UK Alum’s Lifelong Curiosity Blossoms into Unique Career

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While the animals understandably take center stage at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the environment where they live is always on the mind of UK alum Steve Foltz.

As director of horticulture for the zoo, it’s his job to create habitats for hundreds of animals every day. 

“It's so hard to get the right plants to grow in exhibits,” said Foltz.  “Trying to put shade in a giraffe exhibit when they can reach 20-25 feet is very difficult.  We also have to make sure we have the right plants in some of the exhibits but then also use some plants to actually feed them, and we have to make sure there's nothing toxic in the exhibit.”

Part of the Covington native’s job involves research, as he discovers what plants grow best in particular locations within the zoo exhibits.

“What excites me everyday is we get to plant plants, and not only just plant them but test them out, keep records on them and figure out which plants are doing better than other plants and then we provide that information back to the community,” Foltz said.   “That obviously came from my training at the University of Kentucky.”

Foltz was an ornamental horticulture major in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

“The University of Kentucky taught everything from trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, to soils, to the chemistry of turf. It's not just about the plants, it’s about being able to grow plants successfully and all of those courses were tailor-made for my job right now.”

Foltz says his outside-the-classroom experience also helped propel his career through internships. 

“I did two internships at the Cincinnati Zoo and botanical gardens, and that’s when I realized this was more than just a zoo,” Foltz said.   “Then I was hired as assistant director, and I just basically worked my way up.” 

He also earned valuable experience helping to build The Arboretum near UK's campus, what is today a favorite spot for students.

“Just as I was leaving they were building The Arboretum, so I was one of the ones that helped with the first planting.It’s nice to see that grow and see how well it’s doing now,” Foltz said. 

The Northern Kentucky resident enjoys making the short drive to Lexington to visit not only The Arboretum but also to cheer on the Wildcats and reminisce about life on campus.

“It was just really a great place to be ― it felt like home,” said Foltz. “UK offers a wide variety of learning experiences.  It was just so well rounded for me, and I just really enjoyed that type of environment.” 

Foltz says the professors helped to foster an atmosphere of learning. 

“The professors were so welcoming and knowledgeable,” Foltz said.  “They were and still are the best in their field."

Some 25 years later, Foltz is thankful his professors shared that expertise with him as he gears up for another summer season doing the job he loves.

“We have 1.3 million people coming through the door, so to create a landscape that’s enjoyable to that many people is just phenomenal,” Foltz said.  “Seeing the people come in and go, ‘wow it’s so beautiful here,’ I never get tired of hearing that It is really a nice way to make a living.”

Watch more UK Alumni “see success.” stories by clicking on the playlist below.