Growing Silver

Growing Silver

You can count on finding a riot of color among the blooms and foliage at the UT Gardens in Knoxville. This year, though, you’ll see more silver among the beds of annuals, perennials, herbs, and trees that abound throughout the 5 acres along Neyland Drive. The UT Gardens is celebrating its 25th, or silver, anniversary. In honor of the occasion, curator James Newburn (Knoxville ’95, ’08), gardens interim director Dr. Sue Hamilton (Knoxville ’80, ’95), and students are growing such silver plants as artemisia, dusty miller, and silver sage on the agriculture campus. They are also joining with the Friends of the Gardens to dedicate a new Friendship Plaza, a sweeping entryway designed to welcome the 50,000-plus visitors the gardens host each year.

Just as the gardens’ plants, trees, and structures have grown into an impressive collection, they have provided a rich foundation for the careers of dozens of UT alumni. We catch up with four graduates to hear their recollections of the gardens and discover where their UT experience has taken them. (You can get a taste of the Gardens’ beauty at

Jenny Pfeffer, horticulture therapist, Sertoma Center of Knoxville

Jenny Pfeffer

Jenny Pfeffer (Knoxville ’83) was with the UT Gardens at their very beginning. “They were trial plots for new plants then, so I was in the plots working all summer twenty-five years ago.” After graduating, she returned to her native Venezuela, spent 9 years in Florida, and then came back to Tennessee to earn a master’s in horticulture therapy (’07).

Today at the Sertoma Center of Knoxville, using horticulture therapy, she works to provide a good quality of life to people with developmental disabilities. With clients, she grows and pots herbs, houseplants, and flowers and cares for plants at businesses in the Knoxville area. “Our clients do very well, and they enjoy making a little money for their efforts,” she says.

Pfeffer, too, finds rewards. “Just last week I had a breakthrough. There is a beautiful girl, twenty-four, who has autism. She didn’t want to do anything for four months, but lately when I do therapy with the classroom, she starts repeating what I say. She’s happy. I asked her, ‘Do you want to repot plants?’ ‘Yes,’ she answered, and she repotted six scented geraniums. Everyone celebrated, giving her high-fives.

“It was thrilling to see somebody come from within and go out and do something. I told her, ‘This plant is now your plant,’ and she told me in her own language that she wanted to write her name on it, and she proceeded to do just that.
“It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I think I have a long mission here at Sertoma. This is a beautiful place to work.”

Eric Delvin, project manager, the Nature Conservancy

Eric Delvin

To Eric Delvin, working in the UT Gardens “felt like a natural trajectory, coming from my farming background to working in the greenhouses. It reinforced the idea that working with the environment was something important and felt natural for me.”

He joined the Peace Corps after graduating from UT Knoxville in 1993. In Nepal he worked with farmers to improve agricultural production and taught beekeeping and other alternative income-¬≠producing methods. In villages all over western Nepal, he taught such health how-to projects as latrine construction and building smokeless stoves to improve women’s health.

Later he taught English in South Korea. He met his wife, Rain, at a nonprofit in Pennsylvania. Together they did community service work in indigenous communities in the Caribbean, Alaska, and Montana and worked in Taiwan. Delvin returned to Nashville to help convert Delvin Family Farms from conventional vegetable production to a community-supported organic agriculture enterprise. Master’s study in environmental science led him to Washington State. His thesis probed the political ecology of tourism development in a Giant panda reserve in western China.

Delvin has worked for the Nature Conservancy for more than 5 years doing ecological restoration work to preserve and enhance western Washington’s ecosystem of prairies, oak woodlands, and oak savannahs. “They’re very rare and quite endangered,” he says. “I do a lot of work to enhance them and control exotic species and reintroduce rare species and work closely with the Conservancy’s many partners.”

This fall he begins doctoral study in restoration ecology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Jayme Tims Grzebik, urban horticulturist, University of Hawaii, Oahu

While earning a bachelor’s (’01) and a master’s (’03) at UT Knoxville, Jayme Grzebik helped manage all aspects of the UT Gardens. Her favorite memories are of selecting from 300 or more varieties of new plants that arrive each year for container-garden displays. As a horticulture student, she learned the basis of plant nomenclature and the role of horticulture in people-plant relationships.

That knowledge served her well when she landed a job with the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hawaii. “Basically I added a whole book [of Latin] to my vocabulary. There are plants on these islands from all over the world.”

After moving from Kauai to Oahu, she began work for the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service as an urban horticulturalist. “I am a bridge from the university to the community–I provide classes and write publications on environmentally sound tropical garden practices and coordinate the Oahu Master Gardeners.

“The hands-on work in the UT Gardens is, in part, why I’m successful in finding jobs in the marketplace. The gardens gave me practical hands-on experience that’s vital in the field.”

Susan Conlon Morgan, horticulture manager, Dallas Arboretum, and freelance writer,

Susan Conlon Morgan

Susan Morgan (Knoxville ’02, ’05) developed a passion for public horticulture during her studies under UT Gardens interim director Susan Hamilton and as the gardens’ volunteer coordinator.

“I’m fascinated by the horticulture and education elements of it: how you connect people with nature and gardens.” She honed her writing skills at Tennessee and found it excellent training for her work as assistant gardening editor at, where she writes and edits web content as a freelancer.

A career move with her husband, David Nathaniel Morgan (Knoxville ’03) took her to Dallas, where she found an opening with the Dallas Arboretum. Today she helps coordinate preparations for Dallas Blooms, the Southwest’s largest outdoor floral display. She supervises the layout and planting of half a million bulbs. “The garden staff is diverse. About half are Latino, and several others are recently relocated refugees from Africa and Asia. We counted at least eleven different languages spoken between us. The cultural diversity makes my job fascinating.”

This fall she heads to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, to study toward an international diploma in botanic garden education.