South Georgia residents can now earn a Certificate in Native Plants from UGA’s State Botanical Garden of Georgia without making a four-hour drive to Athens.

Beginning this year, classes in the Certificate in Native Plants, established at UGA in 2007, are available in classrooms and gardens in or near Tifton, which is home to the UGA Tifton campus.

The premise of the program is the same: to educate landscapers, gardeners and citizens about the importance of preserving and protecting Georgia’s native plant species. Because Tifton is located in the Coastal Plain region of Georgia, students in that program will focus on native plants commonly found in flatlands, marshes and swamps, such as fire-dependent longleaf pine woodlands and carnivorous pitcher-plant bogs.

Students learned about the various ecological regions of Georgia and spent time at the Gaskin Forest Education Center exploring the area and identifying the native coastal plain plants, like the longleaf pine.

“As a landscape architect, I want to be able to work within all the systems of an area—the climate, geology, topography, soil—and understand how those conditions work together to support the different plant communities you see,” said Katherine Melcher, an associate professor in the UGA College of Environment and Design, who is helping teach the curriculum in Tifton. “If you’re thinking of this native plant growing here, it’s because of all these factors, like how there was an ocean here thousands of years ago.”

About 500 people have taken courses in the Certificate in Native Plants since it was first offered in 2007. Nearly 10 graduate with certificates each year.

To earn the certificate, students must complete four core classes, six electives, a volunteer service project and two field trips. The schedule is flexible—students can complete the work in a year, or stretch it out over a period of years. They can take classes in either location.

Bonnie McCoy, from Merriweather County, began taking classes in Athens and is now finishing the certificate in Tifton.

“Growing up on a farm, I always wanted to know more about plants,” McCoy said. “Now I’m in a place where I can do more of what I want, and I’m so thankful to have two options to take classes.”

As a result of the certificate program Georgians are becoming more informed and want to help with conservation efforts around the state, said Cora Keber, director of education at the State Botanical Garden.

“More and more people are asking local growers for native plants and choosing to plant native species in their yards and public gardens,” Keber said.   

James Lewis began the Certificate in Native Plant program as soon as it launched in Tifton.

For the past 11 years, Lewis was a professor at the Defense Acquisition University, a federal institution that prepares an adaptive and accomplished workforce for the U.S. military. About a year ago, he decided to pursue his passion for plants and open a nursery, Flat Creek Natives LLC in Perry, Georgia.

“We specialize in native plants, and this program is helping me understand which native plants do better in which parts of Georgia,” Lewis said.

“Native plants are Georgia’s legacy, they’re our history. Intuitively, they are better for the environment and animals.”

Learn more about the Certificate in Native Plants


Writer: Leah Moss, leahmoss@uga.edu, 706-583-0964

Photographer: Shannah Montgomery, smont@uga.edu, 706-542-3638

Contact: Cora Keber, ckeber@uga.edu, 706-542-6158