Turf & Rec is honouring eight deserving women in the Canadian turf and grounds maintenance industry who have displayed such qualities as hard work, leadership, innovation and mentoring abilities.
Eight women representing such industry sectors as landscaping, lawn care, golf and sports turf are being profiled in our March and April/May issues. Their recorded voices can also be heard in a four-part podcast series, beginning March 8, with new episodes featuring two of the selected women posted every two weeks afterwards.
Below are profiles of the first four of our eight honourees.
A career in turf wasn’t on Vonk’s radar in the beginning. She went to school to study interior decorating, “and then I decided I didn’t like the whole dress pants, dress shirt, be nice to people all the time thing.”
But a love of gardening and the outdoors was in her blood, and that led to a study of horticulture at London, Ont.’s Fanshawe College. Graduating in 2009, she worked initially at a garden centre before joining a garden company for almost 10 years. Her expertise in horticulture finally led her to Burch Landscape Services in Waterloo where she’s “doing pretty much everything.”
As a lead hand horticulturalist, Vonk heads up a team of two others – both women – but if there are garden installations to be done, she’s in charge of up to eight people, including men.
“We’re called Team Hulk because we pretty much destroy the guys’ crews,” she said. “We always have to help them finish their stuff, and they don’t have any gardens to do.”
Burch Landscape Services is a design/build, lawn maintenance, installation and snow and ice management company whose clientele is mostly residential with some commercial properties. Summer and winter services are provided to upwards of 100 residential properties in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
The company’s customers are mainly high-end residential homeowners who expect their lawns to be completely free of weeds.
“Which is fine, and that’s usually why I’m the one who gets put on those specific properties because I let everyone else cut the grass and I go right to the gardens every week.”
Vonk’s goal is to have all trimming and dead-heading work meet her own personal standards which often exceed those of the customer’s.
“Sometimes the customers will come out and tell me, ‘Julie, it doesn’t have to be perfect.’ Yes, it does, actually.”
One of the things she enjoys most is installing ponds and water features.
“You start with absolutely nothing, dig a giant hole – and it looks like all hell broke loose – and you end up with this beautiful water feature at the end.”
What she enjoys most, however, are garden installations.
“Making something out of nothing is really rewarding. You just see a blank slate and then, all of a sudden, it’s completely different. I like seeing customers’ faces when they come out and say, ‘Oh, my god. It’s so beautiful.’”
Although Vonk and her two female crew members at Burch are outnumbered by the company’s male complement, she doesn’t feel intimidated. In fact, she said her male co-workers are “scared s**tless” of her.
“I’ve always worked with guys. My friends have always been guys more so than girls.”
Words of advice she would offer to other women contemplating a career in the turf industry: “You cannot be afraid to get your hands dirty or work your ass off to get what you want. You can’t just expect it to be handed to you because you’re a girl.”
Like Vonk, a career in turf wasn’t on Robinson’s mind at the outset. As a summer student living in Ontario, she worked two summers at a General Motors manufacturing plant “and hated every single second of it. Being trapped inside was just terrible.”
Two of her friends were working at a golf course at the time and persuaded her to follow suit.
“I went from about $30 an hour to $8 an hour, but I just fell in love with it (golf course maintenance).”
Robinson has remained in the golf industry ever since, and 2023 marks her 19th year in turf. Once getting a taste of a career in golf, her ambition was to ultimately become a superintendent, which she achieved while she was still in her 20s. Her first superintendent’s job was at Whitetail Golf Club in Eganville, Ont.
“That was such a good feeling of accomplishment to be able to finally get to a place where I was at the top part of the food chain in that portion of turf maintenance.”
Along the way, Robinson worked at Oliver’s Nest Golf Club in Oakwood and Watson’s Glen Golf Club in Pickering. From Whitetail, she moved on to Summerlea Golf Club in Port Perry to become its new superintendent and shortly afterward became consulting superintendent at Western Trent Golf Club in Bolsover.
“I was actually working at two different golf courses at the same time in a superintendent’s capacity, but the best part was they were both owned and operated by women.”
In more recent years, Robinson sought a change of scenery and moved west to work at the Cordova Bay Golf Club in Victoria, B.C. as an assistant superintendent. She gave up the position at the end of 2022, however, to begin a new career as operations manager for the British Columbia Golf Superintendents Association.
“I make whatever they need to happen happen.”
She described her role as more member services-like while her predecessor had more of an administrative role. Her focus now is to grow the association. Robinson began her new position with the BCGSA on Jan. 1.
Although a key reason for her decision to move to British Columbia was the chance to spend more time outdoors in a more favourable climate, she said she’s just as happy to be inside when it’s raining or colder.
Robinson’s propensity for getting injured on the job was a contributing factor toward taking on her new role with the association.
