I can picture such a garden as if I had just walked through it this morning. In it, I met a little boy named Justin. He seems to spend hours tilling to soil, tending the plants, measuring the sunflowers and losing track of time. For it was lunchtime, and his grandmother was looking for him only to find him deep within his own Eden…
As long as I can remember, I have always had plants on my brain. For me horticulture is not just a hobby– it’s a passion that has developed into a career.
Beyond my obsession with plants, it wasn’t until I was in the fourth grade that I realized I was different. I was diagnosed with a learning disability that had delayed my cognitive abilities. At the time I didn’t understand what it really meant and was therefore confused why I had to be separated from my fellow classmates to focus on motor skills and speech. I felt like an outcast. In Elementary and Middle School, I was ostracized daily and often felt alone. Right before it was my turn to read during class I would grab the bathroom pass to excuse myself. But when this didn’t work I would try to read as expected. But after only a few words someone in the class would mutter, “stupid, idiot…” under their breath. Compounding how I was being treated, my learning disability continued to present a source of frustration for me. I remember looking down at the pages in total exasperation as I tried to sound out each letter. Some days I hated myself and felt hopeless because I just couldn’t understand and articulate words. I would often ask myself: Would I ever be able to read? Would I ever be successful? Should I give up? I didn’t have any answers.
As I struggled at school, each week my sister and I would spend weekends at Grandma’s home. To my delight, it meant hours working in the garden. Each spring, the ice covered beds warmed and gave way to pansies and tulips followed by a spectrum of daylilies. Day after day I made sure the garden grew. With hummingbirds and bees buzzing overhead all of my problems at school seem to vanish. Seeing people enjoy the garden gave me great pride despite my inner confusion and disoriented days at school. This botanical heaven allowed me to create a world that accepted me but above all a world that gave others tremendous joy.
Then, at the age of thirteen something seismic happened. One letter at a time I began to form words, words became sentences, and sentences allowed me to shared thoughts and dreams. I began to allow myself to dream that someday I would leave upstate New York and explore the world; to be able to live my own truth. Just because you are different doesn’t make you unworthy.
In my junior year of High School I enrolled in a vocational horticulture program where my passion for plants exploded. While in the program, I discovered that I live down the road from world-renowned orchid grower, Glen Decker. What were the odds? Glen soon became the father I never had and supported my horticultural pursuits. In a quest to get me out of my bubble, Glen brought me to the New York Botanical Gardens to meet Marc Hachadourian. Marc shared his extensive plant knowledge as we entered the glasshouses and I gushed at his botanical expertise. In conversation, Mark mentioned that he studied Plant Science at Cornell University. At that very moment, I made the decision that one day I would attend Cornell.
During my senior year, I attended a school board meeting to answer questions about the value of vocational education. Towards the end of the meeting I was asked, “What are your plans?” As I nervously found my voice, I said: “I will eventually go to Cornell University to study plant science.” A board member quickly replied, “You know that’s an Ivy League, right?” In that moment I just wanted to cry– I had worked so hard. To be so readily dismissed was a complete blow to my self-esteem. In that moment I was ten years old again; so behind that I didn’t know the alphabet. But despite the judgment of others and many other hurdles, I was committed to succeeding. In fact, at my graduation I proudly walked across the stage in the top percentage of my class with scholarships. My passion toward horticulture along with dedicated teachers, speech therapists, and counselors gave me the tools I needed to flourish. It was as if my zeal for something I loved helped to motivate my success at every angle.
Cornell was still a priority, but wasn’t yet within reach. So, I headed to SUNY–Morrisville where I earned an associate degree in Horticulture Production. While at Morrisville, I became an activist on campus focused on LGBTQ equality. At the time I wasn’t out to my friends and family. I was often met with hatred and ignorance as I organized world AIDS day and support groups. Little by little we created some momentum and became more visible. But with visibility comes caution. Despite being harassed and threaten, I refused to let hatred win. By the time I graduated from Morrisville, I felt that I had made a difference. Through organizing and meeting others I became more comfortable in my own skin.
With an Associate degree in hand, I returned home to take classes at Schenectady County Community College with a goal of transferring to Cornell. While at SCCC I continued my role as a leader within the LGBTQ community. My work extended into disability awareness. I received the President’s Award for my contributions that year. As I pressed ‘submit’ on my application to Cornell, I was overcome with anxiety and self-doubt. Those five months seemed to last forever! One day, I felt my phone vibrate for I had received an email. I called my professor to read the words, “WELCOME TO CORNELL.” As we talked, she looked out the window and through the clouds a rainbow appeared.
My passion towards horticulture is rooted in my past. A past that I once resented but now take pride in. Above all, I am fortunate to have had a grandmother that gave me the best gift of all: She taught me to never give up. To be persistent, kind and to always remember that despite what might feel like a setback, success is within reach, one step at a time. Horticulture has the power to change lives and it certainly has transformed mine. And I am only just beginning.
Justin Kondrat is a Gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden, Washington, D.C. In 2014 he graduated from the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. In his free time, he leads community-based installations focused on connecting people with plants. At Cornell, Justin led ROOTED at Cornell: a living community art installation designed to actively engage students. Justin believes that horticulture is a medium of inclusion where all may find belonging. He has devoted his life to catalyzing change through horticulture. “Plants have the power to help us transcend limitations that we place upon others and ourselves. Horticulture naturally invokes inclusion and invites all to feel welcome.” Justin is also an avid baker and enjoys traveling to Gardens all over the world.