719.632.8491 | Open M-F 9-6/Sat 8-5/Sun 10-5

An Interview With Allisa Linfield

While I spoke to Allisa Linfield in November, you cannot sense the time of year as we begin our video chat. Her office space is filled with warm Colorado sunshine and she has plants filling the space. There is a happy jade plant to her right, and pictures of native plants pinned to the back of her cubicle. Allisa greets me with a warm smile, and I immediately feel welcomed by her. 

Allisa’s journey as a plantswoman began in the backyard, gardening edibles. She started noticing that when she observed plants, she learned even more about the world around her. This included small variations in weather patterns from year to year. As she continued to garden, she met other plantspeople. With these new connections, she realized that “We all could have this shared experience where we remembered periods of time based on what happened to the plants and how the weather affected them, or if there was a particular insect that was of interest that year.” She eventually began the Master Gardener program, and after completing her volunteering component, Linfield realized this was what she wanted to do as a career. She eventually joined the staff at the CSU Extension Office for El Paso County. Her current role is the Horticulture Program Coordinator. Her primary responsibility lies with coordinating volunteers, especially those who work within the Master Gardener program. Her enthusiasm is evident, even when describing the Extension office’s role. “Through Extension, we are the outreach arm of the university (CSU), so we get to take research-based information to the people, and have conversations… I love coordinating our Master Gardener program.” She is quick to share gratitude for the ones who are around her, doing similar work, and those who have mentored her in this field. “I am really lucky to have a colleague and mentor, Irene Shonle, who also shares a love for native plants.” Irene works in the Extension office with Allisa. “She (Irene) has brought back the Colorado Native Plants Master Program in our county.” Irene and Allisa are a couple of the trainers at the extension office who are increasing the native plant courses that are offered in El Paso County. “These courses provide an opportunity for the community to learn field botany and plant identification. We talk about how to use botanical keys, and we talk about the impact of invasive plants and noxious weeds. And then we also talk about human uses and landscape uses of plants.”  

Allisa’s relationship with native plants began similarly to many, with little to no knowledge about native plants. “Like many people, I did not fully understand what a native plant was. Many people have an idea about what native plants are; that they are good for pollinators and that they may not require very much water. Frequently people will tell me that they love native plants and that their favorite flower is coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. It is a North American native plant but it is not native to Colorado. Or they’ll say that Russian sage is their favorite native. I always just smile. Everyone starts from this place, where there is this plant in the landscape and it is surviving somehow when everything else seems to not be doing well. And there are bees around it. What they are telling me, is they are noticing these things for the first time. They want to learn more and do more. Then they notice, ‘Oh yeah, Russian is in the name, Russian sage. Oh, that’s not native. These bees buzzing around this plant are European honeybees.’ But it’s a gateway. It gets them interested. And I think that similarly, I started out growing my food plants and I started noticing things like bees, and interaction with other insects. Then I started looking into plant identification. I do a lot of trail running through the mountains, and so I get to see these really cool alpine plants that aren’t around in the foothills and the plains.” When she first began to identify plants in the field, Linfield encountered frustrations. Gaps exist in guidebooks, either description-wise or image-wise. She was lucky enough to cross paths with Irene at the Extension office within her Master Gardener program at this time. Serendipitously, Irene was beginning to restart the Native Plant Master Gardener program again in El Paso County. Allisa jumped at the opportunity and completed three native plant courses. This led her to become a trainer in the program and instruct others in the program the following year. From there, her world has been “all about the native plants.” Allisa grows many from seeds, and she even has a fridge dedicated to stratifying these seeds! Her trail runs are now called “speed botanizing” because she spends just as much time running as she does documenting any of the native plant species she sees along her runs, through pictures and the popular citizen science app, iNaturalist.

