I served as President of The American Horticultural Society for four years, 1990 to 1993. For the first half of its existence the AHS headquartered in a series of offices in DC, including a second floor walk up over a Chinese restaurant. When I joined in 1989, it occupied River Farm, a spectacular 27-acre estate with a handsome main house, ballroom, several barns and a small garden on the banks of the Potomac River outside Alexandria, Virginia—a far cry from a cramped downtown office. I thought River Farm made more sense as a botanical garden than headquarters for an information and advocacy organization serving the continental US, plus Alaska and Hawaii. However, in 1973 the board of directors accepted philanthropist Enid Haupt’s donation of the property. The following fifteen years weren’t kind to the AHS. It reminded me of other turnarounds in its level of difficulty, complexity, and denial among the players. In other words, it was a bit of a mess. As an outsider facing an organization on the brink of insolvency, I was expected to change things, which I did, unfortunately not enough to relocate the headquarters. But we started a few nationwide programs—the Children’s Gardening Symposium remains intact—and raised enough money to avoid disaster.
It was an exciting time. The staff was very competent. I had many meetings with luminaries such as Mrs. Haupt, Elizabeth Miller and the environmentalist Maurice Strong. I became acquainted with Society members across the nation. I tried to change the board’s role, and mostly succeeded. We created a new position of board chairman and a paid one for the next president. However, if its mission was to educate Americans about horticulture, the AHS needed a revolution. Since it was nearly broke, I suggested selling the property, moving back to DC, strengthening the staff with retired teachers, gardening evangelists and lobbyist type advocates, and starting an international children’s gardening project. “Spread the word”, I said. Alas, the board disagreed. They were wrong.
Horticulture is more diverse in the US than in any other nation. So, I asked, why have a centralized British-style botanical garden model? The US isn’t similar to the horticulturally homogeneous UK, to say the least. Few gardeners in Arizona put much value on demonstration beds along the Potomac. Yet the board of directors viewed River Farm as the Society’s centerpiece. This distraction prevented the AHS from focusing on its mission. Instead of using our limited resources to help other horticultural groups across the country, we beautified the headquarters in Virginia. The legendary former president of Toro, David Lilly, was the lone maverick on the board who recruited me for the volunteer presidency. A kind and thoughtful man, he taught me much about organizational behavior. His favorite saying is, “I’m moving as fast as I can to catch up with my people because I am their leader”. However, he was the only director who agreed with me.
Imagine a national non-profit organization that creates and sponsors annually a horticultural seminar in every state. “The sun never sets on the AHS”, I quipped. The board was unresponsive. Some directors sincerely hated the idea. They had fallen in love with River Farm—building up its tiny collection and putting demonstration beds everywhere. Ironically, the property lost its charm in the process, illustrating the double jeopardy of doing the wrong thing and not doing the right thing. Time may correct the situation. But the AHS has a rare chance to become a “virtual” gardening non-profit organization. Why let the horticulture magazines travel everywhere giving seminars? Why allow a vacuum to exist in the aggressive advocacy, promotion and publicity of gardening on a national level?
The original 1923 mission was to promote gardening through magazines and bulletins about experimental horticultural techniques, new cultivars and plant collecting, supported by the membership. It heavily emphasized ornamentals. Growing flowers was deemed to be more upscale by the new middle class than keeping a vegetable garden. The AHS was to get the word out, especially to the hinterlands. However, today the hinterlands include California, population 37 million, and 50% greater in size than England. One has to adjust to history; telling Californians something new has become more challenging. However, the AHS needs both to respond to the growing amateur gardener population and to persuade Congress of the importance of home gardening. DC is an ideal location. A reinvigorated mission will connect folks from Florida to Alaska, and from Maine to Arizona. Dues paying membership was over 60,000 when I left in 1993—it’s now 25,000. That’s a wake-up call. The American Horticultural Society will remain at a crossroads until it focuses profoundly on its mission.