Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
Starting this spring, Tom Underwood will be shifting from his position as executive director of the American Horticultural Society, or AHS, to a more community-oriented role as the new executive director of the Friends of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
“The organization where I am right now is a national membership organization and has about 23,000 members across the country and is involved in a variety of educational programs,” he said during a February interview. “This is a chance to apply a lot of what I’ve learned here at the American Horticultural Society … to a more community-based organization.”
Underwood is originally from California and got his start in horticulture at a young age after spending time with his grandmother, whom he mentioned was enthusiastic about gardening.
“I’m sure you hear that a lot, but it’s actually true,” he said.
He spent many of his summers as a nature counselor and worked as an intern at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania during the summer before his senior year as a horticulture major at California Polytechnic State University. Eventually his experiences led him to Walt Disney World.
“Growing up in southern California, I wasn’t very far from Disneyland,” Underwood said. “Disneyland and Disney always had this special magic for me, and I thought ,‘Wow, that would be a really neat combination if I could combine horticulture and Disney.’”
He picked up a temporary job at Disney World in Florida, just as more development on the properties started picking up.
“That turned into a 20-plus year career,” he said.
While working for Disney, Underwood continued school to earn his master’s degree in science education.
“I’ve always had a particular interest in informal education,” he said. He credits his style to his years at Cal Poly, which he said is a school known for its “learning by doing” education.
“I really enjoy hands-on learning and experiences,” Underwood said.
Now, he said he’s hoping to bring his experiences to Birmingham.
“Birmingham has been on my radar screen for quite a while,” Underwood said. He has worked with board members of AHS who were from the city, and after learning more about Southern Living and its place in Birmingham while working at Disney, he said he became more familiar with the area.
“When I saw the opportunity [to work here], I thought, ‘Wow, that could be neat,’” he said. “And the more I learned about it [the job], the more attractive it seemed.”
As the new executive director of the Friends of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, which is the nonprofit organization of the gardens, Underwood will be working closely with the Parks and Recreation Department of the city of Birmingham and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“It’s really kind of a gardening epicenter between these different things happening,” he said. “I hope that I can be a common thread that pulls the various interests together.”
Underwood said he is looking forward to using his experiences at AHS to work with the gardens and to his transition to Birmingham, especially because of the variety of resources in the area and the momentum of the area.
“You’ve got the zoo there; you’ve got the gardens; you’ve got this wonderful cultural hub,” he said. “I think it’ll be exciting for the gardens to be a part of that … it just really sets a tone for great things.”