Caring for the 2.5-acre, herb-rich grounds on which the American Botanical Council is headquartered is no walk in the park. This is hotter-than-hot Central Texas, after all. In the past, due to budget limitations, the numerous tasks vital to perpetuating ABC’s 30 medicinal herb theme gardens fell to the education coordinator. This year, ABC was fortunate enough to be able to hire a dedicated gardener: Toby Bernal. Toby is responsible for maintaining ABC’s herb gardens, coordinating garden volunteers, and managing ABC’s greenhouse, rainwater collection system, equipment, and tools. But Toby’s contributions to ABC extend beyond his job description: He can always be counted on as a source of laughter and has an ever-ready ear to bend. He shares his artistic talent and Japanese garden landscaping experience with ABC by adorning its grounds with rock sculptures (which remain beautiful without watering—a benefit during a record-setting Texas drought!).
A man of just 45 years, Toby seems to have lived many lifetimes. He was born in Austin, Texas, and spent his childhood in the idyllic Hyde Park neighborhood. After graduating from high school, he went “vagabond” and immediately traveled south to Mexico and through Central America. “As I was doing that,” said Toby, “I started to see how art was a part of their cultures, not just something to look at.”
In 1987, he began to study art in Mexico City; later, he earned his bachelor’s degree in art—with focuses in sculpture and painting—from the University of Texas at Austin.
After graduation, he subtly shifted gears by opening an antiques business and apprenticing with a master finisher for 5 years. The latter opportunity allowed him to participate in the restoration of the Texas State Capitol building.
Toby ran a “small-time” refinishing business on Austin’s East Side for several years, but in 1996, he fell in love, sold everything, moved to Alaska and then on to Hawaii.
The decline of his mother’s health brought Toby back to the mainland. “That’s when I became interested in homeopathic medicines and herbal remedies,” said Toby, though his herbal education truly commenced much earlier, in the gardens of his mother and his aunt, a faith healer.
For nearly 4 years, Toby—a practicing Buddhist—was the garden coordinator at Austin’s Shambhala Meditation Center, where his knowledge of irrigation, indigenous plants, and herbs increased. Toby continues to devote about 10 hours per week to the Center’s garden.
According to Toby, it took just 30 minutes from the time ABC’s former education coordinator posted the gardener job listing to Craigslist for him to arrive at ABC in person to apply for the position. Looking around the gardens, Toby recognizes the potential for improvement. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said, serenely, confident that he has years ahead of him to realize the possibilities. “I’ve found a place that I can call home.”
Toby is contemplating continuing his education during off-hours to obtain a degree in botany. Presently, when his hands aren’t in the soil or balancing stones, Toby enjoys cooking—particularly French cuisine—as well as kyudo (Japanese archery), ikebana (Japanese floral arrangement), many forms of dance, classic movies, swimming, and skateboarding with his 13-year-old daughter.