‘We’re really growing students’: Cabrillo horticulturist Heather Blume is in full bloom this season

Heather Blume holds up a hydroponically grown cucumber.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cabrillo College horticulture center coordinator Heather Blume might be a well-known face at the Aptos Farmers Market, but her drive to create and maintain a space for horticulture students to hone their skills is what makes her stand out.

“Isn’t this neat?”

Q&A with Heather Blume

Heather Blume, the Environmental Horticulture Center coordinator at Cabrillo College, slides her hand underneath a floating layer of lettuce, revealing countless root systems soaking in a long trough that stretches nearly the entire length of one of the 3,600-square-foot greenhouses at the top of campus.

The butter lettuce from which the roots dangle is flourishing and is nearing its harvest time.

Tucked away on a hill atop the main Cabrillo campus, the horticulture center offers an impressively robust collection of vegetation. Cucumbers, kale, basil, watercress, succulents, berries and much, much more hang from the ceilings and line the perimeters of each of the five hoop houses, three shade houses and greenhouses.

Growth is in full bloom as we approach the middle of spring. However, many of Blume’s blooms can happen at any time of the year, thanks to the greenhouses’ hydroponics system.

Blume, 63, who studied biochemistry at Michigan State and worked in the restaurant industry for over two decades, has always been crazy about plants.

“Ever since I was an 8-year-old girl I’ve been propagating plants,” she said. “Always had a huge garden and greenhouses and a house full of plants.”

Prior to her life as a horticulturist, Blume was the director of operations for Kimpton Restaurants, a position that saw her work with high end restaurants to hire chefs and oversee daily operations. In this role, she moved around a bit, working in cities like Chicago and San Francisco.

It was while she was living in San Francisco, and her daughter began attending Cabrillo, that she took on a plant-based career.

She came down to visit and immediately fell in love with the area. She enrolled in one class — Nursery and Greenhouse — in the department, and the rest is history.

After receiving her associate degree in horticulture from Cabrillo in 2011, she managed Dig Gardens’ nursery in Aptos for five years before taking the reins as horticulture center coordinator in March 2016.

Now, six years later, she has become a staple at the Aptos Farmers Market where she, students and staff run a stand with diverse vegetable and houseplant choices. Browsers stop by the stand, usually found front and center on the market’s third and lowest level. Of course, people buy stuff, and they find that Blume also offers a small encyclopedia of local plant-nurturing advice. We thought it would be timely to share some of it with you as gardening season bursts open.

Each Saturday’s proceeds funnel back into the program to fund student assistants.

Blume’s passion for gardening and plants as a whole is just as big as ever, but her affinity for education has fully formed.

“At the end of the day, we’re really growing students,” she said. “It’s not to teach me how to grow stuff, but to give these kids the skills they need to make a difference. Every generation wants to change the world, and if we can teach them how to do things the right way, we’re doing something positive.”

Blume spoke to Lookout about what grows well in Santa Cruz County, the benefits of hydroponics, and those pesky seasonal allergies.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Heather Blume at work in one of Cabrillo College's greenhouses.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: As a biochem major, how did you find yourself here?

Heather Blume: So, after I graduated from Michigan State, I worked in the restaurant industry for 25-plus years, and then my daughter came to school here [Cabrillo]. At the time I was living up in San Francisco, and she told me that I had to come check this place out. I ended up coming down for a visit on a beautiful sunny day in January and I was like, “Oh my God, I love it.” She said that I should take a class, so I took one class and I was hooked. Got out of the restaurant business completely.

I’ve always been a plant person. Ever since I was an 8-year-old girl I’ve been propagating plants and had my own greenhouses and a house full of plants. So that’s why my daughter knew I’d love this. After that, I dove in and got really involved. I worked at UC Santa Cruz while I went to school at Cabrillo, and through UCSC got a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture giving me funds to help bring more organic food to Cabrillo.

At that time, we grew a bit of food, but they never knew what to do with them. I helped them find sources and ways to package, label and handle the food and encouraged them to grow more. Then when I graduated, it was really hard to leave. I loved it and wanted to stay. I went to manage Dig Gardens down the street and that really expanded everything I had learned here. Then after five years, the gentleman in this position before me [Ernie Wasson] retired, and I took his spot.

Lookout: We hear the terms “organic” and “hydroponic” frequently in the agriculture world, but how do they differ and what are their best uses?

Blume: Organic is the one people might be most familiar with. Organic crops are kind of neat, because they actually started here in Santa Cruz. There was a group of, I have to say, hippies in Santa Cruz who wanted to grow healthy food. They got together and created California Certified Organic Farmers and established some rules for something to be considered organic. Those rules were adopted at a national level.

