Welcome to the College’s jungle: College Greenhouse and Nursery Supervisor Ben Owen sheds light on campus plants

JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

Sprinkled across the campus of the College of William and Mary are dozens of manicured flower beds, potted plants and decorative trees. Though they often appear in admissions brochures, most current students barely stop to glance at the landscaping, let alone wonder where it comes from. But if they were to venture just a few blocks from campus, past the law school and tennis facility, they would find the College’s greenhouse, run by Greenhouse and Nursery Supervisor Ben Owen.

Set in a gravel-lined clearing in the woods, Owen’s domain boasts rows of potted flowers and several plastic-draped greenhouses along with a shade house for ferns, ficuses and other shade-loving plants. Owen, who has been at the College for 25 years, works with two other greenhouse employees in a tight-knit team.

“I started as a temp,” Owen said. “I have a horticulture degree, but I started as a temp because I got married and moved to the area, and then I just never left.”

JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

Owen is responsible for landscaping some of the focal points of campus: College corner, the Admissions Office, the Brafferton, the President’s house and the sundial, to name a few. Owen and his team pick the details of all their landscaping projects, down to the colors of the flowers they select.

“Now, don’t get me wrong, the turf people and the landscape people are just as important as we are, but we get the fun stuff,” Owen said.

One of the key parts of Owen’s job is maintaining the President’s house, currently occupied by College President Katherine Rowe. Much of Owen’s work on Rowe’s garden is dictated by her personal taste.

“She loves foxglove, so we’ll be doing those, and snapdragons and dianthus, we do all kinds of stuff,” Owen said. “She takes an interest in the yard, but doesn’t have time.”

Through his time at the College, Owen has seen many presidents come and go, each with their own — or their spouse’s own — desires for the garden. 

“Well, when the Reveleys were here, she was into the Garden Club, so we had Garden Day at the President’s house,” Owen said. “We would get bulbs and force them, and get the hyacinths in the ground, and try to do everything to make her happy, and she was happy.”

JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

Owen and his team also grow small amounts of produce at their greenhouse facility, planting rows of lettuce, squash, cucumber and hot peppers. Much of that produce goes to Rowe and her husband, but the peppers go to the spice-loving Owen himself.

“I love the look of peppers,” Owen said. “So I would personally pay for the seeds for the hot peppers. We have Carolina Reapers, and we have ghost [peppers].”

Most of Owen’s plants are used for landscaping projects, as well as set-dressing for big events such as graduation. Some plants are grown from cuttings, while others are cultivated from bulbs or seeds. Some are seasonal, while others may take many years to grow. It all depends on what the plant needs.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I can walk into a greenhouse and feel what needs to be done,” Owen said.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I can walk into a greenhouse and feel what needs to be done,” Owen said.

Owen takes pride in his work, including some of the more difficult plants to grow, such as poinsettias, which he finds intrinsically rewarding. He used to grow them every year, until budget cuts several years ago put an end to the practice.

“They decided they don’t want to spend the money anymore,” Owen said. “They can be tricky, but I loved growing them, I loved growing them.”

Though Owen’s plants are scattered throughout campus, most students are unaware of their origin. Aside from the occasional research studies, looking into milkweed or bird populations, students rarely visit the greenhouse facility.

“I don’t think people have any clue where the plants come from,” Owen said.

JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

Along with his small team of coworkers, until recently, Owen had a cat — Basil — who roamed around the facility for 13 years. Basil passed away earlier in October.

“We had to put him down on Monday,” Owen said. “It broke my heart.”

In his office, Owen has cat-related signs and a photo of cats as his desktop screensaver. Thirteen years ago, Owen brought in a litter of three cats: Spice, Boo Boo, and Basil, who he still talks about passionately, gesturing to their pictures on the screen.

“This one’s passed away, that one’s still at home — he climbed up on the greenhouse one day, put his claws on the plastic, so he went home that day,” Owen said. “And this one, he was kind of a wuss, but he didn’t climb up the plastic and whatnot. But he was, he was a bright part of the nursery.”

Though he has other cats at home, Owen still feels the loss of Basil.

“He’d be up on the table getting treats, and people would come by and visit him,” Owen said. “You can tell I’m going on about him.”

After 25 years at the College, Owen is looking towards retirement. He says his coworker, Kyle Davis, will be the next supervisor of the greenhouse and nursery.

Kyle Davis is set to be the next greenhouse supervisor
JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

“As I get older, I can’t do as much as I used to, so Kyle’s had to pick up the slack,” Owen said. “I like working with plants, but I don’t get to do it much anymore. I mean, I plant plants and I make sure they’re taken care of, but so does Kyle. I’ve been letting him do more and more and more.”

In October, Owen supplied decorative plants to his 26th graduation ceremony. Though he takes pleasure in the plants he’s grown for the College, he focuses more on the relationships he’s cultivated over the years.

“My favorite part of the job right now is working with people,” Owen said. “Not all people, but I love the people I work with, and my philosophy is if they take care of you, you take care of them.”

“My favorite part of the job right now is working with people,” Owen said. “Not all people, but I love the people I work with, and my philosophy is if they take care of you, you take care of them.”