Plants & Gardening
Chicago Botanic Garden staff members play roles as diverse as the plants that call our space home. In honor of The Orchid Show: Magnified, open through March 26, 2023, we chatted with one of the people who see the show through from vision to reality. Jason Toth is the Garden’s new exhibits horticulturist, and this year’s Orchid Show is his first—bringing a new perspective to a beloved experience.
Years at the Chicago Botanic Garden: Less than 1; started full-time in July 2022
Originally from: Detroit metro area
Favorite place at the Garden: The Waterfall Garden
Favorite plant(s) at the Garden: Sarracenia, or trumpet pitcher plant
My specific job—exhibits horticulturist—involves designing and setting up temporary plant displays. It can be as short as a weekend display or as long as the Orchid Show, which is six weeks long. For example, I do the plantings in the Regenstein Center’s Krehbiel Gallery and in the Garden View Café. The annual themes [Love in Bloom this summer] are also under my purview.
Working in the yard with my mother when she was recently divorced, bonding with her son independently.
Originally I went to school for music, but I knew at the end of that curriculum that I wanted to work with plants. It’s hard to explain why, other than the sentimentality of working outside with family. I just knew that I wanted to do something with an artistic angle, something that had scholastic substance, and being able to work with my hands—those were kind of the three elements I was focusing on. And horticulture hit all those marks.
So I took a couple of side jobs, working at a nursery and for a vendor company for big-box stores delivering and maintaining plants. That got me started understanding what it’s really like, and feeling that I could spend the rest of my life doing it. I went back to school after that and got a degree in ornamental horticulture and greenhouse studies. My first true professional horticulture gig was at Nicholas Conservatory in Rockford. Then I worked for the Chicago Park District as an outdoor gardener until I landed a job at Garfield Park Conservatory designing their flower shows and maintaining those plants. I started at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2022.
I think it was the thought of using plants as an artistic medium. Creating an environment, an interactive place to appreciate plants. And the idea of nurturing something, seeing it grow…it was just appealing to know that you have an art form that’s never done, because it’s always growing. So it’s a gift that keeps on giving in terms of being able to pour yourself into a project.
When I started here, the book was pretty open to do something new and unexpected, because there were no expectations in terms of what it was going to look like. So I was really excited about creating things that have more of a sculptural nature and are a little more minimal.
I wanted to go big [for this year’s show]. The idea came up that we’ll derive inspiration from the orchid itself, pull elements of the orchid and examine them and blow them out of proportion. That’s how Magnified came about. We’re creating close-looking moments, big moments, and playing off of everything that you can glean from a magnifying lens, like magnification elements and sleek design.
I’m really excited about the rings in the Joutras Gallery: Halo [the name of the installation, a series of concentric rings that grow in dimension]. Some people are calling it Stargate because it looks like Stargate [from the TV series]. It’s a very simple idea, but just seeing an eight-foot-radius circle planted with orchids all around, in a gallery room that’s not even eleven feet tall—it’s monumental. Seeing things done that haven’t been done before, there’s a novelty to it, and a wow factor.
There’s a dance that we have to dance; it’s a blend of design and improvisation. Orchid growers can only provide specimens that are blooming at that particular two-week time, so there is a certain amount of chance involved with availability. And shipping [the orchids] in from California, Florida, Hawaii—I have pictures sent to me, but I don’t see any of the plant material in person before it arrives. I work with what’s provided, and there’s a lot of art in that process.
The Orchid Show is a big deal because of its place in the season. It’s a refuge when we’re getting through the last hurrah of winter. So that in itself is enough of a reason for the Orchid Show to be as on-demand as it is, but it’s also a testament to what the Garden has done to make these shows interesting year after year. We take a very theatrical approach, creating displays that are theme-driven.
I hope they have fun! I hope we provide moments for all ages, whether it’s appreciating the orchid with the sense of maturity it takes to examine a flower for however long, or a young person who … can experience things through new lenses, literally and figuratively. I want it to be as much an art piece as it is an experience.
Catch the Orchid Show: Magnified through March 26, 2023.
Years at the Garden: 31
Years as plant propagator: 22
Originally from: Montana
Favorite place at the Garden: The Dixon Prairie
Favorite plant(s) at the Garden: Hellebores and redbud trees
I start plants, either by sowing seeds or by doing cuttings, to support all the different programs at the Garden. So when [horticulturists and other Garden staff] decide what plant they want, my job is to start that plant and get the little seedlings, the baby plants, ready to pass off to the growers.
I grew up in Montana in a mining town. In the early 1900s when the mining was at its heyday and there wasn’t any thought of environmental consequences, the pollution was so bad that grass didn’t grow. When I was growing up it wasn’t that bad, but there still wasn’t the interest in gardening like there is in areas like Chicago. We went on a trip to [the United Kingdom] and went to a botanic garden. I think it was in Scotland, along the coast. Compared to Montana, it had a lot of tropical plants and it was really lush. I was just amazed.
When I was in college in Montana, I studied horticulture, but I had no idea what I wanted to do with it. Then I came out [to the Chicago Botanic Garden] for a year-long internship. I didn’t end up going back to college—I stayed. I did eventually finish my degree, but in horticulture the hands-on experience is so important.
I started as a grower. Then I worked in our nursery as a supervisor for a couple years, then moved into propagation, which is what I always wanted to do.
I started college in education, but I decided I really didn’t want to be a teacher. So then I was like, I like plants, I’ll try horticulture.
I was good at science in school, and I remember having a teacher say, you’re good in science, you should be a teacher. Why didn’t they say, you’re good in science, you should be a scientist?
I like figuring out how to get the plants to grow. In the past, [Garden staff] would go to Siberia or the Republic of Georgia, countries that have similar environments to Chicago, and collect a lot of seeds and bring them back. It might be a maple, but it’s a different type than we’ve grown here, different than I can find any information on, so I try to figure out how to get it to grow. We’re trying to mimic nature.
It’s really fascinating, the survival mechanisms that plants have come up with. I walk through the Dixon Prairie and I have seeds stuck on my clothes, because they’ve figured out that’s how to distribute themselves. That’s stuff that I find interesting, all these natural mechanisms plants have come up with to germinate at the right time, to make it through the conditions they have to make it through until it’s the prime time or place to germinate.
The key part that our department and propagation play in so many different parts of the Garden, so many different programs. Like for Camp CBG, when the kids are taking home this little plant—this is where it starts.