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UF Professor Helps Autism Spectrum Adults Earn Horticulture Certification

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As a University of Florida plant scientist who spent most of his career doing experiments in a lab, Charlie Guy didn’t have a chance to consider how gardening could help improve people’s wellbeing.

But today, he’s seen how working with plants can help people see themselves and their futures in a new light.

Over the past year, Guy has tutored Amy Puccio and Eric Estores, two participants in the Wilmot Gardens Autism Spectrum Disorder Job Skills Training Program. He helped them prepare for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association’s (FNGLA) Certified Horticulture Professional designation exam.

Left to right: Dr. Craig Tisher, Eric Estores, Amy Puccio and Charlie Guy.

This designation is the industry standard for horticultural skills and knowledge, and signals to potential employers that applicants are ready for the jobs in plant nurseries, landscaping and other horticultural operations.

“Dr. Guy called to tell us about this unique program at Wilmot Gardens and their desire to offer FNGLA’s Certified Horticulture Professional to their students,” said Merry Mott, director of certifications and career development for FNGLA. “We didn’t think twice before saying, ‘yes, absolutely!’”

Gardening can help those on the Autism spectrum gain the skills and independence needed to enter the workforce in ways that other activities might not, said Guy, professor emeritus of environmental horticulture in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“People have a deep innate affinity for plants, and working with plants provides benefits that are only now being understood,” said Guy, whose research has focused on the impacts of gardening on mental health and wellbeing. “Plants have a unique potential to spark a person’s interest to learn, and this was a motivational factor for Eric and Amy to study hard and be able to pass the FNGLA certificate examination.”

On August 23, Puccio and Estores received their certifications from FNGLA representatives during a small ceremony at Wilmot Gardens.

Eric Estores looks at his official FNGLA designation with family members.

“We are so proud of Eric and Amy’s accomplishments.  Not only do we welcome them as FNGLA Certified professionals, we welcome them to our horticulture family,” Mott said.

Puccio said one of her favorite parts of gardening is that it gets her outside. Working with plants also gives her a sense of pride. “I feel like I’ve found something I’m good at,” she said. She plans to apply to jobs in plant nurseries.

While Estores likes pruning and transplanting, he’s most passionate about learning new plant species. “I enjoy doing plant identification because I like to memorize things,” he said. One day he’d like to work for UF/IFAS, just like his mentor, Charlie Guy.

The ASD Job Skills Training Program starts up again this month, where Guy plans to tutor four participants to help them earn their FNGLA certifications.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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