Melinda Knuth
PHOTO COURTESY OF MELINDA KNUTH

Melinda Knuth spent two whole summers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, but the extended stays were all about her career, not vacations.

Knuth twice accepted horticulture internships in Florida, first working with a hydroponic system at Epcot before and later returning after graduation to a more managerial position in edible landscaping at Golden Oaks Resort. She went from helping grow plants for the Living with the Land boat ride to preparing growing the vegetables chefs would use in their recipes.

Sound like different experiences? That’s because they are, and intentionally so. Knuth has always valued versatility, especially as she narrows down precisely what she’ll do when she’s working full-time in the industry. An interest in owning her own floral shop uprooted Knuth from South Dakota and placed her at the University of Nebraska, where she could study horticulture with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. After the Disney internships and her undergraduate experience, she landed at Texas A&M, where she’s now in the third year of obtaining her doctoral degree.

“It’s a really long, winding trail to how I got to where I am,” Knuth says. “I tried to do internships to try and find, ‘What’s my niche? Where can I really fit in to this industry and find a job?’ That’s how I ended up at Disney and that’s how I ended up here at A&M.”

Knuth didn’t just end up at Disney because they were the first ones to offer her an internship after months of applications. She actively sought an opportunity there and intended to stand out among her peers vying for the same spots. When she first visited Disney with Nebraska’s horticulture student organization, she let the hiring manager know to expect her resume in their stack. A week later, she followed up with an e-mail thanking him for his time, and when their internships were officially posted, she filed her application accordingly.

The manager remembered how straightforward Knuth was and offered her a position in a greenhouse.

“If you can make a unique connection, as in not just introducing yourself but also having a conversation with them that you can hop back on later … anything that can make you unique from other people who are also interviewing them, that’s extremely beneficial,” Knuth says.

Now she’s studying marketing and economics in the horticulture industry with Texas A&M’s Charlie Hall and Bridget Behe at Michigan State University. Basically, they’re observing how consumers perceive a company’s messaging, whether it be on advertisements, packaging, catalogues, or the way they generally present their products.

She tracks eye movement patterns at the university’s Human Behavior Lab, which just opened in July. Knuth says this type of research is implicit and can’t be measured by surveys or polls. She’s found that in this industry, most people prefer to buy products when a lot of information is provided on the signage.

“In a lot of marketing and a lot of packaging, simplicity is king,” Knuth says. “We see that with Apple and we see that with most companies, but that’s not necessarily true for our industry. I don’t know if it’s an anomaly or because it’s a live product, people need that additional information to feel secure to buy it.”

Her ever-changing career path has always fixated on her passion for horticulture, and that much Knuth knows will remain the same. What she’s still figuring out is what she’ll do after completing her dissertation — will she work for a larger industry corporation studying data analytics, or will she find a role in academia?

It’s still unclear what job she’ll stick with, but Knuth’s confident enough in her different experiences that she can’t wait to continue the process of figuring it out.

“As an 18-year-old making plans for the next 50 years, I thought that I had it figured out,” Knuth says. “Now that I’m a little bit older, maybe (owning a floral shop) wasn’t the ultimate plan. Who knows? Maybe in 20 years, I’ll have everything together and have an idea and eventually start my own business in the future.”

The author is assistant editor of sister publication Lawn & Landscape magazine.