CCE Nassau County Horticulture and Urban and Community Forestry Resource Educator Vinnie Drzewucki (pronounced “Shavootski”) has served on the Council Board for two years.
Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in horticulture and urban forestry?
Vinnie Drzewucki: From a young age I was fascinated by plants. I think it was being around my father and grandmother who were always growing something and caring for their gardens and houseplants. My earliest memories are filled with being with them in their gardens and surrounded by flowers, fruits, vegetables, trees, and shrubs.
In school we learned that trees grow from seeds and so I began to collect and sow tree seeds everywhere. Some, to my surprise, did grow and I wonder if they are around today producing seeds of their own. When I was old enough to get my first library card, one of the first books I checked out was a book about trees because I wanted to know all I could about how trees grow. I was amazed that trees could provide a vast assortment of useful products like fruits and nuts to eat and wood for building and making things.
Back then, news about air and water pollution and deforestation was frequently in the media and often discussed in class. It was the time when the US Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Department of Environment Conservation were being formed, the Clean Water Act was amended, and the Clean Air Act was established. I suppose my interest in trees and their importance in the environment began way back then.
What was your educational trajectory?
VD: My formal education in plants began in high school when I was fortunate to be enrolled in a three-year vocational horticulture program. At the time, I found every aspect of horticulture fascinating. From plant propagation to nursery and turfgrass management to garden and landscape design to floriculture—it was hard for me to decide which particular path to take.
At SUNY Farmingdale, I majored in Ornamental Horticulture and Nursery Management. I took a few arboricultural classes as electives, even learned to climb trees using a rope. I never realized arboriculture would come in handy for what I do today. After graduating SUNY Farmingdale and while working full-time pursuing my professional career, I attended evening classes to attain a degree in business management and an MBA.
What has been your career trajectory?
VD: Through high school and college I did landscaping and worked at local garden centers. After college I spent three decades working in management and marketing positions at several retail garden centers and nurseries on Long Island. During that time, volunteering with professional trade associations played an important role for me. I saw it as a way of helping to raise industry awareness and standards, bring the various segments of the green industry together, a way to encourage young people and those changing career paths into horticulture and care of the environment, and as a way for me to give back to the industry. I served on the board of directors of both the Long Island and New York State Nursery and Landscape Associations. Much of my work and interest in these two organizations focused on updating and improving the New York State Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional (CNLP) program at the state and local level, to identify and recognize professional individuals in our industry whose knowledge and dedication sets them well above the rest. I am a perpetual learner and I believe that professional certifications are important for keeping up with the constant changes in our industry and for identifying individuals who are committed to their profession. I currently retain CNLP, ISA Certified Arborist, and NYS DEC Commercial Pesticide Applicator certifications.
Can you tell us some about your current position?
VD: At Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County I am a Resource Educator focusing on Environmental Horticulture and Urban and Community Forestry. I work with residents and professionals helping them with growing and caring for houseplants, flowers, vegetables, fruits, and trees and shrubs in gardens, landscapes, and the larger community. I connect people to unbiased university research and science-based information and resources, including the right practices or professionals to help solve problems in a way that keeps the protection and improvement of the environment at the forefront.
What are your favorite parts of the job?
VD: The thing I like best is the people-plant connection. Whether it’s advising a home gardener, or a community that’s planting and caring for trees, it’s all about improving the quality of life and well-being of everyone. I always like a good challenge, and diagnosing plant problems is one of my favorite things to do, along with connecting people to the right resources to solve the problem. I love to hear back from people on how things worked out afterward. I also like the fact that my work directly helps protect and improve the environment.
What’s something readers may not know about Cornell Cooperative Extension?
VD: Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) provides education and resources beyond the one program or aspect that the local county Extension might typically be known for. For instance, our organization in Nassau County has programs in Environmental Horticulture, Urban Forestry, Nutrition, and 4-H Youth Education, including the 4-H Sleep-Away Camp in Riverhead. More recently we have been involved in promoting locally grown fresh produce and educating residents about its nutritional and economic value through our farm stand at East Meadow Farm. We are also now running the new Taste of NY store at the new rest stop on the Long Island Expressway, which features and promotes products produced in New York.
Typically, each county Extension program reflects and supports the needs of that county and community. Through Cornell and other land-grant partner universities, CCE connects residents to knowledge in pursuit of economic vitality, ecological sustainability, and social well-being, helping New York State families and communities thrive in our rapidly changing world. CCE programs include 4-H Youth Education and Development, Agriculture and Food Systems, Environment and Natural Resources, Sustainable Energy, Climate Change, Community and Economic Vitality, Nutrition, Food Safety and Security, and Obesity Prevention.
How have you been involved with the NYSUFC?
VD: I began attending local ReLeaf committee meetings about three years ago. I really didn’t know a lot about the NYSFUC until I volunteered to be on the board of directors two years ago. I still feel like a newcomer learning the ropes, but I like the state-wide perspective on urban forestry. Attending board meetings, you can’t help but learn a lot from fellow board members; I always find there is something useful to bring back to put to use. I find the annual ReLeaf conferences extremely valuable. I like that they are held in a different part of New York State each year and the mix of urban forestry workshop topics and tours featuring local projects and places of interest. Last year I participated with other Council members in Forestry Awareness Day in Albany as an advocate for urban forestry, reminding and urging legislators to include funding for urban forestry in the state budget.
What are your interests in your free time?
VD: I like to fish, mostly saltwater fishing since I live in Freeport, Long Island. My fishing dream came true in 2002 when I caught a bluefin tuna weighing 825 lbs. It was 35 miles offshore, south of Montauk Point. I enjoy visiting arboretums and botanical gardens. My wife and I like traveling; most recently we have been to Europe and the Middle East. I love to fly and have a private pilot’s license. I have been playing pool (8-Ball and 9-Ball) in an amateur league and in tournaments for 20 years.
My favorite quote about trees –
“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what makes the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” —Wangari Maathai