Allan Armitage is a man who takes his own advice. A poet and a storyteller in his own right, he is known among his students for quoting all the greats. His favorite, though, is Yogi Berra, who once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” One might say the career Armitage has led has been a series of forks in the road — and he has not shied away from taking them.
From teaching to trialing, breeding and developing plants to writing texts, Armitage’s adventures have added up to 30 years of an unrivaled passion for horticulture and teaching those who love to learn. Though he retired this past summer from his role as professor of horticulture at
the University of Georgia, his significant contributions to the university’s horticulture department and Trial Gardens, the community and the industry remain.
He’s known as the perennials guru of the South, but truly, Armitage has touched nearly every sector of the plant industry. The author of 13 books on topics ranging from geranium growing manuals for growers to encyclopedias about annuals and perennials, to stories about the origins of plants and people who discovered them, his enthusiasm is inspiring and contagious. As a visiting professor and the leader of national and international garden tours and plant trials, Armitage has traveled the world over, leaving a wake of influence over growers, retailers, gardeners and students.
His career continues to thrive beyond his role as a professor, and for Armitage, this new fork in the road signifies the beginning of a whole new adventure.
The Accidental Horticulturist
Believe it or not, Armitage didn’t begin his career in horticulture, but the forks in the road eventually steered him toward it.
As an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, he worked as a grave digger and would often make designs with the flowers he planted to cover the graves.
“One evening, a couple came to the gravesite. Their grief was palpable but their appreciation for the beauty of the flowers blunted it a bit,” he says. “I believe that’s when I started to think there was something to horticulture as a career.”
When Armitage graduated, he worked for a year at a food processing company. But he was restless and wanted to see the world before settling down, so one day he hopped a freighter in New Brunswick that took him to Dublin, Ireland. When he returned to his native Canada, he taught math and biology to middle school and high school students for seven years and ran a landscaping service in his spare time.
“Somehow, I knew a wee bit more about ornamental plants than the next guy, so in the summer time, I would help people with landscaping,” he says. “Finally, I bought a little red truck and a shovel, hired a guy to help and away I went. Eventually, it started interfering with my teaching job, so something had to give.”
It was around that time that the Quebec Province started a movement to go 100 percent French, so Armitage and his wife Susan thought it might be time to move. He considered studying ecology in graduate school and lined up an interview with a professor at McGill, who was studying bears in northern Canada. His interest piqued, Armitage took Susan with him to meet the scientist, who was fatefully running late that day. While they waited, the couple wandered into a nearby greenhouse.
“I would go in there in the past and steal a cutting of something and put it in a pot,” he says. “That day, when we visited the greenhouse, I was telling Susan about what each plant was, and a little lightbulb went on. I decided, ‘What the hell am I going to do in northern Canada with bears?’ So we ended up not going to the interview.”
Instead, Armitage pursued horticulture in Ontario at the University of Guelph. There, he studied cut roses for his masters’ project, and worked with the Canadian government, doing experiments with light and water on houseplants and tropical plants. Eventually, he was offered a job managing the gardens of the prime minister’s residence, when Pierre Trudeau held office.
“It was a nice offer and I was going to take it,” he says. “But when we went to look at the gardens, Susan asked me where I would be working. I pointed to a building and she said, ‘What floor?’ It was the 19th floor and I had to wear a suit and tie. She said, ‘Don’t take the job.’ Another fork in the road – I married a smart girl.”
It was then that Armitage decided to pursue his education further, so he contacted Dr. Will Carlson at Michigan State University (MSU), whom he had cited in his graduate research studies, and secured a position.
“Will was very influential in my career. I got my start in bedding plants with him,” he says.
At the end of his MSU days, Armitage knew he wanted to teach at a university. With no real intention of staying in the U.S., he found himself in need of a job, with no prospects in Canada. By then, he and Susan had two kids and another on the way, so they carefully considered positions at Cornell University and the University of Georgia (UGA).
“The job at Cornell would have been closer to home but it wasn’t open for six months, and the job in Georgia was open right away,” he says. “Georgia was really persistent because they wanted to build a department. We didn’t know much about Georgia, so we went there, thinking it would be interesting at least. We were going to stay two years and had lots of opportunities to leave. But we liked where we were and enjoyed what we were doing.”
