In Full Bloom: How Alicia Ramirez Found Her Calling in the World of Plants
The pathway to a meaningful career isn’t always linear. But at Seed Your Future, our mission is to support individuals throughout their career journey, ensuring they have the resources to pursue fulfilling jobs working with plants.
We recently sat down with Alicia Ramirez, Senior Sales Associate at Lang’s Garden + Design, to learn more about her role and how she got there.
Q: You worked in another field and then realized you wanted to work with plants. What led you to this career change?
A: I was always interested in plants and nature. I grew up in the Pine Barrens, so hanging out in the woods was a big thing, but it wasn't until I started keeping house plants which started with me wanting to make skin cream out of aloe, and then I killed the aloe and it died. I overwatered it and I had this fierce determination to learn what I did wrong and do it right. That was just a hobby that took off for a few years, then it wasn't until I wasn't finding a lot of satisfaction or success in what I was doing. I was working retail and then I transitioned over to medical billing, and I was not very successful with the medical billing. I guess it was a little dry for me.
During a trip to Longwood Gardens, I was walking around all day and saying, “I want to live here, I want to live here! Let's stay here when they lock the doors.” Then I realized, what if I worked at a place like this? What can I do to do that? It wasn't until COVID hit and I had lots of free time and minimal responsibilities that I realized this is the best time to make that transition into something new, and I just enrolled in college classes. I found Seed Your Future’s website by researching, realistically, what could I do if I pursued this? The resources were really helpful. Seeing the lists of different jobs and career paths was super helpful for me, because, before that, I wasn't sure what I could be doing besides farming or being a landscape designer -- I had no idea.
Q: So now that you are in your new place, could you tell us what you do and what a typical day looks like for you?
A: Over at Lang’s during the busy season, I do everything that includes helping customers. They'll come in with disease plant material and I get to play detective. I diagnose and give recommendations with the knowledge that I have. People come in and they don't know what plants are right for their space, and I get to teach them what works best and why. I like to give the “Here's why...” Not everyone does. They just say, “You have to do it this way,” but being able to teach people what they can do and how to do it fills them with the inspiration to become a gardener. It’s really exciting.
The other thing I do is sales, help landscapers, and source some material. The owners of the company have brought me in on the ordering process because I showed an interest, and I read a lot of magazines, blogs and look at Pinterest boards of landscaping all the time. I say, “Oh, this is a really nice variety,” and “I was reading about this,” so I get to have a say in what we bring into the store, what we're purchasing and offering to the customers. It's a retail space, so everybody wears a different hat every day.
Q: Could you go into more detail about what sort of training you've taken to do this pivot into working with plants?
A: The original plan was a bachelor’s in plant science or ornamental horticulture. After going through my general education courses, I realized I needed a shorter-term goal and I wanted to just get into it and make sure I was going in the right direction, into something that I was actually going to be skillful at. I found Mercer County Community College’s program, which is an associate in applied science degree for ornamental horticulture, and they also have a certificate track. I met with Amy Ricco, program coordinator for horticulture, plant science and sustainability at Mercer Community College. She showed me the greenhouse facilities and explained some of the courses. It sounded exactly like what I was looking for. It's hands-on. The classroom, for the most part, is in the greenhouse. Our labs are doing different experiments, learning the process and getting the science, and taking field trips to big industry spaces. I've been to a lot of the major plant nurseries in New Jersey. Overall, that experience has been great. I'm almost finished -- on the home stretch. Then, during the off-season, I get to regroup and get ready for spring, which is the busiest time of the season for this industry.
Q: Is there a favorite thing about what you do right now working at Lang’s?
A: This is a two-parter. One, I like working with the plants, but specifically the diagnosing of plant diseases. There’s something about that -- it's like playing 21 questions. It’s so much fun to figure it out and then take someone who's really concerned about something and be able to make a recommendation. Solving their problem is also the other part of that I find satisfying. It keeps the possibility of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the future in my mind. The other thing is being able to create beautiful spaces or help people beautify the spaces that they have, because who doesn't love a good aesthetic?
Q: You seem to enjoy teaching. Can you tell us more about that?
A: I developed and taught the house plant portion of a lecture for the Camden County Master Gardeners last year, and that was a great experience. I was so nervous, but I made it through and realized I enjoyed it. I got to drone on about plants and people were actually listening to me, and it was a lot of fun! I answered a lot of interesting questions. I created the workshop for it at Lang’s. We do our workshops and presentations on the patio because there's a lot of space for people and I can bring in the house plants as examples out there.
Q: Is there anything more you want to tell us about Lang’s? For the business, what is the overall goal?
A: They serve Linwood, NJ, and the surrounding areas, offering landscape design and maintenance services. There's an onsite landscape architect, and then the other thing we do is container designs and potting. We call it the potting shop at Lang's. They’re huge in the spring. People come in and have us design different arrangements and pots for their spaces. It’s a unique service because most of the homes that we service are on the beach, on the island, like Margate and Ocean City. The yards are small, so there's not a lot of space for a big, beautiful plantscape, but the pots are a way to bring in some greenery.
Design services, the potting shop, there’s a retail space which is nice. People like to come in and decompress. Sometimes we have a lot of regulars come in. We have a koi pond. There’s a waterfall in there and everything there is set up to muster up inspiration, because there are a lot of people that do it themselves. Everything is in a planned-out bed, and we put the perennials on the ground so people can take a step back and imagine it in their space. It’s a beautiful place to be.
Q: Who are some of the people that you work with directly, and how do you work as a team? Do you have a lot of freedom? Is it more group work or is it individual?
It depends. Everybody there is good at what they do, and we all have our areas of expertise. One of the things that brings us together as a team is if someone doesn't know something, there's a very high chance somebody else on the team is going to know. We all just teach each other. Specifically, my manager Catherine, who started there not knowing anything about gardening or plants, is now a gardening expert, and a superwoman at that, because she does a lot. The owners, Stephanie and Joe, have seen the value in my skill set, interest, and knowledge, and that's been super great. Also, Beth -- I love Beth. Really nice woman. She's been in the field for a very long time, and I've looked up to her as a mentor because she's guided me in things that we needed to finetune my knowledge about or practice.
Q: How do you see Lang’s making a difference? What is the positive impact of your work?
A: Besides making beautiful spaces, being a place for people to get inspiration and be happy, we also focus on the community. We carry local brands. Most of the nurseries we order from are local, family-owned spaces. On top of that, we have products from local artists that we sell in-store. They have been working on revitalization projects in Atlantic City. They created pots for all these spaces in Atlantic City to beautify the area. They've also worked with a local farm called Reed’s Farm, and they donated some native trees for native tree plantings. The focus is on community, the arts and inspiring people.
Q: How did Seed Your Future’s resources help you make the pivot?
A: The resource page -- to do some of my own research and figure out what schools offer, because there isn't another place that has a decent list of colleges that offer horticulture-related degrees or certificates. That was a good one. The other thing, like I mentioned, is the list of career paths. I was able to click through and say, “Oh, I've never thought that's a job that exists, and now that's something to think about.” I think in the future, I will definitely be taking advantage of scholarship opportunities or other internship opportunities, but I'm really grateful for the resources that I was able to use before.
Q: Why do you think horticulture is important for the world?
A: Well, food, medicine, environmental issues and sustainability are intertwined with horticulture, design and creating, and improving mental health. There are so many different reasons why horticulture is important.
Q: Imagine yourself from three years ago. What advice would you give to someone thinking about entering the profession?
A: I don't think I would do anything differently. I think what I did for myself was and what I'm doing is good. The goals that I've set are realistic. One of the things I would say is stay open to all the possibilities. Don't go in it with a tunnel focus because there are so many other things that you can explore and get into that are great opportunities. Another thing that I am reminding myself, and other people can be reminded too, is that good experience in this field does take time. If you think about it, working with plants isn’t an instant gratification process. It takes time for really good results, and that is the same as going through this process and learning things. You're not going to become an overnight expert, and that's OK.
The other thing – and one of the reasons I really like horticulture is because there are so many different little niches and areas of expertise that people can have. You can talk to somebody who knows everything about shade trees, conifers, and forestry, then you can hand them a house plant and ask them to take care of it, and they'll be completely lost. There's so much to know -- you couldn't possibly know everything, and nobody is looking down on you for that. Everybody's open about it. Everybody's sharing ideas and everybody's willing to teach and learn from each other, and I think that's a good space to be in.
Q: Any other thoughts about your job, about horticulture or just working with plants in general?
A: I wasn't sure when Jazmin, the executive director of Seed Your Future, approached me for this interview. I said, “Yeah, that sounds great,” and then I thought, why does she want to talk to me? I haven't really accomplished anything. Then I really thought about it and talked to Stephanie, one of the owners at Lang’s, and she said, “You're capable. You're good.” I realized I am at the beginning of the journey and other people are going to be here and could use my experience to relate to and maybe gain insight.
Q: You’re absolutely right. People are looking for one inciting incident. You had it over COVID with house plants. It just takes one little switch for people to get excited and want to pursue this career…Once again, I cannot stress enough – it was so, so nice to talk to you.
A: Thank you so much, this has been awesome. I’m joking around with my coworkers saying I’m going to be famous.
If you would like to learn more about Lang’s Garden + Design, contact Alicia Ramirez at [email protected] or [email protected]. Follow @langs_garden on Instagram, or visit their website Lang's Garden (langsgarden.com).
- Lillie Wightman, Seed Your Future