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How Our Public Gardens Can Grow
From The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 21, 2011
by By George Ball, Chairman and CEO, W. Atlee Burpee & Co - 6/28/2011
The Delaware Valley can rightfully proclaim itself the capital of American public gardens. The fortunate residents of the region can, by traveling a short distance, find themselves in other worlds. They might visit Longwood's stately formal gardens; tour the fanciful themed gardens of Chanticleer; explore arboretums of the first rank, like the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College; wander Bartram's Garden, where American botany first bloomed; or muse in the serenity of Shofuso, the Japanese house and garden in Fairmount Park.
Today (June 21,2011) marks the beginning of the Philadelphia-based American Public Gardens Association's annual conference of 500 member organizations from across the country, including a dazzling range of public gardens, arboretums, historical landscapes, zoos, and farm gardens. As they convene, the stewardship of public gardens is coming to a fork in the garden path.
Declining attendance and shrinking support from cash-strapped states and municipalities have garden administrators looking for new ways to entice the public and boost paid admissions. There is a temptation to make gardens friendlier and more accessible to the general public by introducing new features and events, also known as "outreach." One can almost imagine the gardens' green tendrils reaching out longingly in the hope of enticing more visitors.
Over the past few years, various public gardens have increased educational offerings for children and adults, added concerts and cafés, showcased art exhibitions, expanded gift shops, made themselves available for weddings and private parties, and built bicycle paths. (Look both ways before you inspect that rare hydrangea!) And, in a quest for topicality, they have introduced programs on global warming, endangered plant species, water conservation, and ecology.
While one may admire garden administrators' doughty entrepreneurial spirit, I think there is a better way to go about things. Making these places more like the rest of the world is not the primrose path to success and solvency. Instead of moving the gardens toward the public, I think it better to move the public toward the gardens.
The greatest opportunity for preserving gardens, attracting more visitors, and boosting their financial support is to convey the singular experience they offer. What some might see as gardens' drawbacks - their quiet uneventfulness and lack of newsworthiness - I believe to be the very qualities that will ensure their success.
This article was originally featured in and reproduced in part from The Philadelphia Inquirer story on June 21,2011.