Building A Trial Garden Legacy
The year before Armitage joined the faculty, UGA had hired Dr. Michael Dirr, the former director of the University of Georgia Botanical Garden. Dirr and Armitage worked together to build the UGA Trial Gardens in 1982. They found a patch of land near the horticulture building and claimed it, “under squatters’ rights,” Armitage says. PanAmerican Seed Co. was the first company to send seed, and the pair also planted woody ornamentals and perennials at a time when no one else was trialing these groups of plants.
“Professionally, we needed to start the gardens,” he says. “If you’re going to be working with the industry and talking about plants, you need to know what they do. If you’re just looking at a catalog, then you’re no better than the next guy.”
Today, the garden receives plants and seed from almost all of the plant breeding companies in the world, along with material from perennial plant nurseries, individual growers and gardeners, and material from the UGA breeding program.
The primary functions of the garden have always been research, teaching and new crop introduction and that continues today. The trial garden is planted in April and May to bedding plants, tropicals, vines and specialty annuals and includes more than 150 free-standing containers and three large perennial beds. It’s open to the public and serves as a gathering place for gardeners and professionals.
When the Trial Gardens were started, Armitage says, it was just another thing he was doing, in addition to teaching and writing. But as the years went on, the gardens became more important as a sort of proving grounds, not only for plants but for him as a plantsman.
Industry hallmarks like ‘Homestead Purple’ verbena and ‘Blackie’ and ‘Marguerite’ ipomoea (sweet potato vine) were developed and tested there, and based on plant performance, Armitage helped to introduce the Athens Select program, a collection of unique, heat- and humidity-tolerant plant varieties to market to the industry. While the Athens Select brand was discontinued in 2011, the Southern Living Plant Collection recently picked up 11 Athens Select varieties.
“The gardens gave us the opportunity to discover plants, put students to work and interact with breeders, growers, landscapers, retailers and gardeners. It became a destination, especially within the last 10 years,” he says. In the past two years, Armitage has taken his plant trialing to a new level, helping to establish the International Trialing Conference through Longwood Gardens and the National Plant Trials Database.
Growing New Generations Of Plant Geeks
In his earlier career as a teacher, Armitage thrived on watching students make connections in his biology classes, and when he came to UGA, he found teaching at the university level to be an extension of that excitement. He was happy to be able to create and introduce his own greenhouse classes, and says he always challenged his students.
“I was a taskmaster, up until the last day,” Armitage says. “A successful teacher is 10 percent knowledge and 90 percent inspiration. If you can get them excited enough about the subject, any kid can be an A student. Many times they figured out they always had the brains — they just needed the passion.”
Passion is something Armitage has plenty of, when it comes to plants. And if he can pass on a small amount of that enthusiasm, he considers every interaction a success.
“I have been able to impact hundreds of people — students, gardeners, landscape people — and most go away slightly more inspired than they were before. I believe that to be the most rewarding thing about what I’ve done,” he says. “I haven’t invented a new heart pump or anything, but I feel I’ve made a difference.”
Forging A New Path
Now that’s he is retired from the University of Georgia, Dr. Allan Armitage is as busy as ever, but he says he does miss teaching and guiding students, working in the Trial Gardens and evaluating new plants.
“I visit every now and then,” he says. “It’s my baby but I don’t have anything to do with it anymore. I miss it and the new plants, the kids who work in the garden. I worry that it’s not going to be continued with the excitement that I brought to it.”
But this new fork in the road has led to new consulting jobs with The Perennial Farm, HGTV, Nature’s Source and some new ventures yet to be announced. He is booked a year solid with speaking engagements around the world, and he gets to travel often to guide tours through the great gardens of the world. He’s started a school for gardeners in England, he’s teaching online courses and has developed an app: Armitage’s Perennials and Annuals. The next project on Armitage’s list is to write a book: The World Is My Garden. And, of course, he continues to write his monthly column for Greenhouse Grower, which he has written since 1984.
Despite his ongoing career, Armitage still manages to find some time to play tennis and strum his guitar. His wife Susan, a nurse who ran an occupational health clinic, also recently retired, so she enjoys traveling with him.
“It’s flattering to know someone has one of my books on their bookshelf and it’s nice to be invited to speak all over the world,” Armitage says. “I’ll do it for as long as I’m asked.”