Her current native plant crush is hard for her to initially pick out. Allisa sits back in her chair with a happy and contemplative smile. “Ok. So, it’s really hard to pick. I was just thinking about this the other day…. I was organizing all of my seeds by plant family, and realizing that I have certain plant families that are my favorite and other plant families that are not…One plant family that I am very intrigued by right now is Polemoniaceae. And common plants in that family that people might know are Ipomopsis– a genus that they might knowOr Gilia. People may have heard of Fairy Trumpet or Skyrocket Gilia (there are a lot of common names for it). But that is one in the horticultural industry that they see, Ipomopsis aggregata. I would not say this plant is my crush but the family Polemoniaceae is. In addition to Ipomopsis, it has Polemonium, which is Jacob’s Ladder, and there are a lot of alpine Jacob’s Ladders, like Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum), is a common name for one that I love. I guess you could say Sky Pilot is my native plant crush! It has these really cool…feathery leaves and these beautiful blue flowers. It grows in the harshest areas… It is so cool. You will be going through alpine tundra where nothing will grow and you’ll see this pretty luscious plant growing out of nothing.” She shakes her head in wonder at this statement. Linfield creates space for awe in a niche field that has been underappreciated and unpopular in the past. 

 It was shortly after completing her Master Gardener certification that she decided to embark on a master’s degree in horticulture. When Linfield began to decide on her research focus for her graduate program, she felt the draw to native plants. “But within horticulture, it is such a small niche, within the green industry that there are not a lot of people researching native plants. Therefore it is hard to find mentors, or faculty who can support research in that area.” She was able to connect with Dr. Jennifer Bousselot, who had the perfect research project in mind. Her master’s thesis and research are exciting, especially for nursery production. Her research focused on the nursery container production of native plants, by “using different substrate amendments in containers, to see if there was any impact on plant growth response.” Finishing protocols for growers is an outcome of her research that will help growers be more educated about native plant production. One of Linfield’s main objectives is to bring “recommendations to growers, so plants look the best that they can, so they can compete at retail.” This is noteworthy research. In the industry, there is a continual conversation about the visual performance of native plants compared to non-native ornamental plants. 

The learning points of this extensive research indicate that native plants do not have significant growth results due to different substrate amendments when the main growing medium is a peat moss mixture. While not seemingly earth-shattering, this is groundbreaking and is guiding her future research. This conclusion opens a frontier of the vast capabilities of native plants’ resiliency and implicates more sustainable growing substrates for future research. This new research may allow Allisa “to be able to tell growers this (peat moss soil mixtures) is not going to have a significant impact on growth of the plant, and then you can market your native plants accordingly, and show people that you are producing these by using more sustainable practices…The people who are buying these plants are often doing this because they want to reduce their water usage and create habitat and forage for native wildlife.” Since native plants and kinder landscaping practices are a trend in gardening, this research may encourage growers to change to a different production medium for their plants.

Allisa Linfield appreciates the label, plantswoman. Her face lights up, and she smiles as she explains, “Partly because I think we so frequently hear ‘plantsmen,” and I think that women sometimes have a bit of imposter syndrome when using the term plantswoman to describe themselves. We should own it!” When she announced that she was graduating from her master’s program, in December 2023, and that she would be carrying on for a PhD (also in horticulture), we both celebrated. “One more plantswoman in academia, right?” The world of plants can be very isolating as a woman, and we discussed further the importance of women who had come before her. She seconds her appreciation for Irene, who continues to mentor her with their common roles at the Extension office. “Many think of her as a state-wide specialist in native plants.” They collaborate a lot together, and Linfield jokes that they are one full-time person combined, as they both fill part-time roles at the Extension office. “Someone else who has been doing the work in our community is Catherine Moravec. She works for Colorado Springs Utilities and has been the force that made the demonstration garden on Mesa happen and continues to be such a resource for the community.”

