With a Bachelor of Science and a Master’s Degree in Horticulture from the University of Guelph, Mary Jane Clark began her career specializing in plant biology and research. She is now Professor of Horticulture at Niagara College, where she has been teaching nursery production, sustainable food production and a variety of other plant-related courses for the past five years.
Where did your love of plants come from?
I’ve been growing plants for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a farm, so I was able to help out in a practical way, growing many different types of plants in our gardens. I’ve always enjoyed watching plants grow and planting new types of seeds each year. My favourite place to be is in the garden and after all these years, I’m still fascinated by growing plants. There’s nothing like watching a seed grow into a beautiful plant — it’s just amazing. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share that excitement and passion with my students who are similarly excited about growing plants.
What experience did you gain after school?
After my time at Guelph, I moved to Toronto and worked with some great people in a couple of landscaping companies for about two-and-a-half years. During that time, I completed a Creating Landscapes certificate from Guelph that helped me learn the basics of landscape design. I was also interested in green roofs, so I was fortunate when an opportunity came up to work with Dr. Youbin Zheng at the University Guelph with his new research team for green roof technology. I worked with his Guelph research team for about two-and-a-half years before an opportunity came up to work with his research group at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, focused on nursery production.
How did you get into teaching?
While I was working on my Master’s, I was very fortunate to be a teaching assistant for Dr. Glen Lumis in his woody plants course. Also, Glen and Dr. Theo Blom were kind enough to allow me to give some guest lectures about green roof production in their classes. Later, when I was in the Niagara Region, I met Bill MacDonald from Niagara College. I was able to teach part-time with Bill before a full-time position became available to teach in the horticulture program. I applied because positions like that are quite rare. I never thought I would be given the opportunity to teach horticulture, so I’m thrilled! It’s such a blessing to have the opportunity to work with such a great team at Niagara College who are all very talented and share my excitement about plants.
What is one lesson students always react to?
We’ve had the chance to go on field trips to some great wholesale nurseries. When the students see the size of the nurseries and the scale of production, they are amazed. The students are very impressed with how large the nurseries are, and the high quality of plant material that’s being grown.
What is one life lesson you try to instill in your students?
The students tend to be curious and interested in new ways of doing things. With the applied nature of research at the college, I try to encourage that curiosity. I hope that my interest and excitement about figuring out how to grow something better, or how to modify a production method to make it more efficient, will inspire the students too. This will serve the students well when they go out into the industry, so they can continually look for ways to improve in their future jobs.
What is one of the most rewarding aspects of your career?
It’s really rewarding when I see students after graduation who are working in the horticulture industry and are loving it. It’s great to know they are able to do that because they were successful in their program at the college. To see a former student directly applying the information that they learned in my courses to their full-time job that they enjoy — that’s very rewarding.
Is there someone you look up to or that mentored you or had a big influence on your career?
There are so many people from Guelph who are really fantastic: Glen Lumis, Jen Llewellyn, Youbin Zheng, Al Sullivan (my Master’s supervisor), Rodger Tschanz, Theo Blom, Duane Falk and Brian Husband. The folks at Christine’s Touch Gardening in Toronto are amazing, and at Niagara College, the entire faculty team is inspiring. Our faculty team is so supportive and continues to encourage me to do my best and share my love of plants with our incredible students.