“I don’t have an off button. I don’t know how to slow myself down. I keep hurting myself because I work aggressively and get stuff done, and my body ends up paying the price for my brain’s initiative. It’s going to be really good to be able to focus on getting my body a little bit back to a better physical stage. I’m looking forward to that part of it.”
Dr. Sara Stricker
A career in plant science wasn’t Stricker’s first choice when starting university. Her mind was set on becoming a veterinarian, but she quickly learned she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. A university councillor helped to steer her toward studies in plant science, and a course in plant pathology helped sealed the deal.
“I figured I could become a plant doctor,” she said. “I could do the same thing with a patient that doesn’t bleed.”
Stricker worked with Dr. Tom Hsiang at the University of Guelph for both her undergraduate and master’s degrees – the latter of which was a project to study potential climate change factors on creeping bentgrass and microdochium patch. She travelled to such locations as The Netherlands, Portugal and Seattle to share her well-received research with other industry colleagues.
Currently, she’s the outreach and communications co-ordinator at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute (GTI), where she takes GTI research, translates it and communicates it to the industry. Her work at the GTI led to the creation of a podcast called <i>Canada Turf Talks</i> which highlights the different types of careers available within the turf industry.
“Anyone who’s from the turf industry can listen to those and hear some words of wisdom and career advice. Hopefully it’s something interesting for them to listen to as they’re working on their day or going on a commute.”
Stricker is chairman of the American Phytopathological Society’s turfgrass pathology committee and is a junior board member with the Canadian Phytopathological Society. The organizations allow for the sharing of resources and information among turf pathologists.
The professional turfgrass industry is becoming more inclusive and more accepting than ever before, she said, adding women who might wish to consider a career in the industry need not be afraid.
“Historically speaking, there have not been as many women in this industry, but there’s absolutely no reason with today’s technology that a woman couldn’t do what a man can do in turf management.”
Stricker suggested women in the industry seek out mentors, noting a key adviser of hers is Dr. Katerina Jordan, associate professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph. Becoming a professor herself is one of her ambitions.
While unearthing new research and sharing it with others has been a career highlight for Stricker, it can also present a challenge at times when it generates pushback from the public, she said.
“Some people think maybe (turfgrass) isn’t environmentally friendly or not worth the time or effort, but we have a lot of data and research to suggest that it can be very beneficial to the environment and very beneficial to our human health.”
The naysayers are often unaware of the important role turf plays in erosion control, pest control and water management, she added.
It was while watching a gardening program on television when Nuttall realized that a career in horticulture might be her calling. She was a college student at the time, taking such courses as psychology and sociology, but there was something about working with plant material that inspired her to seek a new career path.
“It felt like a silly idea at first when I was watching TV and saw a gardening show,” she said. “It was like a switch turned on for me. I’m glad that I pursued that. When I first started, I barely knew anything. It just totally opened my eyes to the world of horticulture. There’s so much more than what I imagined when I first started out.”
Nuttall enrolled in a 10-month horticulture program which led to her first job at the University of Victoria, where she’s been ever since. More recently, she was promoted to the position of irrigation technician after working five years as a sports field maintenance technician.
Her predecessor was promoted to supervisor last year, which opened the door for Nuttall to step into the position.
“I want to be very well rounded in every aspect of horticulture, so I thought this was a great opportunity to learn about irrigation. After doing it for one year, I’ve learned so much already.”
In addition to looking after the irrigation needs of five University of Victoria campus sports fields – two soccer, two rugby and one multi-purpose field – she tends to the watering needs of all garden beds and lawns.
“There are times we’ll jump in on the sports fields to help out, so it’s a good mix of both. But right now, my focus is on irrigation.”
Nuttall cites the opportunities to learn and grow with the help of her co-workers as a career highlight over the past eight years.
“Just the fact that I’ve been able to try out so many different things without having to change jobs and without having to change employers has been a highlight, and the people I work with are really awesome, too.”
There have been challenges, however. She admitted math has never been her strong suit, but it’s a vital component in the field of irrigation and was equally important during her previous work in sports field maintenance, especially when calibrating for fertilizing.
“Now I think I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with it.”
One of the more enjoyable aspects of her career is the people with whom she works.
“I couldn’t ask for a better crew. Everybody on the crew has a positive dynamic and everybody gets along quite well with each other.”
Most of her colleagues are male, but she said she doesn’t feel she’s treated any differently from anyone else.
“I feel like I’ve had to find my voice a little bit and speak up if I find something doesn’t seem totally fair or if there’s something that doesn’t seem quite right. But everyone is willing to listen and be open to discussion. I feel very fortunate to have that.”
Her advice to other women who might be thinking of a career in turf: “Say yes to as many opportunities as possible. Anytime something like that is offered to you, take it. Don’t sell yourself short. Remember that all women are equally capable of doing what everybody else can do.”