Karen Tavakoli’s family moved to Illinois when she was nine years old, which allowed the family to realize their dream of having a horse farm. Their farm was surrounded by thousands of acres of land that was farmed by local farmers for hay or crop production. The barter system was actively utilized, and as her family became part of the community, she and her sister also became part of the farming workforce. . “I was hooked from the start,” said Karen. In exchange for helping in the hayfields, a local farmer would have his son help them unload the square bales for their horses and stack them in their farm’s hayloft. She learned to drive and operate the hay baler the very next year. In her teens, she learned to plow fields, run the combine, and move semi-trucks around the fields for easier staging. “Although I loved farming and growing things,” she explained, “the challenges and hardships I observed made me choose a different career path when the time came.” Her own family faced hardship during the 2008 recession which led them to move to Virginia.
When she graduated from high school, Karen knew she wanted to make a difference so she enrolled in college part-time and became a firefighter/EMT with plans to continue her education, with the goal of eventually becoming a nurse. After about five years working as an EMT in the emergency room at the Level 1 Trauma Center in Fairfax and continuing to take college classes, “I realized I was miserable and wanted to go back to what truly made me happy - growing plants and being out in nature.” She gave notice at the hospital, didn’t sign up for any more college classes and began to study and read all she could about landscaping with nature and native plants. She also started to help friends and neighbors with small landscaping projects around their homes. This led to applying for a position at Fauquier Spring Country Club as a horticulturist.
Karen noted that most of the plant beds on the country club grounds were filled with annuals that were pulled up and discarded at the end of the season. She started to work with a local wholesale company – Owl Run Nursery – to introduce perennials and shrubs around the golf course. During one of her visits to Owl Run Nursery, she mentioned to the owner that she was currently studying for the chemical applicator’s license. He wanted to hire her to do some spraying at the nursery but Karen was too busy at the time to take on another task. As the growing season came to an end, so did her position at Fauquier Springs Country Club and she was laid off. During her layoff, the owner of Owl Run Nursery contacted her to see if she was available to come out for a consult “and the rest is history” Karen said with a smile.
When and how did you become interested in nature and the natural world?
“I can’t recall a moment when I wasn’t interested in nature,” Karen shared, “but I know it started with my parents who are also nature lovers who care about the environment.” Karen recounted how she recently moved and, in the process of unpacking, she found her second grade yearbook. “We had to write something about each month,” she said. “For the month of April, I wrote about how much I loved Earth Day and that ‘every day should be Earth Day!’”
Describe what you do on your property to support a healthy ecosystem.
Karen has been removing lawn and invasive plants, with the goal of having only 20% being lawn and the remaining 80% planted with a diverse assortment of native shrubs and perennials. While a small number are not native, “I can’t let go of my grandma’s daffodils or peonies”, she explained; “but they are not invasive.”
Due to a very abundant mosquito population on rainy days, Karen was motivated to put up bat houses – both to encourage their presence as well as a natural defense system against the mosquitoes. “When I put up the bat houses around my home, several neighbors expressed concern.” The neighbors asked if she wasn’t worried about rabies from the bats. Karen shared the fact that one bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects per hour (whereas the odds of a human getting bitten by a bat is estimated at 1 in one million and getting rabies from a bat bite was about one in 200). “It was a pretty teachable moment,” she said with a big smile.
What is the most amazing thing you have experienced in nature?
Karen noted that she spends a lot of time in nature and as a result, has had many amazing experiences. She offered the back story to her choice of her most amazing experience:
Karen started working at Owl Run Nursery almost five years ago when there were many techniques that are no longer practiced. Due to the poor soil on the nursery property, which was primarily due to construction soil that had been used to level the ground, her boss began to grow trees above ground in bags (a very progressive practice at the time). But the nursery still sprayed an herbicide around the base of each bag, leaving the ground mostly bare or covered with invasive plants. In her role as a manager/grower, she quickly did away with this practice, slowly beginning to remove invasive plants and encourage natives to re-establish themselves. Since initiating this promotion of natives, Karen has counted over 80 species of native plants that now grow beneath the nursery trees. ”This year I had three amazing new finds,” she shared. “In the spring two native ferns – Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) – had established themselves under the canopy of the bag-grown trees. In July, she found a Dyemaker’s Puffball (Pisolithus tinctorius) growing in the tree bag with her white oaks. “It was like receiving a message of thanks from nature,” she said. For Karen, it is a confirmation that she is replicating nature in her nursery practices.
What is something you would like to share with ORMN members?
Karen loves opportunities to educate people: neighbors, friends, customers, anyone who will listen to her – as her bat house story demonstrates.
Karen is also exploring wildlife photography, particularly taking pictures of birds. She has photographs from her hikes along the Appalachian Trail as well as from the different habitats on the nursery grounds. She also is a big fan of Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Karen believes that we can all live harmoniously with nature. She feels she is in the exact right place to help nursery practices be improved to be more “green”.
Interviewed by Charlene Uhl, October 2022
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.