Interview

story by Michelle Sutton

Berna Ticonchuk coordinates the horticulture program at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) and teaches the Introduction to Horticulture, Tree Culture and Maintenance,  Plant Propagation, and Certified Applicator Training courses. Prior to coming to FLCC in 2002, Ticonchuk had a 20-year career in public gardens in Rochester and Canandaigua. She brings a wealth of knowledge and professional connections to her FLCC students and to her service on the City of Canandaigua Tree Advisory Board and Sonnenberg Gardens Education Committee.

Ticonchuk with her dog, Jack
Photo courtesy Berna Ticonchuk

What were your connections to plants as a child?
Ticonchuk: I grew up in Owego on the family Christmas tree farm; it’s not in operation anymore, but my sister owns a parcel of the property. Remnant trees we planted there as kids 45 to 50 years are now 50 to 60 feet tall and forming a beautiful forest. In addition to running the tree farm, my father was what was then called a “tree surgeon.” I worked for him in the summers and enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to have a career outdoors.

What was your educational journey?
Ticonchuk: I started with my associate’s degree in what was then called the Ornamental Horticulture program at FLCC, back when FLCC was known as Community College of the Finger Lakes. Eventually I got a bachelor’s degree in plant science from Empire State College.

At FLCC, Dr. Ed Moberg was a hugely important advisor to me. He was an agronomist PhD who came from Penn State to FLCC to start the College’s first horticulture program with Dr. Dan Marion. Ed’s support and professional credentials helped me plan my own future versus my father planning it for me (he wanted me to come back and help him with the Christmas tree farm).

As a student, I was really taken with the subject matter and hands-on element of courses like tree maintenance. I learned a great deal about teaching styles and how to manage a classroom from observing my instructors. For instance, I took a field ornithology course with Frank Smith, who had a relaxed, informal way of teaching students; while Bruce Gilman, in his field botany class, was more formal. When I began to teach years later at FLCC, former department chair John VanNiel gave me many opportunities and very helpful constructive criticism. My mentor and dear friend Dr. Jana Lamboy taught me many things about the world of plant science as well as about life in general.

Ticonchuk’s mentor and dear friend, plant pathologistmDr. Jana Lamboy,nretired in 2011 from teaching at FLCC. Photo Courtesy FLCC
FLCC Main Campus in bloom last July; annuals in foreground are verbena ‘Scarlet Star’ from the Superbena series. Photo courtesy FLCC

What was your career trajectory leading up to FLCC?
Ticonchuk: After graduating I worked a series of jobs I hated before I landed on something I loved. I worked briefly for a landscaper, I worked at a beet factory in the evenings doing quality control, and I pruned grapevines in the coldest winter I could remember—oh my goodness, it was so cold. Mercifully, the following spring I got hired at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, where I worked happily for ten years, from 1981 to 1991. I started as a senior gardener and ended up being assistant horticulturist and supervising a seasonal crew while still weeding and planting and mowing all the large areas.

In the late 1980s my boss and mentor at Sonnenberg, head horticulturist Ginny Schirer, sent me to a tree academy held at George Eastman House (now called Eastman Museum). We learned tree physiology, climbing, and pruning—using the mature trees on the property for climbing practice—from world-class expert Dennis Ryan. After I became certified as a climber, I got more into the tree management side of things at Sonnenberg, including conducting a tree inventory.

Sonnenberg was so rewarding, but the pay was nominal and there was no health care coverage. I worked briefly in the grounds department at Nazareth College and brushed up on my knowledge and skills by taking the Master Gardener (MG) program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County. It was there I met MG coordinator Pam Hyman, whose path I’d cross many times over the years. She was an important mentor and colleague to me and to so many people, and her untimely death in 2008 from lymphoma was a real loss to all who knew her. At FLCC we honored her posthumously, in 2009, with the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award.

As part of my MG training, I did my community volunteer hours at Eastman Museum. I was offered a job by the very knowledgeable then-landscape curator Deirdre Cunningham as the groundskeeper and kept that position for ten years, working closely with a treasured colleague, then-head gardener Andy Joss. It was wonderful to be working among the mature trees that I once climbed in the tree academy, and I really enjoy historic horticulture. One of my favorite aspects of my time there was working with volunteers, where I got to hone some of my teaching/instruction skills.

Ten years into my work at Eastman House/Museum, Andy brought in a job announcement to show me for a conservation/horticulture technician position at FLCC. It was an incredible match. I had every qualification—even boat-handling skills—except for radio telemetry (think collaring bears). I applied for the position and was hired in 2002 and have been very happy there advising students, teaching, running the greenhouse, coordinating the horticulture program, and more.

How has your student population changed over the years?
Ticonchuk: The program’s students are majority nontraditional—age 25 to 55, sometimes up to 65. That is a big change I’ve seen over time. I really enjoy the older students—they are so motivated and interested—but I would love to also see more young people studying horticulture. Partly the number of traditional-age students is down because the over-all population of that age group is declining; partly I believe young adults are less interested in\ manual labor than they used to be.

