The Delaware Valley can rightfully proclaim itself the capital of American public gardens. Our region is home to an unrivalled collection of world class gardens and arboreta, remarkable for their quality, distinctive personalities and specialties.
The fortunate residents of the Philadelphia region, can, by travelling a short distance, find themselves in other worlds. One might visit Longwood’s stately formal gardens, tour the fanciful themed gardens of Chanticleer, explore arboreta of the first rank like The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, wander Bartram’s Garden, the place where American botany first bloomed, or muse in the serenity of Shofuso, the Japanese house and garden in Fairmount Park.
These are just a very few of the many splendorous public gardens in our area. The budget-smart travelers – or non-traveler – planning the summer’s “staycation”, take note; your family can look forward to a summer filled with exceptional landscapes brimming with botanical treasures. The wonder of gardens is their ever-changing nature: to paraphrase Heraclitus, you never visit the same garden twice.
Today the Philadelphia-based American Public Gardens Association is convening the annual conference of its 500 member organizations from across the country, which includes public gardens, arboreta, historical landscapes, zoos and farm gardens.
The membership represents a dazzling range of the garden experience: formal gardens, arts and crafts gardens, rock gardens, swamp gardens, water gardens, Zen gardens, tropical gardens, ethnobotanical gardens, topiary gardens, rose gardens, rhododendron gardens, desert gardens, palm gardens and altogether wild-looking gardens that merge with natural habitat. With varying landscapes, specialties and personalities, America’s public gardens offer a 360-degree view of horticulture.
As the curators and preservers of our botanical legacy, the association members’ collective mission is to at once look back into the past, forward into the future and focus on the everpresent present.
Right now, 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 tendency – a temptation – to make the gardens friendlier and more accessible to the general public by introducing new features and events that are termed “outreach.” One can almost imagine long tendril-like green arms reaching lovingly, longingly out of the garden in the hope of enticing new and more visitors.
Over the past few years, various public gardens have increased educational programs for children and adults, introduced concerts and cafes, showcased art exhibitions, expanded gift shops, made themselves available for weddings and private parties, and introduced bicycle paths. (Look both ways before you inspect that rare hydrangea!). In a quest for timeliness, gardens have introduced informative programs about global warming, endangered plant species, water conservation and ecology.
While one may admire the garden administrators’ doughty entrepreneurial spirit, I think there is a better way to go about things. Making the gardens more like the rest of the world is not the primrose path to success and solvency. Instead of having the gardens move towards the public, I think it better to move the public towards the garden.
The greatest opportunity for preserving the gardens, increasing the number of visitors and boosting financial support is to convey to the public the singular experience the gardens offer. What some may view as the drawbacks of public gardens – their otherworldliness, quiet noneventfulness and near-non-existent news value – I believe are the very qualities that will ensure their success.
I frequently visit public gardens with friends who are new to the experience, and, as we meander about the gardens, my companions seem to undergo a kind of transformation. They walk more slowly, they speak more quietly, and sometimes fall contentedly silent for long stretches. They seem to be floating through the landscape, alighting here or there to study a plant or take in a perspective.
My friends have become entranced by the garden’s “genius loci” – the spirit of the place. As we depart the garden, my friends seem to exist in a new climate – a climate that would be scarcely enhanced by a gift shop, café or basket weaving class.
We who inhabit the gardening world need to do a better job of communicating the incommunicable – the transcendent experience that a public garden affords. Ever since ancient Greece, display gardens have served as “sacred space” – places to dream, reflect and rediscover ourselves. Recreation, indeed.
In our secular, stressed, noisy, information-drenched, multi-tasking, sound-biting, time-stretched era, our public gardens might be the next big thing.
This article appeared in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer.