Some days are destined to change us. We meet a special person. We read a life-changing book or hear an inspirational speech. We have an epiphany. We discover our calling.
Jim Smith had such a day at the beginning of his high school career in the summer of 2000.
It might have seemed insignificant at the time, an incoming freshman shuffled into an unfamiliar elective because the other classes were full. His parents, Rusty and Donna Smith, had moved the family from Byron to Warner Robins, making Jim one of the new kids at Houston County High School.
His classmates, from the surrounding middle schools in the district, already had signed up for their courses, so his choices were limited.
“It was the bottom of the barrel,” Jim said. “When the counselor asked me what I was interested in, I told her I played in the band. She said I needed another elective and started looking through the list. The only thing left was horticulture.”
He might as well have been enrolling in a foreign language. Terms such as propagation and cross-pollination weren’t part of his vocabulary. The only time he had a green thumb was when he spilled paint on his fingers back in kindergarten. He hated it when his parents made him cut the grass.
He had roots, though.
“I knew Jim had a love for plants at an early age,” Donna said. “He often helped me work in our yard planting bushes and flowers.”
Donna’s father, Henry Avant, died the year Jim was born. He was known for his large and prosperous vegetable gardens at his home in Macon.
Jim’s horticulture teacher, Cheralyn (Boettcher) Keily, was in her first year at Houston County. Her enthusiasm planted the seed for Jim.
He enrolled in the class all four years of high school. He learned to grow flowers and ferns in the school’s greenhouse. He arrived early for the “0” period before school to do research. He became a leader in the school’s FFA chapter and won first-place individual honors in floriculture in the state FFA contest his senior year.
“I knew it would be the perfect class for him,” Donna said. “His teacher, Ms. Boettcher, was instrumental in his path of horticulture and nurtured his love of plants that led him to where he is today.”
Jim, 32, is now a senior horticulturist at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and a key player in the garden’s ongoing exhibit, “Imaginary Worlds: Once Upon a Time.” It features 150,000 plants on 14 “larger than life” sculptures. It opened in May and runs through October at the botanical garden’s 33 acres of breathtaking beauty near Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta.
He isn’t the most famous alumnus of Houston County High. That distinction probably goes to Jake Fromm, now the starting quarterback for the University of Georgia.
Fromm plays “between the hedges.” Jim certainly has fertilized and pruned his share of them over the years.
Jim does, however, hold one school record Fromm could never touch. He was the first graduate of Houston County High to have perfect attendance from kindergarten through the 12th grade. He was recognized at the school’s 2004 graduation ceremony, and a plaque was placed at the school to recognize his achievement.
He attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton for two years before transferring to the University of Georgia, where he earned his degree in horticulture from the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences.
He worked at the university’s Trial Gardens and served as president of Pi Alpha Psi horticulture fraternity. Athens, of course, is home of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and the first garden club in America was founded there in 1891.
After college, Jim interned at Epcot theme park in Orlando and was a member of Disney’s horticulture department. He joined the team at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2011.
There is more to his job than meticulous landscaping and getting dirt under his fingernails, although there’s plenty of that, too. In 2013, the botanical garden set attendance records with its “Imaginary Worlds: Larger Than Life” exhibit. The impressive project introduced Jim to the world of “mosaiculture,” an art form using giant metal structures covered with thousands of bedding plants.
“It changed my life,” he said. “It pushed me in a new direction.”
One of the sculptures, the Earth Goddess, is 25 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It has become a permanent exhibit and an icon often used in tourism promotions for the city.
In many ways, Jim is like an artist holding a paintbrush, and the botanical garden’s greenhouses, an hour’s drive north in Buford, are his palette.
The current “Imaginary Worlds” exhibit includes a sleeping princess and dragon, peacock, shaggy dog, mammoth, mermaid and a sleepy appearance by Rip Van Winkle. The phoenix, a longtime symbol for the city of Atlanta, is made up of 15,147 plants and six varieties. A trio of camels features 23 varieties of 10,968 plants.
Applying conceptual drawings, Jim selects which plants are used and determines where they are placed. Silk tassel, for example, is perfect for hair. A dragon’s scales require succulents that are shiny, smooth and reflect light.
It certainly isn’t a paint by numbers approach. The amount of sunlight, height and topography all factor into what can be a changing equation.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” Jim said. “The mermaid sits on a rock. One side is in full sun and does great. The other has some tree cover and shade. You don’t want to have to replace the entire sculpture, so you have to find another kind of plant to match. You have to be creative.”
Jim’s parents have been among his biggest cheerleaders. His father, Rusty, isn’t surprised his oldest son excelled in horticulture, even though he landed in the field by default.
“He has a good, kind heart and always has been a great student and listener of everyone and everything around him,” Rusty said.
Grow where you’re planted.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon and is the author of nine books. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.