Donna Swansen clearly recalls her very first garden.
“I planted my first garden when I was five-years-old. It was a vegetable garden under the maple tree in our yard,” said Swansen, a 1981 graduate of Temple University Ambler’s Landscape Design program, which was one of the first offerings in what would become the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture. “It leafed out, but I didn’t cultivate any vegetables on that first try.”
Little did Swansen know at the time that from those humble beginnings she would go on to help found an international association of professionals that today is more than 1,000 members strong and boasts members from such diverse locations as the United States, Canada, England, New Zealand, Bermuda, Lebanon, and Bahrain.
The Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) recently celebrated its 15th anniversary with a special conference in England attended by 200 people.
“At the beginning, when we established the association, there were maybe 20 of us. Before that we started the Landscape Design Network, which ended about two years ago but was an important organization for 20 years,” Swansen said. “When I first got out of school — I went back to school at 40 and got out at 50 — I’d go to a nursery to buy something and would be treated, well, like a woman. They didn’t take me seriously as a professional. After we established the Landscape Design Network, 10 or 20 of us would go to visit a nursery at one time and spend $1,000 in one visit — they started to pay attention to us.”
Swansen, a resident of Ambler for 40 years who helped to establish the borough’s Plant Ambler beautification program, said she returned to school initially because “I couldn’t imagine doing nothing for such a long time when my children were at school.”
“With landscape design, I could go into business for myself; work in my own basement and be home when the kids came home from school. My landscape design firm is still in operation — we do about 10 to 20 jobs a year of all sizes, from small to very large,” she said. “Landscape Design was a two-year program that took me 10 years to get through. I took one course at a time until I was done — I was there so long I met more people at Ambler than I ever had in my life.”
It was those meetings that led to the organizations that followed.
“Over the years, the APLD has held conferences all over the United States. For the 15th anniversary of the organization, we wanted to do something special,” Swansen said. “The Society of Garden Designers in England — the equivalent of our organization here — invited us to come to Kew Gardens. Similar to Longwood Gardens, it is a magnificently vast formal garden.”
The six-day conference was comprised of lectures “from the foremost speakers in the field directly sharing new ideas, philosophies, and viewpoints,” said Susan Vandegrift, an Abington resident and APLA member who has the distinction of being the last Landscape Design student at Ambler.
“We visited so many unique gardens — totally different, exciting educational experiences that, in some cases, were specific examples of the lecturers’ work. Each day you’d think ‘This is the best!’ only to have it topped the next day,” Vandegrift said. “As a landscape designer, I’m still learning. Being a part of the APLA, I’ve become more confident in my abilities, in the procedures of working in this field. You are always able to talk to other people and exchange ideas — you never stop learning.”
Swansen’s family is very much a Temple family. Her husband Samuel taught courses for the Beasley School of Law. Her sons Christopher and Ted are also Temple graduates; Ted also became a Presidential Scholar and returned to Temple to complete his MBA. Swansen was also tapped to help with the committee that established the 4-year Landscape Architecture and Horticulture programs at Ambler in the late 1980s.
She and her husband even played an important, if unexpected, part in Ambler’s historically-themed 2005 Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit. They had the good fortune of discovering the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture’s original charter in the archives at Philadelphia City Hall — an important link to the campus’ earliest days.
“The Ambler program helped me to go to places that I never thought I’d go,” Swansen said. “It helped me be exposed to people I never thought I’d meet. The entire experience has been wonderful.”