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Foreign horticulturist's career bursts into bloom in Q-C
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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Julia Blazevic in the garden outside the Scott County Extension Office in Bettendorf on Oct. 11, 2012.
BETTENDORF -- Before moving to rural Scott County with her husband, Ogy, in 1989, Julia Blazevic was used to the hustle and bustle of an urban environment. She lived in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia), where she worked as a horticulturist.

The profession was practiced a little differently there than it is in the United States. Mrs. Blazevic went to work in high heels, with manicured nails, wearing a white coat. Field technicians brought her and her colleagues photos and measurements of the outdoor spaces they were designing. "My job was to create a design on paper, present it to the investor, and then turn it over to the installation crew," said Mrs. Blazevic.

So it came as something of a surprise when she showed up in heels for her first day on the job at the Quad-Cities' Twin Farms Landscaping. Mrs. Blazevic laughed as she recalled that day. Her boss looked at her, "and the first thing he asked was, 'Where are your boots?'"

It was just one of many unexpected twists in a journey that one day would lead Mrs. Blazevic to her current position, director of The Garden Growers, a community gardening outreach program of the Iowa State University Scott County Extension office in Bettendorf.

Undeterred by her new work requirements at Twin Farms, Mrs. Blazevic changed her shoes, rolled up her sleeves and got to work -- and though she previously had been working on large projects such as cemeteries and housing projects in her homeland, she soon discovered she enjoyed the challenges of the smaller projects that constituted her work in the Quad-Cities.

"Larger spaces are easier because it is a blank canvass. You draw in broader strokes. But when you are working with less than five acres, you get to go into the details more, show creativity more," she explained.

Before long, Mrs. Blazevic opened her own landscaping company, Landesign, and discovered a new set of skills to go with her horticultural talents.

"Here, you have to be a salesperson. In Serbia, you do the work only if it is commissioned. I found out I could be a salesperson. That surprised me!" she said.

Although she and her husband originally had planned to return to Belgrade after about four years, the brutal civil war that broke out in the former Yugoslavia forced them to reconsider. Before long, refugees from their homeland began arriving in the Quad-Cities. Mrs. Blazevic was asked by a resettlement agency to meet the refugees at the airport so, after the long ordeal of getting to the U.S., they could be greeted in their native language.

That task proved to be life-changing. After working for 20 years in the landscaping profession, both in the U.S. and in Belgrade, Mrs. Blazevic found she was ready to make a change. She transitioned from volunteering for World Relief in Moline in its refugee resettlement programs to accepting a position as social-service manager and community-development specialist within the organization.

The new line of work was not without its challenges, but Mrs. Blazevic found it to be rewarding. And then, six years later, a position opened up with The Garden Growers that Mrs. Blazevic knew would use all of her skills. "It needed my knowledge of horticulture but also required people skills -- community building and motivating people," she said.

During her tenure with The Garden Growers, the organization has developed public land into gardens and pocket parks and has evolved to become a resource for groups and individuals wanting to start their own community or personal gardens.

Along the way, Mrs. Blazevic said, she has learned some important lessons about building sustainable gardening programs. "If a neighborhood does not feel ownership of a garden, it will never succeed," she said, which is one reason she emphasizes to those interested in starting a community garden the importance of surveying a neighborhood and talking with its residents before digging in.

The Garden Growers continues to manage four community gardens (plots rent for $10 per year to keep gardening affordable for people of all income levels). Every summer, the group hosts the Great Garden Showoff, a free garden walk showcasing privately owned and maintained gardens. The Garden Growers also offers workshops on starting a community garden and maintains a demonstration garden that showcases effective community garden design.

"It's not that I know everything, but I know some things, and I try to share what I've learned," Mrs. Blazevic explained.

In recent years, Mrs. Blazevic has become involved with the Quad City Food Hub initiative, serving on the steering committee since its inception. One of the main goals of the food hub is to educate the public on the benefits of healthy, locally grown food -- and one way to get that food is to grow it in local community gardens.

It's just one more twist in the path that has led Mrs. Blazevic from Belgrade to a life in the Quad-Cities -- a journey no one could have predicted but one that has developed as naturally as a flower blooming where it is planted.

Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia)
-- Location:Southeastern Europe, between Macedonia and Hungary.

-- Population:7,276,604 (July 2012 estimate). No. 98 in the world.

-- Languages:Serbian (official), 88.3 percent; Hungarian, 3.8 percent; Bosniak, 1.8 percent; Romany (Gypsy), 1.1 percent; other, 4.1 percent; unknown, 0.9 percent (2002 census).Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak, Ukrainian and Croatian all official in Vojvodina.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

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