It might come as no surprise that the head of a botanical garden would be a plant enthusiast and caretaker himself. But for Brian Trader, it’s not a case of bringing his work home with him.
In fact, in recent months, it’s been the other way around.
With the colder temperatures this time of the year, the president and CEO of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden has been bringing more of his personal collection of plants with him to work, keeping them room-temperature safe in his second-floor office in the garden’s 19th-century Bloemendaal House.
“About half the plants that are in there right now would have been outside during the summer,” Trader said. “There are some plants that stay in there all year-round, just because I like having some greenery in there. And then some of them are plants that I had staged in our home, and my husband Tyler said: ‘This is in the way. It needs some relocation.’”
Of his penchant for what he calls “plant parenting,” Trader added, “I would say it’s become a borderline obsession. My husband would say it’s a problem.”
Between the office and his basement and sunroom at home, Trader, 43, keeps and cares for numerous plants of various varieties. Many have been picked up at sales at other gardens he’s visited over the course of his career, which has taken him from his working-with-plants roots to more office-oriented administrative roles.
“As I became much more hands-off in the workplace with plants, that became maybe a therapeutic outlet for me. It brings joy,” Trader said. “It’s restorative.”
Growing up and working on his family’s farm on the Eastern Shore, on the Chesapeake Bay side of Accomack County, it was Trader’s exposure to plants and gardening in his youth that planted the seeds for his career. The job has taken him from Virginia Tech, where he got his bachelor’s, master’s and a doctorate, to leadership roles at botanical gardens in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Now a year into his role at Lewis Ginter, Trader enjoyed a homecoming of sorts when the garden gig brought him back to Virginia. The garden named him to the post in late 2020 after a nearly yearlong search. He started work at the start of 2021.
The choice of career path was presented to him early, when his father, a poultry farmer who also grew crops, leased part of their property to another farmer who worked primarily with poultry houses. For Trader, the choice was clear: work with plants, or in a fowl-filled, foul-smelling chicken plant.
“I did not want to do that, so I got a job at one of the local garden centers. That’s really what spurred my interest,” he said. “I would bring plants home after work, or things that were on their way out about to die that we would put in compost, I would go and dig stuff out of the compost just to see if I could save it or rehabilitate it, kind of like plant rescues.
“I was really fortunate: the school I went to had a botany class, and I became really close with the teacher there,” he said. “She really instilled that interest and passion and taught me that that could be a career.”
Let it grow
Following teaching gigs at Tech and Mississippi State University, Trader led a graduate program at the University of Delaware that in turn led to a 10-year stint with Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, as its director of domestic and international studies. He also spent two years as a deputy executive director at Delaware Botanic Gardens before taking the Lewis Ginter gig.
With his first year at the garden under his belt, Trader has made himself at home there while making a seasonal home for his plants, his office providing extra space that he doesn’t have at home.
“I don’t have a greenhouse. Literally I have a sunroom, and that sunroom has one temperature,” he said. “I have all these different types of plants that require all different kinds of growing conditions, and somehow I try to take care of them in a way that they can at least thrive or get by in the situation that they’re in.”
Ranging in size from small succulents to large citrus plants, his collection includes a 20-year-old Eulophia (petersii) desert orchid that he got at Missouri Botanical Garden during a conference in St. Louis. Others are even older.
“Some of them are plants that I’ve had since I was in that botany class in high school. Some of those plants I’ve had since ’94,” he said. “Just about every one of them has a little story, and some of them are really rare or unusual.”
His larger citrus plants are put in the basement with LED lighting in colder months, which Trader said are thankfully fewer than what he was used to in Delaware.
“It’s so mild in Richmond, we can bring them in in the early part of November and then put them out hopefully in March. So, it’s only a short, abbreviated period that they’re under the lights,” he said.
Laughing, he added, “I know that our neighbors probably think we’re growing marijuana — which is legal now, so that’s OK — but we’re not.”
Speaking of, a fun fact about Trader: his collegiate studies at Virginia Tech were in horticulture and a perhaps lesser-known concentration — weed science.
No, not “that” weed, as Trader pointed out.
Acknowledging the word’s different meaning as a slang name for cannabis, Trader explained: “I really don’t mention it anymore, because it raises so many eyebrows and draws so many questions. But it was literally how producers can manage weeds within their cropping systems.”
At Lewis Ginter, Trader has familiarized himself with the garden and found some favorite spots.
“I love begonias, I love succulents, I love tropicals,” he said. “Our conservatory horticulturist, Ryan (Olsen), loves begonias probably as much as I do, so I love going in there and seeing the collection he’s amassed for our garden for our community to enjoy. I also love the area of the conservatory where the cacti and the succulents and the agaves are. That brings me great joy every time I walk in.
“I don’t discriminate. I love all plants. I love native plants as well. I really think that native plants are underrated, even though they’ve become a little bit of a buzzword.”
Speaking of buzzwords, Trader noted his plant hobby has its own trendy name.
“The hip term is ‘plant parenting,’” he said. “It’s a true thing, when you think about the cost of living and young couples who are starting out and they can’t afford their rent, much less a puppy or dog.”
Trader said he encourages anyone to get into plant parenting, particularly in light of the pandemic changing people’s appreciation of the outdoors and nature.
“I firmly believe that everyone should learn something new every day or continue to grow and evolve,” he said. “There is so much research out there that has proven, and I think we know this more now than we ever have because of the pandemic, that plants are healing. They’re powerful.”
This is the latest installment in our Downtime series, which focuses on business people’s pursuits outside of the office. If you, a coworker or someone you know around town has a unique way of passing time off the clock, submit suggestions to [email protected]. For previous installments of Downtime, click here.