Not a Garden Variety Alumnus


Brandon Coker puts new plant breeds through their paces at the UGA Trial Gardens

Among those who tend the Trial Gardens on the University of Georgia Athens campus are butterflies, bees, student workers and Brandon Coker (BSA – Agriscience and Environmental Systems, ’11).

The Trial Gardens are internationally renowned for ornamental plant research. The data collected during the hot, humid Georgia summers help the world’s top plant breeders determine what plants make it to market. The garden also serves as a living laboratory for students and a place of relaxation for the public.

“Much of the state’s economy is reliant on research conducted by UGA’s agriculture programs,” Coker said.

Ornamental horticulture in Georgia is valued at more than $843 million, according to the 2016 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report, produced by the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. Coker sees his work as part of a larger push to keep interest in an important industry alive and well.

Coker grew up in nearby Lexington, Georgia, and has had a lifelong love of plants. He helped tend his family’s home garden as a child. He was inspired by his high school science teacher, Joe Conti, another UGA alumnus.

“I just hoped my students would walk away from my class with an appreciation for the natural world,” Conti said.

In high school and throughout college, Coker worked for Lexington-based Goodness Grows nursery under Rick Berry, who is also the mayor of Lexington. There, Coker realized his passion for plants could be a career.

While working on an associate’s degree in agricultural science from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Coker gained experience on the UGA Tifton campus, where he worked with researcher and Professor John Ruter as a student worker. Now the director of the Trial Gardens, Ruter remembers his first impression of Coker as a hard worker with a positive attitude who “always greeted me with a smile, looked me in the eye and had a firm handshake,” he said.

Coker began working on his bachelor’s degree at UGA in 2009, transferring to the main campus in Athens, Georgia. After graduating, he was hired to manage a crew and work commercial properties for The Brickman Group, a landscaping company. He then went on to be a store manager for Pike Nurseries for six years.

When the position of Trial Gardens manager opened in late 2016, Ruter knew Coker was the right person for the job.

“I also knew that working a regular schedule at UGA would be better for Brandon and his family, which means a satisfied employee,” Ruter said.

Coker began managing the gardens in 2017. He’s only the third manager the gardens have had since opening in 1982. His favorite part of the job is being able to support his wife, Heather, and two girls, Lynly and Sabrina, while doing something he loves.

“I come to work happy and leave happy; everything I do revolves around my family,” he said.

Coker’s future plans involve pursuing his master’s degree and continuing to manage and improve the garden. But, “at the end of the day, I just want to grow plants,” he said.

This article was published in the Fall 2018 edition of Southscapes magazine.

Originally Published