I am as Florida native as it gets, and I love the plants, people, and cultures that have taken root in this wonderful place we call home. My name is Hannah Wooten, and I am proud to be your new UF/IFAS Extension Agent for Commercial Horticulture in Orange County. I look forward to working with you to keep our home beautiful for generations to come!
Born and raised in and around Orlando, my childhood was spent yanking flowering weeds, root ball and all, to “gift” to my mother. Weekends were spent defending my beloved tree-house from those boys next door. Any activity with water — splash me in! Dad treated me no differently than if I were his son, so lots of time in his shop learning to weld at what was probably way too young. Mom taught me how to weave cattails into mats, turn the fluff into pillows, and sift the pollen for flour. My pawpaw’s yard, greenhouse, and adventurous spirit may have been the most influential, as his yard was more like a royal botanical garden in the eyes of a child.
It is hard to believe that I have cultivated more than 10 years of experience as a horticultural professional. Each step in my journey has imparted valuable lessons that I will weave into my approach to supporting the green industry with continued education, new inspiration, and strategies to enhance the value of each square foot of landscape.
One college class managed to change my entire outlook on plants and my own future. The class was Neotropical Biology, taught by the most inspirational professor, Steve Myers, at Valencia College East Campus. Myers, as we call him, ignited passion for learning the dynamics and the purpose of all living organisms. A simple lecture could transport students to distant places, but he did not stop there… Myers smashed the barriers of traditional teaching and whisked his students into the field, deep in the cypress domes of the Everglades, remote in the Amerindian villages of the Amazon, and tracking venomous snakes in Southern India.
The first important lesson was that one class and one teacher can make a difference.
My first job working with plants was as the greenhouse manager at Valencia College East Campus. The collection was for teaching purposes, hosting more than 350 different species of the wildest, weirdest, and most wonderful plants. The collection was unique, as almost every single plant in the house had ethnobotanical significance, meaning that people found uses for the plants, including food, fiber, shelter, and medicine. We had plants that demonstrated symbiotic relationships with other organisms that persist throughout nature, and an incredible collection of orchids and carnivorous plants to entrance the students during greenhouse tours.
The next important lesson was that plants have purpose and beauty is just the start of it.
I was certain that I wanted to continue my education, and fulfilled my dream of becoming a Florida Gator! I earned my degree in Landscape and Nursery Horticulture, taking classes at the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka and here I worked under the incredible Dr. Brian Pearson, examining mulching rates, soil compaction, and how those relate to runoff and leaching of nutrients. We also planted the very first hops plants to see if it was even worth pursuing as a bigger research project! It was. This was also where I was introduced to UF/IFAS Extension, and was sold on becoming an Extension Agent after seeing a presentation by a fiery, fun, and intelligent redhead, now my mentor, Dr. Liz Felter.
Working with UF/IFAS, I learned that I was not a lone plant lady, but that there is a national network of researchers and educators working together with industry, using science to find solutions.
The next phase of the journey brought me to one of my favorite places in the entire world, Sanibel Island, working as an intern with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation in their native plant nursery. The work was hard as heck, all by hand. The island thrives with wildlife, tons of native plants, and… tourists!?!
The lesson here was that that through education, action, and a touch of policy that economic and environmental sustainability can be achieved.
An opportunity with a start up in the private industry presented itself, so I took on the role of Executive Assistant of Research and Development for OrganicaWorld, LLC, where I worked with a research team to develop our own hydroponics growing systems and production protocols as the multi-acre facility was built out. I worked with an amazing team of the most out-of-the-box thinkers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. We worked with high tech equipment including wavelength specific LEDs and PAR light meters. The goal was to develop efficient production systems that grow nutritious and delicious produce.
There were two huge lessons here: 1. Private industry can trail blaze, pushing the envelope and proving out new possibilities. 2. Sustainability is truly a balance of economic, environmental, and social practices.
As enthralling as the private industry was, the opportunity to teach was always something I wanted to embrace. Finally, in 2015, I began my journey with UF/IFAS Extension in Seminole County as the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Agent. As I had suspected years prior, Extension was indeed a perfect fit for me, marrying my passion for working with people and plants. There have been many highlights, including stellar farm tours for residents and elected officials, hydroponics programs for a range of clientele including inmates, and getting to know some of the finest folks I have ever known in our local ag community and green industry. For years I have stated with confidence that I have one of the coolest jobs in Central Florida.
As a youngster growing in Extension, the last four years have been peppered with lessons. The overarching message is that connecting with people and their values creates avenues for building trust and communicating science.
The culmination of education and experience brings me to my current role as Extension Agent for Commercial Horticulture in Orange County. This is the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of great Extension Agents: Celeste White, Liz Felter, Richard Tyson, Ed Thralls, and of course, Tom MacCubbin, among many other notable educators. The facilities, the gardens, the classrooms, the location, the volunteers, and most importantly, the incredible staff makes UF/IFAS Extension Orange County the go-to source for horticulture, nutrition, livestock, and youth development in Central Florida.
So here we are, in one of the strangest times of our lives, facing a global pandemic. As grocery shelves are empty, I look back to the days of weaving cattail mats and sifting the pollen for flour, and I reflect on the value of plants and our landscapes, both natural and managed. I think about each square foot of space, what we plant there, and why. Is it for beauty, conservation, wildlife, sport, food, fiber, shelter, medicine, art? And how does the purpose impact our landscape management decisions?
I look forward to the opportunity to learn with you, the Green Industry. One teacher in one class can make a difference using science to demonstrate the value and purpose in our landscapes while working alongside the innovators in the private industry and researchers in academia who push the envelope to achieve economic, environmental, and social sustainability. Fortunately, we are more than one teacher… we are a huge network of businesses, academics, and residents and we can all teach and learn from one another to achieve mutually beneficial goals that keep Central Florida growing green!