Graduating Senior Frankie Napoli

For Tyler School of Art and Architecture Horticulture major Frankie Napoli, gardening is a time capsule continually recording his life. There was never a time he didn't have a passion for plants, he said.

"Horticulture has definitely been a lifelong thing for me. I grew up in gardening; it was a huge part of the culture of my neighborhood," he said. "My grandpop had this beautiful, terraced garden that he built himself. I have a lot of really wonderful memories of walking through these huge tomato fields that went way over my head. Gardening is something that has always been important in my life."

It was that passion to make a career out of something he loved that first drew him to Temple University, he said.

"What initially led me to Temple was just the incredible facilities. Temple Ambler is such a unique space with so many fascinating plants and trees," said Napoli, who will graduate with a degree in Horticulture in May. "The Greenhouse is such a fantastic place to learn. Ambler is a fascinating, hands-on environment. Every part of every class that I've taken has been an interesting, engaging, interactive environment that has enriched the learning experience."

Napoli said he "can't overexaggerate how helpful the hands-on learning aspect of Temple, across the entire campus, has been to me."

"I am a senior now and the resumé that I have has made me incredibly competitive in the job market. Between working as a student gardener in the Ambler Arboretum and studying in classes in general, I've learned so much," he said. "I've gotten to have a piece of every pie on campus between research, the Greenhouse and the Arboretum. I'm really leaving with an incredibly well-rounded education and I'm grateful for that."

Being a student gardener in the Arboretum "has been transformative," he said.

"I cannot express how grateful I am to work with such incredible people — I've made some of my best friends ever working as a student gardener. I was looking for ways to engage with the campus outside of classes and I saw that there were student gardener positions open," he said. "This was also right after the tornado in September 2021 — I had only been a Temple Ambler student for two weeks before the tornado. The damage was extreme, and I felt it in my heart. Seeing the campus in that state really affected me and it seeped into every part of our learning because the Arboretum is our classroom."

Being a student gardener, Napoli said, gave him a direct opportunity to help in the rebuilding and restoration of the gardens.

"In 2023 alone, we put in hundreds and hundreds of new woody plants, some beautiful tree species that had never been part of the Arboretum before — our collection is diversifying. To be part of the rebuilding process as a student gardener has been amazing and uplifting," he said. "It's also given me an incredible amount of experience. I've gotten to try so many different things — I learned how to drive a tractor! I've used watering pumps, I've used augers. I don't think these are experiences I would have had anywhere else."

While completing his degree at Temple Ambler, Napoli was also able to fulfill a lifelong dream not once, but twice as an integral part of the teams that creatied Temple's 2022 Philadelphia Flower Show exhibit, Queer Roots of Nature: A Natural History of LGBTQ Botany, and the multiple award-winning 2024 exhibit, Piers, Progress and Processes: Charting a Course for a More Bountiful Future.

"To be a part of a Flower Show exhibit, means a lot to me because it was truly my initial exposure to horticulture as a career. Since I was 10, I've been going with my sister every year — the Flower Show actually always happens around my birthday so it's my birthday present from my sister," he said. "We head over on the train; we have a little breakfast and then we just walk around the Flower Show for hours and hours. The show is the symbolic start to spring and from my experience everyone just leaves the show so hopeful coming out of the cold drab winter months — there's a real magic to it."

Napoli went hands-on, and hip deep to bring the skunk cabbage that adorned areas of the 2024 exhibit out of a swampy area of the Ambler Arboretum. 

"That was exciting — wetland ecosystems are some of my absolute favorites. I collected certain wetland species, which was a great experience," he said. "Azolla caroliniana (commonly known as Fairy Moss, Eastern Mosquito Fren and Water Velvet) and skunk cabbage are two of the, in my opinion, all-time top natives. It was really interesting to engage with those plants in their environment before bringing them in to add them to our display."

Napoli said working with the plants for this year's Flower Show exhibit was "a really nice way to end my time at Temple Ambler."

"It was a beautiful, full-circle moment. The Flower Show is what brought me into professional horticulture," he said. "Having my educational horticultural career come to a close with the Flower Show felt like a really nice way to cap it off."

Napoli also capped off his senior year by receiving three well-served awards at the Ambler Campus Student Engagement Banquet. He was awarded Outstanding Student Leader of the Year; the Growing Wonder Award, presented by the Ambler Arboretum to an Arboretum Student Gardener "who exhibits curiosity about the art and science of horticulture and the natural world around them and takes the initiative to learn more on their own and share the information they have found with the Arboretum community;" and a Golden Owl Award, presented to a graduating senior who has "displayed outstanding leadership and dedication to the Temple Ambler campus community through their participation in on-campus activities, organizations and community throughout their educational career."

Degree almost in hand, Napoli's connection to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is only just beginning.

After I graduate, I have a full-time job lined up with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. I work in the Green Resource Center at Norristown Farm Park, which is a two-acre farm on the outskirts of the Norristown Farm Park where we grow fruits and vegetables for different food pantries and shelters in the Montgomery County area," he said. "I interned there in 2022 and after my internship ended, I began working there part-time. Now that I'm graduating, I'm very excited to move to full-time work."

Napoli's advice to students just beginning the leg of their educational journey he is about to complete is simple — find a way to get involved.

"For me it was becoming a student gardener but there are so many wonderful opportunities on campus. You could work in the greenhouse. There's Help Desk opportunities in the computer lab and library. You could be an Owl Ambassador," he said. "Find something that connects you to campus. You'll meet everyone and suddenly it's not just a school, it's a place to spend time with your friends — it's another home."