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Adventures in the Arboretum

Josh Coceano went from Scott Arboretum intern to the College’s full-time horticulturist. When he’s not tending plants, Coceano curates the world’s only photo collection that regularly captures 1980s action figures cavorting in Swarthmore’s sylvan settings. He shared his predilection for play and plants with Bulletin editor Jonathan Riggs.

What sparked your interest in horticulture?

Growing up in rural Virginia, being outside around plants was part of life. I remember being a kid and “helping” my mom, which was really me playing with my dinosaurs in the vegetable garden. My everyday life helped me develop an appreciation for not only the beauty of plants, but also for what they do for us. 


What did you do before Swarthmore?

I taught third grade back home, mostly English as a second language students. I really enjoyed teaching, but being inside a classroom all day drained my spirit. I need to be outside!


What’s so special about plants?

Look at an acorn: It’s tiny but it develops into a giant tree that provides oxygen, food, and shelter. Yes, there’s science to explain it, but there’s magic and mystery tied to it, too. When you think about the sheer diversity of plants—not just here in the temperate region of the Northeast, but all over the world—how can you not look around in awe? 


What inspired your love of action figures?

I have a collector’s mentality, even with plants. Right now, I love salvias so I’m collecting all these different salvias. Before action figures, I collected stamps and coins. But as a kid, I loved this great toy line called Dino-Riders, where this group of humans crash-landed on prehistoric Earth. My mom was really good about encouraging me while also making sure I spent time outside. She limited how many toys I could have. Now that I’m an adult with a full-time job, I can indulge a bit. 


How do you come up with your Instagram vignettes?

I don’t want to just collect all these toys and put them away; I want to actually still play with them. Part of what I do at the Arboretum is taking snapshots, so I keep a supply of action figures with me. Sometimes these scenes just pop into my head. It’s good to be serious in life, but it’s also good to keep a sense of play. One of the things I appreciated about teaching elementary-school kids is that they are spontaneous, fun, and creative. 


Is that your approach to gardening?

Yes. Gardening allows everyone’s self-expression to come out. No two gardens are ever the same, so don’t be intimidated to try your hand at it. Just remember: With any art or craft, everybody starts off as a neophyte. It’s OK to buy a little $5 plant and try. If it dies, you can just compost it—circle of life—and try again. 

How can our community better appreciate plants?

Be conscious that our campus isn’t the norm. I went to a school for horticulture and my college campus wasn’t maintained like this. I thought it was fantastic, too, that President Smith planted a tree for her inauguration—we have a leader who really embraces our mission. We want the Arboretum to be a resource for the Swarthmore community, so please explore, experience, and immerse yourself in it.