Q&A with Mobee Weinstein, Horticulturalist

MObee WNYBG Foreman of Gardeners talks childhood, teaching, and Martha Stewart misconceptions

The New York Botanical Garden is just a block north of Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus, but few students know about the Garden and the people who work there. A hidden green space in the heart of the Bronx, the Garden runs effectively no doubt because of its hard-working staff and employees, which include gardeners, teachers, and botanists all year round. I had the opportunity to sit down with the Foreman of Gardeners, Mobee Weinstein, a graduate of Lehman College and the School of Professional Horticulture, to discuss her long career and over thirty years of experience teaching and working with plants in the Bronx.

First of all, your name is Mobee and I love that. Do you know how you got your name?

My sisters gave that to me.

Your sisters?

Yeah it’s not officially on my birth certificate but they started calling me that when I was six months old so all my life, that’s all I remember and it’s on every document since then. It’s on my mortgage, my bank accounts, my credit cards.

Your unofficial stage name.

Right, but it’s totally legal.

You’re a Foreman of Gardeners. Explain what that means.

Okay, so the Garden is a very large institution with a lot of departments. We have three basic programmatic areas: horticulture, science, and education. So, I’m within the horticulture department which does all of the grounds, all of the plant growing, what people see. I spent eight years inside our conservatory. We have another set of greenhouses not open to the public where we let things grow and I worked another eight years there and now I’ve been outside for over thirteen years. So, since I’ve been outside I work on the outside gardens crew, which does all the outside gardens.

You can give orders and get to work in the dirt as well?

Absolutely, and do both at the same time.

So where did your passion for horticulture come from?

This is one thing I’d have to say that I’m very lucky. I was born and raised in the Bronx and still live in the Bronx. I came here as a child all the time. My mother loved nature, growing plants, so I was exposed to it. But since I was a child, as long as I can remember I loved flowers. For example, my father was Jewish and my mother was protestant. We only celebrated Jewish holidays but when I was about four, my mother said to me, “What do you want for Hannukah?” I told her I wanted a Christmas tree because whenever I saw them they were always so beautiful, there were beautiful trees with lights on them.

So when I graduated high school I applied for botany and computer science, and then I realized I don’t want to do the computer science. And then I realized I didn’t want botany because at that time I didn’t realize there was field botany. I want to grow the plants, I want horticulture, not botany.

And Botany is just the study of plants?

mobee

Photo courtesy nybgshop.org

Right, botany is studying in the lab, looking at cells, looking at how they grow, but not growing them, culturing them. So anyway I found out that in my backyard, we had a school of horticulture and I said, “That’s what I want.” So I came to school here for 18 months, very intensive, sort of a vocational school, and started working right away. I’ve had a love for it all along and I’ve never regretted it since I’ve been here 33 years now. I think I’m lucky, because a lot of people don’t get to do what they love or find what they love. I’m not rich, but I got the rest!

Well, off that topic, I don’t know how you’re parents felt, but it doesn’t seem like going to horticulture school is the best way to find a job.

Well, you’d be surprised, there’s plenty of work in this field. It’s not overall a very high paying field but you can make a living and there is work out there. My parents couldn’t care less what any of us did, they just wanted us to be happy. So there was nothing like, “You’re doing what?! You can’t do that!”

So NYBG is all you’ve really known since college?

Just about, yeah. In order to get into our school of horticulture you had to have a year’s experience so I got another job working for an interior landscape company, going around taking care of plants in offices, in restaurants or wherever. And then I came here and haven’t left here. It happens to be one of the finest institutions in the world. So, it’s very hard to leave here because it’s one of the tops in the field. It’s like home to me. So, by coincidence, by good fortune, I didn’t have to go far to find a place like this.

NYBG is like the Yankees of Major Leagues Baseball?

It is probably in the top three in the entire world.

In terms of size?

Not so much in size, although we are very large in size, but in the scope of our work, of the quality of horticulture we do, the level of education- we have the biggest continuing adult education department of any kind in the country- and our science department, which does research, is tops- the type of research, the facilities we have. We have the largest herbarium under one roof in the world. When you put all those elements together, we’re probably in the top three worldwide.

And you rely on admission prices and fundraisers to supply the finances?

Right, originally it was all funded by city, state and federal government but in the 1970s the city had a major financial crisis. That’s when the Bronx was burning. That’s the reputation everyone hears about when they hear the Bronx. So we lost a lot of positions, we were in bad shape. I came at the end of that. Slowly we started coming back up and we got a new President who did major fundraising who’s still here. [His] strength is fundraising and thank god for that.

 So jumping ahead, you currently also teach some horticulture classes, right?

[That’s] my second job, I work for the education department. I have to teach at night or the weekends. I teach gardening classes, how to propagate, how to dig the soil, I even teach a math horticulture class.

 So why is it important to teach horticulture to students and adults?

Our mission is to display plants, study plants, and educate about plants because they’re important to the world. If you want be the gardener then you need to know how to do it and do it well so your plants can grow and survive, so I’m happy to help people to grow plants. If I’m teaching you about how fascinating they are and how important they are for the world, then I’m happy to do that, too.

And how long have you been teaching?

I started teaching in 1982, so I’ve been teaching for thirty-one years.

Sometimes it boggles my mind how large this place is and how everything has to be controlled. What do you do when you have a new exhibit and how does that process work?

Well usually you want to be at least five years ahead in planning, which is probably a fairly good model. We probably, on lesser occasions, might be three years ahead.

The NYBG Conservatory Credit: cityprofile.com

The NYBG Conservatory – Credit: cityprofile.com

The stuff that the public sees is usually within horticulture. We want people to come, see, and learn, but the more money we get, the more we can do. But we have to do more with less money to get them here so it’s kind of a catch-22, but it works. Monet was super successful, the holiday show is an enormous success, but you try to do things that will educate people and try to bring people in. The more we can connect it, the better the theme is.

I looked you up online and the first thing that popped up was a video of you with Martha Stewart. What was working with her like?

MW: I’ve actually been on her show four times. I have to tell you, she has always been very nice to me. I’ve heard many things from many other people. She’s a very smart woman, she’s a very quick learner, and she had very high standards. So all those things I think are great and I don’t have any problem with. And she’s demanding, but that’s what makes you have top quality stuff. She actually offered me a job but I declined because I would’ve felt like a sell-out.

As a Fordham student who doesn’t know much about planting, what’s a good plant to keep in the dorm room?

I would say a cactus because they can adapt to very dry temperatures, or a snake plant because they’re very tough. Plants are actually really great for purifying the air because they absorb the toxins.

 So get a plant for cold/flu season?

Exactly!

Interview has been edited and condensed

Photo courtesy Flickr :: Kristine Paulus

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