February 22, 2017

Alum Jason Toth: keeping Garfield Park Conservatory beautiful

Jason Toth goes to work every day in a little piece of paradise in the middle of Chicago: the Garfield Park Conservatory. Jason, an alum of the Kishwaukee College Horticulture Program, is a member of the horticulture staff at the Conservatory.

Jason’s path did not begin in horticulture. It began in music. The Michigan native pursued and completed a B.F.A. degree in Music – Double Bass Performance at Western Michigan University. “I decided to pursue horticulture as a career when I realized I had to make a second career move,” he explained. “After some soul searching, I realized that horticulture fit the bill for me, because it involved a unique combination of science, art, and working with my hands that was all in one package. Later on I discovered an appreciation for the public involvement that came with working for a park district.”

Having relocated to DeKalb, Jason chose Kishwaukee because it was only 20 minutes away and his program research showed that it was a competitive program. At Kish, Jason came to have an understanding of the breadth of fields and careers available in Horticulture. “Being able to see the Navy Pier Flower and Garden Show was the first insight I had as to the scope of the field, both within the city and beyond,” he said. “The hort program really made sure to expose students to the real job market with on-site trips and internships or job fairs.”

Jason studied Ornamental Horticulture – Greenhouse Management while a student, graduating with his A.A.S. degree in May 2012. “One of my favorite experiences at Kish was the tree walks Rich Alde would take us on for arboriculture classes, identifying trees in summer and winter,” he recalled. “And also my first time dabbling in floral arranging with Janet Gallagher. It turned out I wasn’t terrible at it! So when I was working a seasonal job with the Chicago Park District, before I worked with them full-time, I had a job as a florist. I truly made use of all skills that I learned from Kish.”

Jason also took advantage of the internship experiences available to students in the program.  He interned at Bonsai West in Littleton, Massachusetts, receiving a financial award from the Ruth Ashelford Pollock Horticulture Endowment, established specifically to give Horticulture students a variety of experiences in internships and field studies, both nationally and internationally. He said, “It was a great experience. I learned a unique skill that involved cultivating plants for art, which helped me with ornamental gardening.” 

After graduation, Jason landed a position at the Nicholas Conservatory in Rockford. He said, “I got that position through one of the hort department job fairs and I got my foot in the door to conservatory and greenhouse work.”  From there, he continued up the career ladder, landing at Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the largest and most beautiful conservatories in the country, one that is often referred to as "landscape art under glass."  Jason manages the facility on the weekends and maintains the Showhouse and the Urban Demonstration Garden.

He is enthusiastic about his position at Garfield. “I get to work with a varied and unique collection of plants, some especially old with their own history, and some that are especially rare,” he explained. “We get to use these plants to create great displays of art for the people of Chicago at Garfield.” Garfield Park Conservatory is free and is open every day of the year to allow more people access to nature’s art.

Looking back at his time at Kish, Jason recommends the program to anyone interested in horticulture. “One of the things I liked about Kish was the flexibility the staff has in matching each student’s ability level. I don’t feel as though students either felt held back or out of the pecking order. Teachers provided opportunities for those who wanted more,” he said. “Studying at Kish was a very comfortable experience.”

For more information on Horticulture at Kishwaukee College, visit www.kishwaukeecollege.edu or contact the Career Technologies division at 815-825-9303. For more information on the Garfield Park Conservatory, visit https://garfieldconservatory.org/

Pictured is Jason maintaining Garfield’s winter show, titled “Sky Forest!” The concept was developed by Matt Barrett, Deputy Director of Conservatories, and Jason designed and set up the plantings. The Garfield Park Conservatory’s spring show is titled “Spring Training” in honor of the Chicago Cubs.