like unkempt weeds. Adding a place to sit sends a message that your landscaping is intentional and cared for. Plus, it gives you somewhere to relax and enjoy your handiwork.
- Leave at least a little mowed turf grass in your landscape. Turf grass isn’t inherently detrimental to the environment; what makes it so destructive to ecosystems is its pervasive omnipresence. But it does have its purpose—it offers a place to play or lay in the sun. Even if it is just incorporated as a border or a path, keeping some turf grass in your yard is a gesture of good faith to neighbors who want to see that you aren’t just “letting it go.”
- Realistically consider your time and abilities. Don’t try to jump in all at once. Instead, start small. Learn what you are capable of, and build from your successes.
The Whitmire Wildflower Garden is visited by a monarch butterfly in August. Photo by Tilda Adams.
Advice for Aspiring Horticulturists
As for those who want to dig even deeper into the field and make a career in horticulture, Woodbury recommends St. Louis Community College’s horticulture program. “They offer night class options and really immerse their students in the experience,” Woodbury says. “It is the best program of its kind.”
But he doesn’t underestimate the power of self-teaching, either. He recommends attending Shaw Nature Reserve’s Native Plant School and keeping an eye out for webinars, conferences, and volunteer opportunities put on by places like the Missouri Department of Conservation. And, the best place to start, he says, is to “go for a walk in a garden.”
After spending decades in the field himself, Woodbury wouldn’t change a thing. “I’ve been in love with horticulture since middle school,” Woodbury said. “Never have I thought to myself that this wasn’t the greatest thing in the world.”
Public Information Coordinator