Behind the Curtain of American Horticulture

American Public Gardens Association Conference // Corporate Horticulture // Community involvement & programming // Design // Plants // Networking // Poster session

The week before last I spent 5 days in Miami for the American Public Gardens Association‘s annual conference. The APGA is a body that co-ordinates and represents all of the major visitor gardens in the USA, as well as gardens in Canada, Mexico and other countries: over 585 institutions. Apart from organising a conference, it co-ordinates initiatives in conservation, sustainability, professional development , industry best practice, collection management- and acts as a representative and defender of horticulture as a profession. To be honest, I think it’s a very impressive organisation and I don’t understand why we don’t have one in the UK! Someone set one up, please? And then we can co-ordinate between the RHS, NTS, NT, EH, HS, Cadw, the BGs, all the designers, independent gardens, parks, zoos, community projects, charities etc etc etc until we RULE THE WORLD. Or at least the UK. So can someone get on that now please? UK-PGA? Yes? OK thanks.

Well, whilst we’re waiting for that, I’ll share a few lessons that I learnt from the sessions and workshops I attended, the loads of interesting people I met and the gardens we visited… For those that are NOT interested in a conference report, skip this post- I’ve written a separate post about the Everglades and cool plants, which is here 🙂


So to begin, I’m going to have to admit something. So far- and I say so far because I haven’t seen enough to form a reliable opinion yet- it seems to me that the standard of horticultural skill in the US and the beauty and interest level of the gardens is significantly lower than that we have in the UK. I have only visited two gardens which made me go WOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW (that’s Chanticleer, which may now be one of my favourite gardens in the world & Vizcaya); everywhere else I have been to has made me go “hmm, yeah, this is nice.” However! There are many more gardens to visit, so I shall reserve my final judgement until after I’ve been to California. What I can say now for certain is that the US is better at organising horticulture than we are. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the horticulture industry here has far superior skills in co-ordination & networking, marketing, fundraising, education, project management, leadership training, big events and so on- all to slick & shiny corporate standards. Whether you’re naturally interested in this stuff or not (and even if it makes you be a little bit sick in your mouth, like me)- I think it is pretty important because if we can’t represent ourselves well, we can’t do the things we want to do.

So, I attended a few sessions about these corporate thingies, like “building a charismatic brand”, strategic planning, fundraising & leadership development and it was very interesting, although I’m still not sure that I know the difference between a ‘vision’ a ‘master plan’ and a ‘strategic plan.’ [It’s OK- you don’t have to tell me :)] I learnt a lot about how to communicate what your garden is and the the important things you do- and how if you do your external communications well, you can use that process to fix/improve your internal communications. It was interesting to see that a high priority is placed on thinking about what you’re doing as an organisation, how you’re doing it and whether you have the right people to do it- rather than what the garden actually looks like- although I’m sure that perspective is automatically skewed on the basis of the kinds of people who were presenting at the conference (directors, bosses- not gardeners). Either way, I am a person that likes things to be done Properly so this discussion of how to be efficient and have good systems and actually put them into place is pleasing to me.

You won’t be surprised to hear that there is a LOT of money floating around here, and many wealthy donors to support big projects. As far as I’m aware, not many gardens in the UK have a multi-person marketing department, fundraising executives, big education departments etc but that seems to be reasonably common here. One talk I went to included three gardens of small (big), medium (very big) and large (bloody enormous) operating budgets: $5million, $13million and $18 million. SERIOUSLY????????!!!! Imagine what we could do at Bodnant with “medium” sized budget, eh? Unfortunately, this money seems to come at the what I would consider to be an unreasonable sacrifice: “development” and “naming opportunities.” Ugh. I attended a talk about how to integrate “development” into the design process. I thought that this meant developing your garden, you know- to do more stuff and make it better. Nope. Development means fundraising, specifically finding and “securing” wealthy individuals to donate HUGE amounts of money to pay for large landscape design projects. However, it seems that in the US, philanthropic individuals want something in return for their kindness… to be treated like royalty, to be involved in the entire project creation process and mostly, their name written in big letters on the thing they’d paid for. So these fundraising professionals have come up with the practical plan of integrating all the (onerous) things they need to do to secure funding early into the design process to make it slightly less painful later on- and to make their fundraising more successful. For example, one garden talked about how they’d planned the design of the garden according to certain financial levels of “naming opportunities”, so that the garden was designed into distinct packages with appropriate features that could be marketed to donors of varying levels of wealth. They even included the paving slabs/signs/whatever into the design of the relevant sections, so they’d be right there ready to be engraved when the cheque was signed. I asked the designer who was in the presentation whether his work had every been compromised by the demands of the donor who was paying for it and he said no… But then a different landscape architect came up to me later and said it does happen, that donors demand changes to ‘their’ garden, and get it- even when it looks terrible or damages the design. So maybe it is better to be struggling for money all the time?

I did also attend some sessions on actual garden & plant related things, including some really interesting talks about conservation. I heard the Director of Stellenbosch BG talk about their work with Bush Doctors in South Africa, to help preserve the native plants that they collect for their herbal medicine and support the development of techniques to make collection more sustainable. I also heard an interesting talk about the intersection of endangered biological habitats with endangered languages and cultures. Did you know that 50% of global languages are endangered? And if you map where they are spoken, it lines neatly up with the most endangered ecosystems. So linguists and anthropologists: join the fight for global habitat conservation!! Related to this, I heard a talks that dealt with using plants/gardens to support socially disadvantaged ethnic groups. RBG Victoria (in Australia) have done an brilliant project providing a space for Aboriginal elders to teach  children about the traditional cultural uses of native plants; Jerusalem BG have a whole range of amazing projects supporting and collaborating with social organisations inc. mental health, disadvantged youth and the elderly. In a little less altruistic way, I heard from a range of gardens that were working with local ethnic groups and communities in relevant countries to improve their programming & make it more authentic/appealing to visitors, for example working with Native American groups when hosting an exhibition of Native American art. Although we don’t have displaced ethnic groups in the UK in the same way as the USA & Australia, there were a lot of great lessons in how to connect with social groups that wouldn’t normally visit a garden and how to collaborate with other organisations in a smart and effective way.

I also went to a whole load of other talks: about design, ecology, algae, GM- all sorts. Too much to write all about! Suffice to say, I made the most of the opportunity and went to as much as I could. And of course, I did my poster presentation about Japan, which was a fun experience, since I’d done all the work in advance and all I had to do was stand next my poster, drink a glass of wine and chat to people for a few hours. That’s my kind of networking, when you just stand there and people come to you! Although I am now much better at the ordinary kind, after five days of meeting a new person every five minutes. Just got to do something with all those business cards now…

The conference also included a few garden visits, an amazing party at Vizcaya gardens and some great dinners. We even managed to scoot down to South Beach for one evening, to swim in the sea and drink cocktails! I tell you, it’s a hard life, being an adventuring gardener. Thanks APGA, for a fascinating week.





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