June 3, 2010
Written by Kendall Rompf
Martin said she looks back at her time in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources with fondness for her professors and their enthusiasm for their subjects.
When she is not tilling the soil in her garden, hiking or fossil collecting, you can often find Texas Tech alumna Melissa Martin strolling through the tropical butterfly house or the 7.5 acres of landscaped grounds that make up the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas.
As executive director of the second-oldest botanical institution in Texas, gardens are more than just a job for Martin; they are a way of life.
Growing up in San Antonio, Martin's appreciation of nature and all things outdoors began at an early age.
"When I was growing up, children were encouraged to play outside so we didn’t cause a ruckus in the house," Martin said. "This meant that I had free reign over my neighborhood from morning until dusk."
Her exploration of the woods, fields, creeks and ponds that surrounded her home, as well as the tropical rainforest she frequented while her father was stationed in Thailand, nurtured her love of the environment. However, she never limited her interests in science. Until a high school biology class, Martin said she was fascinated by every aspect of the field from astronomy to zoology.
"My fate really was sealed when I was in high school,"she said. "I was blessed with a progressive teacher who taught my advanced biology class. We spent our class time wading chest-high in ponds, measuring tree densities in the forest and learning how to study and collect data, which culminated in a once-in-a-lifetime study trip to the Cloud Forest in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nothing inside ever interested me again."
While biology solidified her interest in science, Martin might owe her love of plants to her competitive nature. During high school Martin grew fascinated with the knowledge her childhood best friend, whose mother worked at a nursery, possessed about plants.
"She could name all the plants in her yard," Martin said. "Even though I thought I was more interested in animals, it became a challenge to learn all of those plant names too."
Her challenge carried her to San Antonio College where she completed basic courses in horticulture before transferring to Texas Tech when her father went to work teaching laboratory techniques at the Health Sciences Center.
Still, Martin was not sure of her future. Despite enjoying her horticulture classes, Martin said she was uncertain about what she wanted to study when she arrived at Texas Tech. When she was unable to decide between the study of plants or animals, she turned to her advisor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Together, Martin and the advisor put together a degree program in zoo management that she and another student took for a year before she came to a realize that horticulture was the right path for her.
From there, Martin never strayed. After switching her major to ornamental horticulture, she was given the opportunity to gain experience working in her field of study in the Department of Plant & Soil Science. It was here, Martin said, she learned how to be resourceful and work hard.
"We would spend hours sweating in the greenhouses or on the end of a hoe in a field," she said. "We didn’t have a lot of tools at the greenhouse so sometimes we shared a hoe or a shovel and I remember having to figure out how to clean clogged drip lines for the humidification system."
Today Martin calls Dallas home, but a piece of her resides in West Texas and with Texas Tech. She said she looks back at her time in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources with fondness for her professors and their enthusiasm for their subjects. More than 30 years after her receiving her degree in 1979, Martin has ties to Raiderland. Her sister works in the School of Law, her niece graduated last year and her nephew is a current student.
"We have a Texas Tech tradition in my family," she said. "I even married a music student while I was there so, although my kids didn’t go to school at Texas Tech, they have Texas Tech blood running through them."
Martin's days allow her the flexibility to explore nature when she tires of her daily office duties. She is a self-proclaimed lifelong learner and enjoys sharing her knowledge with visitors.
Martin has come a long way since her years at Texas Tech. After receiving her degree in ornamental horticulture, Martin took various nursery jobs before discovering a passion for education. She then spent nine years teaching at the Dallas Museum of Natural History. These days, in addition to promoting horticulture education programs, she wears many hats as the executive director of Texas Discovery Gardens, a non-profit botanical garden located on city park land in Dallas.
Texas Discovery Gardens features native plants and species from around the world that have been adapted to grow in the North Texas region. All of the gardens’ plants provide a beneficial habitat for native wildlife like birds, butterflies and bugs. In 2003, Texas Discovery Gardens became the first 100-percent-organic public garden in Texas.
While Martin said organic landscaping is a popular topic among horticulturalists today, she is an innovator in the field because she had an epiphany more than 20 years ago.
"My children were babies," she said. "They were crawling in the grass and touching and tasting everything. I realized then that although I had been taught how to use petroleum-based chemicals to control insect pests and weeds, these chemicals had to be just as hazardous to my children as they were to grub worms."
Today, Martin’s home gardens as well as the Texas Discovery Gardens are run organically. The gardens are maintained using methods that help conserve water and protect the environment.
From maintenance issues to getting her hands dirty by planting the gardens’ annual plants, Martin is involved in many aspects of her field and she considers herself lucky to be involved with the gardens. Her days allow her the flexibility to explore nature when she tires of her daily office duties. Martin is a self-proclaimed lifelong learner and enjoys sharing her knowledge with visitors.
"The thing I enjoy most is teaching and connecting people with nature," Martin said. "Whether that is a conversation with a new volunteer or giving a presentation to a large group of garden club members, I love talking about plants and insects and their importance to our environment."
With classes like "EarthKeepers," the "Organic University Series," summer camps for children and butterfly gardening workshops for adults, Texas Discovery Gardens offers Martin a variety of outlets for her knowledge.
"I love seeing the interest people have in gardening, especially those who are just starting to learn how to plant and take care of their first garden," she said. "They are so eager to learn everything they get me excited too."
The mission of the Department of Plant & Soil Science is to improve plants for human use, increase knowledge about our environment, and enhance sustainable practices in plant production and value-added processing through education, research, and outreach.
The department is a comprehensive academic department conducting research and offering coursework and academic programs in all areas of the plant and soil sciences.[tttboilerplates id=3]