Jim Salyards, Celebrating 25 Years in the Garden

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With the celebration of my 25th anniversary at Filoli in February, I’ve had more than a few opportunities to recount the path that brought me to this point in my life and career in horticulture.  It’s not a very circuitous path, as I know it is for some, but one that makes me feel grateful that some early life events were impactful enough to set the course back when I was just a little tyke.  

I have had the opportunity to visit many gardens in my life, but I still consider Filoli one of the most beautiful in the world.

Jim Salyards, Director of horticulture

My first memories are from when my family had recently moved to the South Bay when I was around 3 years old.  At that time, the area still had orchards and fields and a nearby dairy.  My parents took my brother and me out to catch butterflies in the fields and orchards where Great America Parkway is now.  We visited the dairy often, or so I remember and got to see calves being born and cows being milked.  For some reason, the owners of the farm also kept dozens of pigs one year on part of the land, and hundreds of ducks another year.  These visits to the dairy were like getting to live near a farm.  By four years old, I decided that I wanted to be a zookeeper when I grew up.  The jaunts to see cows, pigs and ducks, catch butterflies, and explore the drainage canal down the street for tadpoles instilled an appreciation and passion for all aspects of the natural world.  

When I was nine, we moved up to the Santa Cruz Mountains to the little town of Boulder Creek.  Here, I had forests to explore, and I started to also come to appreciate the different plants growing around me.  During high school, my love of biology and animals- I had countless pets while growing up, including hamsters, snakes, iguanas, a box turtle, and a bluegill fish- made me decide I wanted to become a veterinarian.  

One diversion that later inspired my switch to study plants, was a project I did in my high school biology class cataloging the many different trees that grow in the San Lorenzo Valley.  Here I documented all the species, organizing them by their taxonomy, and also researched each one noting its unique characteristics and biology.  This cataloging the different species and understanding the relationships between them was what later sparked my road to where I am today.  I’m happy that I was eventually able, through a former co-worker, to tell my biology teacher, Mr. Kemp, how his class impacted my life. 

Jim with his high school biology teacher, Mr. Kemp, at Filoli in 2016

When he visited Filoli in 2016 and looked me up, it was great to tell him what an important role he played in my young life.  But, before I made the switch to the plant world, my plan to become a vet made me decide UC Davis was where I should study.  However, during my first year at Davis, my grades weren’t the best, and I then began feeling that if I wasn’t passionate enough with my studies that were leading to vet school, maybe I should do a bit of exploring of some of the other disciplines that were offered at Davis. Simultaneous to this, I took an introductory biology class during my second year and had probably one of the best professors during my university experience.  After taking Dr. Thornton’s biology class, I next took his intro to botany class, and that’s when I officially said goodbye to vet school and firmly decided that I wanted to work with plants.  Fast forward a few years of studying botany, I then discovered the horticulture program at Davis, and after taking a plant propagation course, I was so in love with the subject that I pursued an internship at the Davis Arboretum.  

At the Arboretum, on the heels of the internship, I began working in various roles for a couple of years and loved each day I was there, including days working in the summer sun in the Central Valley.  Here, I also found a community of like-minded people, many of whom I’m still connected to today. The Arboretum is also where I decided to pursue graduate work in horticulture, and also cemented my desire to work in public garden horticulture.  I think if I hadn’t wound up at the Arboretum, it would have taken me an even longer time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  It was at the realization that most of the senior staff had Master’s degrees that I decided that I must do the same if I wanted to have a fun and rewarding job working at a public garden.  

My Master’s thesis work, also at Davis, was on the use of California native plants in the revegetation of native landscapes.  My project involved using native grasses to help propagate mycorrhizal (beneficial) fungi in sterile soils prior to planting woody plants.  While I was wrapping up my thesis work, I had my first opportunity to visit Filoli.  I’d known about it for years, both from my studies and testimonials from colleagues at the Arboretum, but also from a former gardening client I’d worked for as an undergrad.  On the day of my visit, it was past the spring peak and it was a very rainy day, so not the best occasion for a first visit.  I was impressed, but not overly so because of the stormy weather that day.

Six months later, after I’d already moved to San Francisco, but was still going back and forth to Davis to wrap up the writing of my thesis, someone in the Environmental Horticulture office slipped a job announcement for a lead horticulturist position at Filoli in my mailbox.  Because I was already living nearby, but mostly to go through the experience of the interview process, I applied for the job.  A few weeks later, I was asked to come for a pre-interview visit and tour of the grounds.  There, I spent a couple of hours, mostly with (at the time) garden manager Alex Fernandez, learning about the work that I would do should I land the role. 

Unequivocally, it was when I learned about the responsibilities and duties of the lead horticulturist role that I fell in love with the idea of working at Filoli.  After a successful interview, including the question, “What is the proper height to mow Kentucky bluegrass?” (the answer is 2-3”), I was soon offered the position.  When I got the call from Lucy Tolmach, my predecessor, I learned that part of what helped me land the role was the positive references from the folks at the Davis Arboretum, and an example of how it is also who you know that helps in these situations.  Furthermore, it was the fact that one of my references talked about my penchant for cooking, and specifically, my journey to recreate a Szechuan eggplant dish found on the menu of a Davis Chinese restaurant, that helped solidify Lucy’s decision to hire me.  To this day, cooking and baking are hobbies of mine.  

From the point that I started at Filoli on February 6, 1995, the time really has flown.  I’ve been very lucky to grow in my role as time has passed.  By the beginning of 2000, I was promoted to Greenhouse Manager, and loved being back among the plants being propagated for the Garden.  In this position, I oversaw the production of the annual and bulb displays, plus the plant shop, the tropical greenhouses, the picking of the foliage for the flower arrangers, and other duties.  When Lucy and Jonathan retired in 2012, I co-led the horticulture department for a couple of years with Alex. Then in 2014, I was promoted solely to lead the department when Alex began overseeing all operations at Filoli. 

Jim busy at work in the Garden

What are the things that have kept me at Filoli all these years?  First, there has always been an amazing cadre of staff with whom I’ve been able to work.  Over the 25 years, there have been hundreds, but there are dozens of folks who have been a second family to me and many with whom I’m still friendly.  

Also, I have loved the opportunity to work with so many wonderful volunteers.  Here too, many of these folks have been like a family to me.  Working at a place with so many people generously giving their time for the betterment and beauty of the organization is inspiring and humbling.  I appreciate all the hours that these people have donated toward the success of the Filoli.  

And, of course, it is the Garden and its setting that constantly keep me joyful about my work.  I have had the opportunity to visit many gardens in my life, but I still consider Filoli one of the most beautiful in the world.  To me, it all comes down to the scale of this place.  Filoli is big enough to be stunningly grand, but is still intimate enough that I, and I believe others, can wrap their minds around.  Because it is divided up into different rooms, one has the ability to take in each space and absorb the details before moving to the next room. The other important factor is that being in a Mediterranean climate, there is always something in bloom!

Finally, I’ll end with some advice to those who are interested in pursuing work in horticulture.  First, make sure you undertake one or more internships in the field during your training.  These pay off not only in giving you the ability to experience the hands-on aspect of the work, which is a good way to test whether you have a sustained passion for it, but also start to build the muscle memory that makes the work easier and more enjoyable.  Internships also pay off because the public garden world is small enough that if you impress the folks where you intern, it may help you later land a role of a lifetime. 

Jim Salyards has been Filoli’s Director of Horticulture since 2014, and part of the Horticulture Department since 1995.