Story of a Horticulturist

HEATHER WILL-BROWNE, 59, likes to get her hands dirty when bringing Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival to life.

“I’m responsible for coordinating the installation of all the plants in the theme parks and water parks on the 40-acre Disney property as well as making sure the colors of the flowers, hanging baskets and containers are harmonized. I also co-manage the nursery.”

“My coordination of the Flower & Garden Festival is only about 30 percent of my job, but I’m already thinking about ideas for next year’s festival!”

Will-Browne, whose title is horticulture area manager, cultivated a a love of plants during childhood visits to her grandfather’s orchid farm. In 1971 at the age of 17, she started her first job at what is now Casey’s Corner restaurant in the Magic Kingdom. Admiring Disney’s gardeners at work, she longed to join them. But at that time there were no women gardeners.

“When Disney eventually built the nursery, I was allowed to help out there. They had to cut men’s clothing down to fit me.”

“I was a gardener for over 20 years. Then I was a foreman in the nursery. And then I was made a planner, and I got to wear a dress. I’ve never worn pants since. Even in my dress, I still do hands-on planting.”

“Timing the blooms is the most nerve-racking part of the Flower & Garden Festival. We’ve done it so many times that timing is becoming less of an issue. But every time you change a crop, timing gets a little harder.”

“You would think the most challenging topiaries in the festival would be the main entrance showcase, which is the Fab Five—Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy, who is 20 feet tall this year. It’s actually the tiny fairies. They have to be perfect. You can’t have a fairy with hips or a head that’s too big. To create them, it takes people sitting there for hours with hot glue; no one would ever know these little fairies take so long.”

“Because the festival is so long (this year it runs through May 19), it spans a cool season and a warm season. We usually start out with cold-hardy plants like violas and pansies and plant a completely new crop halfway through the festival.”

“That’s what I love most about gardening—it’s always changing. There’s always something new coming along. I have a variety of plants at home—orchids, a vegetable garden. If I go away, my husband has to stay home and water the plants. That’s usually the first thing I ask him when I call, ‘Did you water the bonsai?’”

Justin Braun

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