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Sunday, November 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Manito Park gardener has been living dream for 37 years

For more than 30 years, Stephanie O’Byrne has cared for the many plants and trees inside the Gaiser Conservatory at Manito Park in Spokane, shown Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
For more than 30 years, Stephanie O’Byrne has cared for the many plants and trees inside the Gaiser Conservatory at Manito Park in Spokane, shown Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

It’s good to remember that heroes come in all sizes.

Stephanie O’Byrne stands just 5 feet tall “on a good day,” she says.

Yet back in ’96, when an ice storm knocked out electricity to tens of thousands of area homes and businesses, O’Byrne rushed to the rescue.

“When we first lost power,” recounts Manito Park’s senior greenhouse gardener, “we switched to a generator. When the power came back on, we turned off the generator and all went home.

“Then at 2 or 3 in the morning, power at my house 10 blocks from the park went off. So I got dressed and came back.”

Sure enough, the park was powerless, and O’Byrne restarted the generator.

“If I hadn’t come back, we would have lost everything in Gaiser Conservatory and the five growing greenhouses.”

When a snowstorm earlier this month snapped branches across the South Hill, Manito Park again lost power.

O’Byrne said greenhouse temperatures had dropped to the mid-40s by the time staff arrived at 5:30 a.m. and fired up the generator. One window pane broke during the storm, but no indoor plants were lost.

“We were pretty lucky,” she said.

During a recent interview, O’Byrne discussed her management style, the merits of mistakes and “The Orchid Thief.”

S-R: Where did you grow up?

O’Byrne: Right here in Spokane. I’m homegrown.

S-R: Do you recall your introduction to gardening?

O’Byrne: We had a big South Hill lot with a perennial garden. If I wasn’t climbing trees, I was picking flowers or creating some new game outside.

S-R: Did you have a favorite flower?

O’Byrne: Columbine and honeysuckle. I also loved lilac blooms. We’d thread them together and make crowns.

S-R: What was your first job?

O’Byrne: When I was 17, I worked for K-L Manufacturing stamping numbers on labels that were sewn into winter coats. It was the boringest job.

S-R: Which high school did you attend?

O’Byrne: Marycliff (an all-girls Catholic school).

S-R: Did you have a favorite subject?

O’Byrne: I really enjoyed art class. I didn’t like foreign languages or math.

S-R: Did you have a career in mind?

O’Byrne: I was pretty sure I wanted to be a nurse. But talking with several of them, I worried I’d become too emotionally entwined with the people I was caring for and would burn out.

S-R: Did you attend college?

O’Byrne: Yes. When I graduated high school, I was nine months pregnant, and stayed home with my daughter for about two years. As a single parent I received state assistance – not much, but I didn’t like that. So I decided to go back to school. Paging through the Spokane Community College catalog, I kept coming back to their horticulture program and greenhouse management, and thought maybe I could eventually open a flower shop.

S-R: What changed your goal?

O’Byrne: One of the Manito Park gardeners came to our school and talked about what a great job working for the city was – paid vacation, sick leave, a retirement. That sounded really good.

S-R: So you applied?

O’Byrne: When I finished my SCC degree, I applied to every greenhouse in Spokane and was told I needed experience. The state assistance people said they had some contacts. They called the park manager at the time, John Dodson, who said, “Sure, we’ll take her.”

S-R: How did that job evolve?

O’Byrne: I came up here in spring as a temp seasonal employee and worked four months in the greenhouse. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe I was actually where I’d dreamed of someday getting a job, so I set out to prove I was a hard worker and quick learner. Initially, I spent three days a week in the perennial garden and the other two on Rose Hill. When the gardens shut down, they put me in the greenhouse. For the next six years I was temp seasonal taking care of the conservatory – working half-days year-round, which fit well with having a small child in day care and, later, school.

S-R: When were you hired full time?

O’Byrne: I was hired as a gardener 1 in 1988 and promoted to a gardener 2 in 2002 when I took over managing the conservatory and greenhouses.

S-R: Any favorite memories?

O’Byrne: I loved working in the conservatory because we change displays often, so I could be very creative and really get to know the plants – which ones like warmer, cooler, brighter, darker. I also got to talk with visitors. I was really shy at first, but I realized I had a lot of information they wanted. That drew me out of my shell.

S-R: You didn’t like foreign languages in high school. How are you with the plants’ Latin names?

O’Byrne: I can really murder those!

S-R: Have you had any formal business training?

O’Byrne: I had one class – an introduction to business – at SCC, and one semester of accounting, which I almost flunked. (laugh)

S-R: Do you wish you’d had more?

O’Byrne: I really learn best on the job. I still learn things every day. This morning, I learned how to mass-forward an email to my whole staff.

S-R: How would you describe your management style?

O’Byrne: I encourage teamwork and allow people to make mistakes because if they’re paying attention, they’ll learn from them.

S-R: If someone who hadn’t visited Gaiser Conservatory since 1982 came back today, what changes would they notice?

O’Byrne: I hope they’d notice our energy curtains, because those cut our energy consumption 65 percent by holding heat in at night. They also automatically close during summer days to block sunlight that can harm some of our plants and prevent too much heat buildup. Conservatories are like parked cars – they can get really hot.

S-R: Any other changes during the past three decades?

O’Byrne: We have way more varieties of plants.

S-R: Some plants can propagate from cuttings. Do visitors occasionally help themselves?

O’Byrne: Yes they do. We have cameras monitoring the conservatory, but I’ve even caught people walking out with entire plants! We’ve also had people return them half-dead because the stolen plants couldn’t survive in their home.

S-R: Do you remember the “The Orchid Thief”?

O’Byrne: Yes. We lost a lot of orchids because of that movie and the book.

S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?

O’Byrne: Mother’s Day is huge. Huge! Easter is the next-biggest day. And, of course, our holiday lights. We get close to 20,000 visitors during those 10 days. Sometimes they come in grumpy and cold from waiting in line, but once inside they say it was worth it.

S-R: How many lights do you hang?

O’Byrne: Close to 40,000. We turn them on at noon and shut down at 7:30.

S-R: Do you keep track of conservatory visits on an annual basis?

O’Byrne: No, but I know we’re busier than we’ve ever been.

S-R: What makes Gaiser popular?

O’Byrne: The environment is so different. In winter, it’s like going on vacation.

S-R: When are you busiest behind the scene?

O’Byrne: In spring, when we grow and transplant annuals for Duncan Garden and the entire park system, including the golf courses.

S-R: You realized your dream 37 years ago. How hard is it to get hired at Manito Park today?

O’Byrne: Really hard. And it’s definitely getting harder because budget cuts have forced us to cut staff. When I started here, there were two gardeners in every garden. Now there’s one, and some gardens don’t even have a gardener assigned to that area.

S-R: How long do employees stick around?

O’Byrne: Our oldest is 70.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

O’Byrne: I really enjoy coming to work because I’ve known my co-workers so long.

S-R: What do you like least?

O’Byrne: Bugs and diseases that destroy plants.

S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?

O’Byrne: To have lots of patience.

S-R: For plants or people?

O’Byrne: Both.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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