What do you want to be sure folks know about FLCC’s horticulture program?
Ticonchuk: This is an excellent plant science–based horticulture program, with strong environmental themes (for instance, Environmental Science and Ecology are required courses). There are hands-on opportunities for sure, but it’s also rock-solid with the science. One of the strengths of our program is the deep and longstanding connection we have to green industry professionals around the State who we can put students in contact with. That professional networking, along with keeping up with urban forestry research and practice, are the main reasons I go to the annual New York ReLeaf Conference and to regional ReLeaf events.

We have turned students on to a wide array of careers; often, what students come in planning to do changes as they are exposed to more facets of horticulture. For instance, a person could come to the program thinking they want to be a landscape designer, but graduate and start a lavender farm. Or someone will come thinking they want to do plant propagation or hydroponics but leave really juiced about plant pathology and go on to get degrees in that.

I also want to highlight that our full-time horticulture faculty, Dr. Shawn Kenaley, is superb. He started teaching here last year and has been a huge addition to our program. His breadth of knowledge is impressive. He’s a forest pathologist who has taught all ages about just about every facet of horticulture, and he’s down-to-earth and approachable. Having worked at Cornell as a research technician earlier in his career and more recently as a post-doctoral associate, he has strong Cornell connections that our students can benefit from in terms of knowledge, advising, and networking.

Another thing that I would like people to know is that we have recently started a three-course cannabis track as a result of student and societal demand. Our provost, Jonathan Keiser, suggested it and horticulture department chair John Foust encouraged us to create it. I think it will be in demand and will help keep our horticulture program populated.

What’s a trend in arboriculture you feel especially good about? What’s been a surprise?
Ticonchuk: I’m very interested in how research entities like the Morton Arboretum are monitoring trees to see how climate change is affecting them. The level of sophistication of the instrumentation is truly amazing, including the use of drones to capture images way up in the tree canopy. 

I’m pleased and actually quite surprised that electric chainsaws have become so prevalent in the arboriculture industry. Running a noisy gas-powered chainsaw has historically been considered a macho enterprise, but I see that arborists are switching to the quieter electric ones. I think that’s a smart move on so many levels.

Lespedeza thunbergii hedge outside Berna and Beth’s home. Photo courtesy Berna Ticonchuk

Do you garden at home?
Ticonchuk:
Yes, indeed—I have to, for my sanity. I’m into vegetable gardening and my wife Beth and I do home canning and freezing. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with peppers. I also love to grow older varieties of ornamental plants. For instance, on the bank behind our house, I planted nine Vanhoutte spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei) seven years ago, and they’ve now fully covered the bank. Sally Jean Cunningham turned me on to bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii) that has beautiful fuchsia pea-family flowers and tolerates road salt. I have a 15-foot hedgerow of it by the road and it thrives there as a subshrub, dying back to the ground in the winter.

Anything else you want to share?
Ticonchuk: We have a two-year-old dog named Jack who is three quarters mini-Poodle and one quarter Shih Tzu and a real character. We never thought we’d have a little dog—we always had big dogs, like German Shepherd mixes—but we are crazy about Jack.

The FLCC A.A.S. in Horticulture Curriculum
flcc.edu/academics/horticulture/aas

Program Core
• AGR 100 Soil Science
• BIO/CON 103 Environmental Science
• BIO 221/CON 202 Principles of Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology
• BIO 251 Plant Structure and Function
• HRT 110 Introduction to Horticulture
• HRT 150 Herbaceous Plant Materials
• HRT 151 Woody Plant Materials
• HRT 220 Field Experiences in Horticulture
• HRT 260 Applied Plant Pathology with Integrated Pest Management
• HRT 280 Field Entomology with Integrated Pest Management

General Education
• BIO 121 General Biology I OR BIO 125 Foundations of Life Science
• CSC 135 Core Excel
• ENG 101 Composition I
• ENG 103 Composition II
• MAT 145 Survey of Functions I
• 3 credits SUNY General Education approved course in Basic Communication: Oral
• 3 credits SUNY General Education approved course in American History, Western Civilization OR Other World Civilization
• 3 credits SUNY General Education approved course in Social Science

Approved Electives
Choose 8 credits from the following courses:
• CON 235 Wetland Science and Practice
• GIS 130 Introduction to Geographic Information Systems
• GIS 227 Applications of Global Positioning Systems
• HRT 111 Tree Culture and Maintenance
• HRT 130 Introduction to Floriculture
• HRT 131 Floral Design
• HRT 135 Regulations of Cannabis Cultivation
• HRT 160 Unique Horticulture Facilities
• HRT 201 Landscape Design I
• HRT 202 Landscape Construction and Maintenance
• HRT 203 Turf Management
• HRT 204 Plant Propagation and Nursery Management
• HRT 210 Landscape Design II
• HRT 221 Horticulture Topics I
• HRT 222 Horticulture Topics II
• HRT 223 Horticulture Topics III
• HRT 230 Certified Applicator Training
• HRT 235 Cannabis: Biology to Industrial Application
• HRT 236 Cannabis Cultivation
• VIT 100 Introduction to Wines and Vines

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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