Since 1988, the Floriculture Greenhouse complex, located on the Cook campus has been the domain of Nicolette Graf (CC’77). Tucked away between Nichol Avenue and Red Oak Lane, the greenhouse – one of several on the campus – boasts some 15,000 square feet of protected tropical and sub-tropical environments under glass, plus outdoor gardens that serve as a living laboratory for students.
An Animal Sciences major, Nicki (as she’s widely known) has been the manager of the Floriculture Greenhouse complex for the past 35 years. She worked in private industry for 11 years after she graduated from Cook College and returned to Rutgers in 1988 after being hired to manage the greenhouse.
As she recalls, Nicki’s responsibilities at the time included a combination of research and teaching. That has evolved into full time teaching as part of the Department of Plant Biology.
Nicki is proud that, under her watch, “the greenhouse has gone from 2 to 3 classes to around 15 classes being held in its one classroom.”
The greenhouse provides instructors and students with a unique opportunity to observe and participate in cutting-edge research, and to become familiar with the many unique plants housed in a vast teaching collection, which consists of hundreds of plants in five separate greenhouse areas and separated into climate zones.
Nicki utilizes the more than 50 genera of orchids, over 80% of known species of staghorn ferns, many carnivorous plants, and a vast collection of tropical vines, shrubs, and perennials to help prepare generations of students taking courses offered within the plant science major.
About a decade ago, a 2,000 square foot raised bed urban garden was created. This has enabled students to learn about gardening techniques and processes, including breeding, seeding, maintenance and harvest.
Teaching is clearly a great source of joy and pride for Nicki.
“I’m so proud of all of the students who pass through the greenhouse over the years and whose careers I’ve had a hand of shaping. I’m thrilled that many of them come back to visit during Rutgers Day and to help with the plant sales at the greenhouse.”
During this annual spring event, all extra plant varieties are sold off to make room for the newest arrivals of tropical plants to ensure that the collection remains relevant and exciting to the students and the broader community.
Nicki oversees another highly anticipated annual event, the display of poinsettias around the first week in December in all their glory to the trade and to the public.
These plants, which include some of the most exotic varieties of poinsettias, are the result of rigorous poinsettia trials, where more than 90 varieties of poinsettias are propagated and grown, and formally evaluated for the horticultural market.
The glorious display of poinsettias, used throughout the university for holiday displays, are sometimes available for purchase by members of the university community who eagerly await their chance to take home a Rutgers-bred beauty.
Nicki’s commitment and connections to her alma mater run very deep. She and her husband Richard, also CC’77, are big Rutgers sports fans. They started dating while they were both seniors at Cook; he lived in the apartment right above hers and they showed lots of school spirit, attending many Rutgers sporting during their undergraduate years and since.
“Richard’s more of an athlete than I am, but I’m a great fan,” jokes Nicki.
In fact, they have great Rutgers spirit, attending football games over the years as season ticket holders. They’ve supported Rutgers football and even made the Rutgers Big Ten Honor Roll. They currently only have season tickets for both men’s and women’s Basketball, but they cheer for Rutgers athletes across the board. Go RU!!