CareerNext Summit 2017 | Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a lifelong horticulturist whose penchant for sharing horticulture with his professional colleagues and friends has taken him to Europe and Caribbean. Tom’s love of working with plants developed in his youth on a middle-Georgia truck farm. As a member of the Future Farmers of America in high school, Tom oversaw the redesign of downtown Perry, Georgia. The landscaping project won for the city a prestigious national award. At age 16, Tom went to work for a local garden center and landscaping company. After high school, he attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College where he majored in plant propagation. In 1985, when President Jimmy Carter began building his presidential library in Atlanta, he enlisted Tom to help oversee the building of the gardens. That experience lead to Tom being selected for the design team for the construction of the Evan Allen III Pavilion and the Cecil B. Day Chapel. During the development of the Carter Center Gardens, Tom apprenticed for five years under world-renowned Japanese architect Kinsako Nakane. Tom is among a handful of Americans to have had this opportunity. Later, Tom worked with Shiro Nakane, Kinsako’s son. After a decade at the Carter Presidential Center, Tom returned to middle Georgia as the national horticulturist with the American Camellia Society. For the next eight years, he managed the society’s camellia collection at Massee Lane Gardens, the society’s national headquarters. In that role, Tom traveled the “Southern camellia belt” advising garden and camellia growers on cultural and propagation issues. He also gave camellia lectures and passionately advocated for a need to preserve older varieties. While at Massee Lane, Tom was approached by John Drayton Hastie Jr., one of the owners of Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston. Hastie had attended one of Tom’s lectures. Tom’s presentation was not limited to the preservation of older azaleas and camellias. He also shared his affection for romantic-style gardens. Hastie was so impressed that he pursued Tom for the next several years, finally convincing him to become Magnolia’s executive director. At Magnolia, Tom’s responsibilities include the restoration of America’s oldest romantic-style garden. Tom is charged with returning Magnolia to the vision the Rev. John Grimké Drayton had when he designed the gardens for his homesick bride in the mid-1800s. This project launched Tom on a worldwide search for azalea and camellia varieties that predate the 1900s. It also spurred him to share his gardening expertise with colleagues in Belgium, France, Barbados and Cuba.
Tom’s association with some of the world’s greatest gardeners and horticulturists has been fruitful for Magnolia. The gardens have garnished the honor of being the first garden in America approved to receive interns from Versailles’ school of landscape design in Paris. Magnolia also took the lead in the creation of the Great Gardens of America Preservation Alliance, a group of gardens, colleges and individuals interested in the preservation of older varieties of azaleas and camellias. Tom is a sought-after speaker across the South. He uses his Southern charm and humor to promote the preservation of azalea and camellia collections around the world. When Tom is asked about his mission at Magnolia, he states simply: “Magnolia is a grand old lady. My job is to shine her shoes, dress her in some new robes, and get her ready for the thousands of suitors that come calling each year. I can think of no better place to finish my career.”