Within the Master Gardener program, there is a required volunteering component. This past year, Linfield recorded the highest number of applicants for this portion. This is exciting and speaks to how necessary the Extension’s programs are for our community. “We would like to be able to take everyone, but we are not always able to, because we only bring on so many apprentices each year.” She recognizes that the community probably does not see the substantial work that her volunteers and apprentices commit to. Many components of the Extension office are completely operated by volunteers. The Extension office’s help desk is staffed by these unpaid volunteers. They answer your questions on the phone, over email, or even in person. They are very informative; identifying insects, and plants, supplying gardening advice, etc. One of Allisa’s future benchmarks is to make the help desk more accessible to the community. “Not everyone can come in during business hours, and sometimes people want to have a real conversation, not send an email and wait a couple days for a response.” Coming in the future is a virtual help desk with designated “open office” hours that will fall outside of their normal business hours. You may have seen another venue for master gardeners’ volunteer hours; Rick’s and other garden centers around the city have welcomed these volunteers during the height of the gardening season to answer community members’ questions and concerns. Another main thing that these volunteers do is help facilitate and teach classes taught through the extension office. Some of these classes are taught online or at the extension office, but the vast majority are special requests by gardening groups, clubs, schools, or other interested parties. There are a myriad of other ways volunteers can get involved, and the breadth of support that the extension offers to the community, with these energized volunteers, is breathtaking.

As for the future of gardening in the El Paso County area, Allisa has enthusiastic aspirations! The Master Gardener program is growing by 30% this year. People who are applying are not just retired people, which has been the case historically. Linfield encourages people to look into and apply for the program, even if they work full-time since more volunteer opportunities are increasingly flexible. The learning portion can be completely online for the benefit of those who are busy. One possible reason why this growth is occurring is many young people want to give back to this community. Allisa has a vision for the Master Gardener program in the future. “I would love the Master Gardener program to be a reflection of our community. That means we have lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts. That we have people of all ages, that we have people of different races and ethnicities, genders, and different sexual orientations. I want to make sure that our volunteer group reflects our community so that we can serve the community to the best of our ability.” About the future of gardening in El Paso County, Linfield beams, “I love El Paso County; where we have so many different kinds of people who come to plants for different reasons, and with different motivations. I think we can be leaders in increasing gardening education, for youth, and having greater collaboration with all the little groups in our community.” She mentions there are new conversations, collaborations, and synergies between distinct groups of local farmers. This is an excellent start. “I think if we are all just open to collaboration, and that we are welcoming– that we can help serve the community better. And that gardening is the thing we have in common with each other” 

Allisa wraps up our interview with the importance of natives, and why planting natives is an important form of habitat conservation and climate activism. “We have the exciting opportunity to use our own yards and landscapes as corridors for pollinators and other native fauna. We have these open spaces in Colorado Springs. West Colorado Spring is really lucky to have lots of parks and open spaces, but these spaces can become islands. We have lots of urban areas that might separate the islands, so we can plant natives so that we can make a corridor for pollinators and other wildlife to have both habitat and food and forage.” She goes on to explain the second main reason natives are so important. “Another reason is just out of necessity because water is becoming scarcer and scarcer. Our climate is hard to grow in, even when we have plenty of irrigation.” Linfield approaches her work with natives with an incredible amount of hope, a contagious hope! “That’s the really beautiful thing about native plants! You as an individual can make an impact. Sometimes in this world, things happen and we are like ‘Well, what can I do about it?’ And this is one thing you can do!”


CSU Extension office for El Paso County: Native plants (this is an extensive resource- please check it out!): https://elpaso.extension.colostate.edu/native-plants-for-el-paso-county/

Master Gardener Program:https://cmg.extension.colostate.edu/

Native Plant Master Program: https://conativeplantmaster.colostate.edu/

Sign-up pages for Extension events: epcextension.eventbrite.com

Colorado Springs Utilities Demonstration Garden: https://www.csu.org/Pages/DemonstrationGarden.aspx

Plant Select: https://plantselect.org/

Resources through Dr. Doug Tallamy (a leader in the research being done on insects, birds and the nutrition/ habitat gained from native plants)

Book: Nature’s Best Hope (the Pikes Peak Library carries this in audio and book form)

Homegrown National Park: https://homegrownnationalpark.org/