Photos by Beth Hester
Since 1993, Yolima Carr has been a stalwart fixture on the local horticultural scene. From her first job pulling weeds as a gardener at the Norfolk Botanical Garden to her current position as the Elizabeth River Project’s (ERP) Conservation Landscape Curator at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Carr’s passion for conservation landscaping has been the driving force in her professional life.
Carr is a native of Columbia, South America, where her family owned large orchards that produced luscious varieties of pears and native pineapple guava. She would follow her father as he made his daily rounds, and she’d tag along with him as he visited some of the region’s large haciendas as a gardening and landscape consultant. “My father knew about everything, from grafting techniques to methods for creating the best mulch,” she relates. “Of all my brothers and sisters, I was the one who would follow my father’s path and make horticulture and education my life’s work.”
After graduating with a B.A. in horticulture from a technical university in Bogota, she indulged her love of travel with extended tours of Spain and England, enjoying the four-season gardens. “In Europe, I was learning about all kinds of new ecosystems that were totally different from the tropical gardens and banana leaves I grew up with,” she remembers. “I loved the fresh flowers and produce in Spain, and the cottage gardens in England were almost magical. I had an epiphany—it was then I knew that I would have to learn more about how to work with these different kinds of landscapes, and that it would mean starting from scratch.”
But obtaining a visa to live and work in another country was problematic at that time, and Carr kept getting turned down. On one of her trips to Spain, Carr met, and fell in love with an American sailor. They married, and eventually moved to Coastal Virginia. When they visited the Norfolk Botanical Garden, it was love at first sight.
“I just had to get a job there,” she explains. “Imagine me, with my broken English, new to the area, with little knowledge of the region’s native plants. I was nervous, but undeterred.” She applied for a general gardening position and got it. It was tough, physical work, but Carr used her position to learn more about the region’s native plants. Three months into the job, her husband was deployed, and she discovered she was pregnant. “It broke my heart to have to leave that work,” she says. “But here I am with a toddler, I’m pregnant, and my husband is going away. There was no other choice.”
Yet, over the next few years, she obtained her Norfolk Master Gardener Certificate and completed 12 semester hours in the horticultural program at Tidewater Community College.
In 1999, she began volunteering at Norfolk Zoo to see if working there would be a good fit. It was, and until 2005, Carr was involved in almost every aspect of horticultural life at the Zoo: the volunteer program, landscaping, annual and perennial garden design, and the installation and maintenance of the 10-acre African exhibit where roaming elephants made landscaping and grass maintenance challenging.
Toward the end of 2005, it was time for her to move on. “I loved my job at the Zoo, but it was time to accept a new challenge.” She heard of an open position at the Hermitage Gardens and Grounds. “When I interviewed, I was asked about native wetland plants and grasses because they were wanting to create a living shoreline. I answered that I didn’t know anything about those specific grasses, but if I can grow grass in an elephant enclosure, I’m sure I can grow grass at the Hermitage!” Carr worked at the Hermitage as Curator of Gardens and Grounds for the next 13 years, helping to run educational initiatives and manage art installations, all while maintaining 12 acres of heirloom, historic gardens.
In 2019, Carr was approached by the ERP. They needed a Conservation Landscape Curator for their Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth. They wanted someone versatile enough to design and lead youth conservation and outreach programs, manage volunteers and educational facilities, and network with community partners and other stakeholders to spread the good word about the many benefits of urban green space. She accepted her current position in January. “Everyone deserves a place where they can find peace and comfort,” Carr explains. “Paradise Creek Park provides that peaceful experience, and I love sharing it with the community. I feel very lucky that following my passion has brought me to the life I dreamed about living.” Asked if she has a motto, Carr responds, “Yes, always stay close to the things that bring you peace.”