By Sarah Kuper
Friends of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens have named Tom Underwood its new executive director.
Beginning in February, Underwood will bring his varied and impressive experience Over the Mountain, succeeding former Executive Director Fred Spicer.
It was a love of the outdoors and a summer job that led Underwood to prominence in the horticultural world. And it all started with the Happiest Place on Earth.
“I studied horticulture and I set my sights on working for Disney,” Underwood said. “I had grown up near Disneyland in southern California and it seemed like a great place to work.”
After graduating from California Polytechnic State University with a degree in horticulture, Underwood found an opportunity to work for Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“I got a summer job planting trees for the Epcot park, which was new at the time,” he said.
Underwood said Disney had a strong hire-from-within program, and he took full advantage.
“I started out just planting and then one thing led to another and it became a career lasting 20 years,” he said.
Underwood rose to become the manager of the horticulture services department. Along the way, he focused on special projects such as garden festivals and displays. He executed projects off-site, including topiary displays in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza to showcase the Broadway opening of Beauty and the Beast.
In 2002, Underwood moved to Virginia to serve as executive director of the American Horticultural Society. This national organization is a network of more than 20,000 gardeners sharing knowledge and a passion for horticulture.
Underwood oversaw communications, development, management, membership, events and administration. One initiative particularly close to his heart was outreach to a younger generation through an annual youth gardening symposium.
Recently, a nationwide search led by former Southern Living editor-in-chief John Floyd resulted in talks with Underwood about the position at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
He jumped at the opportunity.
“I had dealt with many publications writing about the gardening at Disney, so I knew about Southern Living being in Birmingham,” he said. “I also knew about the gardens’ reputation, and Railroad Park in Birmingham (had) just won an award from the American Horticultural Society. Birmingham was familiar.”
Underwood said that, although he has enjoyed working for a national organization, he is excited to get more personal with patrons of the gardens in Birmingham.
“I look forward to being part of the community and seeing members face-to-face,” he said. “I’m excited to walk out into the gardens and see people experience it.”
He said he believes this position will use his experience and talents well.
“This can be great to bring all the things I’ve done and learned and experiences and bring them somewhere new where I can make a contribution,” Underwood said.
In particular, he said, he will bring the emphasis on storytelling he learned working at Walt Disney World.
“At Disney things are very guest focused. We focused on creativity and quality and storytelling. We wanted to create special, memorable experiences for everyone,” he said.
But he said he also is keen to incorporate education.
“I really enjoy the informal educational side of gardening, like researching and getting to know a garden and what stories it has to tell,” he said.
Underwood said he will use graphics and computer programs to design landscapes – all things he learned at Disney.
Underwood and his wife, Jane, also a horticulturalist, are in the process of moving to the city.
“Everyone we have met has been so welcoming and friendly,” he said. “We look forward to showing the rest of the country what is in Birmingham.”
While Underwood hasn’t revealed any specific programs or changes coming to the gardens, he said he is planning to build on the gardens’ mission to promote public knowledge and appreciation of plants.