Melwood horticulture program grows plants and people

(Stephen Elliot)
Photo by Stephen Elliot in association with
Photo by Stephen Elliot in association with Elliot)
(Stephen Elliot)
Photo by Stephen Elliot in association with

This content is sponsored by Melwood

We visited Melwood’s campus to learn more about how they work with people of differing abilities to grow some of the areas most sought after commercial and house plants. As the sun shone through the glass of one of Melwood’s greenhouses, it lit up the faces of Shavonne Gary and Carol Swenton. Shavon started training with the Melwood horticulture program when she graduated from high school and Carol has worked at the Melwood Garden Center for 10 years.

“Working here is good,” said Shavonne. “I like watering and fertilizing the plants. I work hard, from 8:30 in the morning until 2:45. I like the people at Melwood, we help each other out.”

Carol, with her hands in the dirt, said she takes great pleasure in watering and weeding the flowers and plants earmarked for clients, like the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as local farmers markets.

“I like to see the plants grow,” said Carol. “It makes me happy. My favorite plant is the scented pink and red geranium – that’s a pretty one.”


Adapting Skills to the Task at Hand

Melwood, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Prince George’s County, MD, is one of the largest employers of people of differing abilities in the country. Melwood offers job placement, job training, life skills for independence, and support services to more than 2,300 people each year in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

The Landscaping and Horticulture Services is one of Melwood’s largest enterprises. Its crews service many renowned sites in the Washington area while its garden center supplies plants grown in Melwood greenhouses.

Melwood sells plants to the business and the general public at their headquarters in Upper Marlboro as well as at 25 events throughout the year, including the renowned Flower Mart at the Washington National Cathedral where thousands flock each year to purchase spring plants.

Edward Goodman, Manager of Greenhouse Operations, explained that when he started his position, he pictured himself growing plants. Instead, he said, “I’ve ended up growing people.”

Greenhouse Operations employs 20 people of differing intellectual and physical abilities. “Mr. Ed,” as greenhouse workers call him, analyzes employee strengths and adapts those strengths to the job at hand. A worker with limited physical mobility in her hands and arms, for example, might find her ergonomic sweet spot at waist height filling or washing planting pots.

“The moments that make it worth it for me are when it clicks for people what they’re good at,” Edward said. “That makes them happy and it makes me happy.”

Each workday begins with coffee and a discussion of the jobs that individuals would like to do. They walk-through what needs to be achieved before they get down to work. Every day brings tangible progressions in individual and group abilities.

“Melwood’s horticultural program serves some of the most prestigious and prominent sites in the DC region,” says Goodman. “Every time I walk past the greenhouse and beautiful landscaping on our own campus in Upper Marlboro, I feel proud to be cultivating an inspired, empowered, and skilled workforce, and providing these life skills to people of differing abilities”.


Melwood Horticulture Clients

The accomplishments of Melwood employees bear fruit for Horticulture Services clients. Of the 15,000 plants Melwood grows each year, over 8,000 are sold to contract sites in the area.

At the Kennedy Center, Melwood employees maintain the landscaping and change out plants and flowers four times a year – working in the coldest part of winter and the hottest part of summer to make the grounds attractive.

“We want to create here at the Kennedy Center an inclusive environment that goes all the way from our performers and patrons to our employees and contractors,” James Rogers, Facilities Services Coordinator, states. “So having people of differing abilities being able to make a living here makes us all feel good.”

George Jones, Director of Building Operations and Security at HUD headquarters, has worked directly with Melwood employees for 15 years. He says that everyone comments on the nice plantings Melwood selects seasonally for the front of the building and the beautiful garden dedicated to HUD lives lost in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“When Melwood employees are working here, they are very responsible. They’re professional and courteous and seem to be proud of the work they’re doing,” Jones said. “I know some have special needs, but it highlights the fact that everybody can be beneficial to society regardless of what their limitations are. And [the job they do here at HUD] sets a good example for other agencies.”


About Melwood

Melwood is one of the largest employers of people of differing abilities in the country, employing more than 1,600 workers – nearly 1,000 of whom are people of differing abilities. Melwood offers job placement, job training, life skills for independence, and support services to more than 2,300 people each year in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Melwood’s Garden Center sells plants commercially and wholesale to businesses throughout the year. Melwood also has an inclusive summer camp program for children and provides employment and support services to veterans and active duty military members who have experienced service-related trauma or injury. For more information, visit

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up