Organics are actually quite daunting. There is a lot of paperwork, and you have to record everything you do. You have to use approved products and methods, and you get inspected once a year where you have to show all the paperwork to confirm that you are doing the right things and adhering to the standards.

There is an addition for the farmers markets. We have to call the Department of Agriculture when we want to sell a new product, and they have to come and inspect that it was actually grown here. Somebody could, theoretically, get blueberries from a relative in Peru or something, and sell them saying that they grew them. There are a lot of components and we teach all of that here and demonstrate it with our crops.

Hydroponics is newer, and there aren’t many places to learn it. Our director, Peter Shaw, is really into it. We’re one of the few places people can learn about it, and the difference is actually at the fertilizer level. In hydroponics, we’re making this nutrient-rich water through reservoirs and irrigation tubing. We have these reservoirs and we manually take components and mix them. So, for example, we’ll take 20 ounces of calcium nitrate and mix it with 18 milliliters of iron phosphate. So instead of being fertilized organically with fish emulsion, we’re taking raw ingredients and making a fertilizer with them.

It doesn’t change the plant’s nutrition much, but it makes our crops more tender and takes out bitterness because we’re directly feeding them exact levels of nutrients. Hydroponics also use less water, and you can do it year-round. So, say, in Minnesota, they can grow lettuce year-round in a greenhouse, thanks to hydroponics.

Department chair Peter Shaw (right) and hydroponics expert Rachel Golden (left).
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What grows well here and what doesn’t?

Blume: I have grown a lot of vegetables here in my own gardens. When I moved here, I wanted to know what grew here, so I’ve really experimented. I’ve tried just about everything and that experience has been instrumental for me. That’s kind of how I became a veggie expert. When I worked at Dig Gardens, I was that person that could tell you what would grow, when it would grow, and why it would grow.

Anyways, here, there are some crops that you can grow year-round. Those would be beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, onions, spinach, celery and chard. Fava beans are a great winter crop. I’m forgetting some, but that’s the bulk of them.

Now, the thing that I found does not grow well here at all — and it’s sad because everyone wants them — are tomatoes. It’s because the nighttime temperatures are too cold. Some types like Moskvich and Stupice can grow in colder climates, and cherry tomatoes are fine because they don’t take as long to ripen. But when those big, beefy ones are trying to ripen, the fog just won’t let them.

When it comes to fruit trees, apple, plum, fig and citrus trees will pretty much always do well here. On the other hand, people trying to grow cherry, apricot and peach trees aren’t going to have much luck.

Hydroponically grown Persian cucumbers in a Cabrillo College greenhouse
At Cabrillo, stems from the hydroponically grown Persian cucumbers grow around a barrel and extend upward, where they flower and bloom into their cucumber form.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How is running a farmers market business similar and different to teaching students?

Blume: Sometimes I have to remind myself that the reason we have the farmers market is so that we can teach. It’s so that we can teach others everything from how to see the crop to what to do with it. We want people to be successful businesspeople, too.

So as part of some of the classes, especially the organic class, the students have to go to the farmers market. That’s kind of our way of teaching students how to have an end product and how to sell it. It’s really to show them what they can do, how much value the crops have, how to wash and weigh them, what they can do with waste, and so on.

We teach these things and apply them in a hands-on way so that students can be more well-rounded growers when they leave. Whether they go on to work farmers markets or go into another kind of agricultural business, it’s important that they know all the different factors. We wouldn’t have any of this stuff, and wouldn’t be able to have the farmers market stand, if it weren’t for students.

Cabrillo student Alex Imperial holds up a rubber tree and a dwarf alocasia plant.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Having been in the industry for some time now, what are your allergies like?

Blume: It’s funny, I think I’ve developed allergies more and more living in Santa Cruz because things are blooming all the time! So yes, I do have to take allergy medicine, and probably should have taken some today.

That reminds me, at the nursery that I worked at, we sold Christmas trees. I’m a big advocate for fresh trees and always had them during the holidays, and was never allergic to them until I started working with hundreds and hundreds of them. Then all of a sudden I couldn’t be near a Christmas tree anymore. I had to get an artificial Christmas tree for my house and I couldn’t believe it!

Lookout: How do all these different parts of your life tie together?

Blume: At the end of the day, we’re really growing students. I can’t stress that enough. I keep that in the front of my mind. It’s not to teach me how to grow stuff, because I’ve learned stuff every day. It’s so that every student that comes through here can learn something every day.

Every generation wants to change the world. Mine did and I’m sure yours does, and we want these kids to go out and make a difference. If we can teach them how to do things the right way, then we’re doing something positive. That’s our job, but we also want to have fun along the way, and that’s really what our passion is. This is where the rubber meets the road.

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