Career Corner: Horticulture with Hal
Name: Hal O’Kelley
Position Title: Horticulture Manager
Education: Studied Horticulture at UGA
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
Length of time at Zoo Atlanta: 15 years
Tell us about your job and any projects you are working on.
I am the Horticulture Manager and oversee all aspects of the Zoo landscape. As a team, we maintain habitat spaces, public areas and behind-the-scenes areas. On any given day, we are in charge of mowing the grass, managing our extensive tree canopy, and cutting browse to feed to our population of animals. Additionally, I oversee the greenhouse where we care for our tropical plants over the winter and propagate new plants for Zoo use and the annual Plant Sale in April.
The Horticulture Team works offsite as well, to help preserve threatened native Georgia species of plants and animals. In partnership with the Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy, we assist with mountain bog restoration projects in North Georgia.
Currently, the Horticulture Team is working on a new Pollinator Garden adjacent to the Conservation Action Resource Center (ARC). Through a National Football League’s Urban Forestry Initiative grant, we received funding to redesign the former Butterfly Garden to incorporate rock work and a diversity of native perennials and azaleas. Stop by in the spring of 2019 to see our work!
What attracted you to this field?
I began at Zoo Atlanta in 2004 when I was first hired as a Horticulture Tech II. I had previous experience in most areas of horticulture, from basic landscaping to managing a greenhouse to irrigation and hardscapes, but Zoo horticulture was unlike anything I had experienced before! Not only do we make habitats safe for the animals by mitigating toxic plant issues and safety protocols, but we also keep all 40+ acres of the Zoo safe and aesthetically pleasing for the hundreds of thousands of guests every year.
What do you consider to be the highlight of your career so far?
I would say the highlight would be being certified as a Wildland Firefighter Type 2. In 2008, I went through four days of intense hands-on training, as well as a 40-hour computer course, on how to safely participate in prescribed burns.
What prepared you for your job?
Nothing fully prepares you to work in Zoo horticulture, although it helps to have a well-rounded background in the green industry. I’ve used every bit of previous experience working at the Zoo and continue to learn new things on a daily basis. Where else would you say “We’ll have to replant this shrub, the bongo ate it…?”
What advice would you give to students interested in your career?
Gain as much experience as you can! You can only learn so much from classes or books. Nothing beats hands-on learning!