From Polly Hill to Longwood Gardens

Erin Hepfner’s next step connecting people and plants.

Erin Hepfner. Courtesy Longwood Fellows Program.

It’s difficult to imagine how Erin Hepfner can leave the Polly Hill Arboretum, where she has managed the volunteer program and visitor center since 2014. She has a job she loves, and works in the most beautiful office ever, a tiny white room with bookshelves filled with garden books and windows overlooking a view of a fern-leaf beech, several camellias, and other specimen trees and shrubs. It seemed like heaven to me when I sat there with her last week. “It will be the next step in my career,” she said, as she prepared to leave for Kennett Square, Pa., where she will begin her studies in the Longwood Gardens Fellows Program.

The Fellows Program is in its second year, and could have been designed for Erin. She spoke of her interest in horticulture, but also of wanting to engage with people, to listen to visitors and tailor their experiences for the fullest appreciation, to help public horticultural organizations grow to their full potential, and to remain relevant and sustainable into the future. The program is designed to provide “innovative, pragmatic leadership development opportunities … to create leadership scholar-practitioners,” as part of the program description details. Erin is one of five professionals selected for the class of 2019.

Erin began at Polly Hill as a part-timer in 2013, collecting field specimens for the herbarium, then managing the database and processing plant collections into herbarium vouchers that, to date, number over 1,500. When she began her current job, she made it her own. “I am not only a plant person, but also a people person. I always say I have the best job because I can talk to people about their interests, their gardens, the arboretum. I enjoy conversing with people about the living plant collection to help them understand, based on their interests, what the arboretum is, and how to discover it for themselves. Some people want to know about Polly, about the programs, about specific plants. In summer on a busy day, I walk between my office and the visitor center, stopping to talk, especially to listen to their stories, giving people a chance to share their experiences, to help them form a connection to the arboretum,” said Erin.

She also spoke about the volunteers who work at the arboretum and her connection with them: “I want the volunteers I work with to know how much they mean to the arboretum, to let them know it’s them, the relationships. It’s personal. It’s the connections they have with the staff, not just the support they offer, that makes them such an integral part of the Polly Hill Arboretum.”

Erin received her B.S. degree in landscape horticulture from the University of Maine. The university’s director at the time introduced her to Longwood Gardens and public horticulture. She went on to her first internship at Longwood, and will now return to the place where she started her career in public horticulture. She said that returning to Longwood to pursue this education had always been in the back of her mind.

The program includes courses in board development, human resources, economics, behavioral economics, strategic planning, leading innovation in arts and culture, executive communications, operations analytics, as well as horticultural history and innovation in the garden. There are others, all components of being a leader at a public institution. Erin wants to continue to refine the skills that will help her secure an organization’s well-being into the future, especially in a changing world. She wants to understand how to build a strong foundation for an organization’s forward progress. As for the “people” aspect that is so important to her, she says it is critical to “appeal to the community, understanding who its community is, and how to make the garden relevant in its local and global community.”

Erin invited me to her going-away party, given by the arboretum staff and volunteers. It was obvious how everyone felt about her, how much her work had contributed to and enhanced the arboretum’s success, how much she will be missed. Everyone wished her well. There were speeches and presents and laughter. Her boss, Tim Boland, director of the Arboretum, summed it up, saying, “Public gardens need people who have vision and are driven to serve society for the greater good and for a greener, healthier world. Erin has the talents, aptitude, and dedication to become a leader in the field of public horticulture. I’m excited about Erin’s opportunity to realize her full potential by participating and thriving in the Longwood Gardens Fellowship Program.”

She does, and she will. Brava, Erin. We wish you well.