Green leadership

This is a message that I wrote for the 'About this issue' for an upcoming issue of The Public Garden, the publication of the American Public Gardens Association.

Public gardens are green places, literally, and often serve as green refuges in our cities and suburban landscapes. Many of our gardens have stories that reflect reclamation of degraded landscapes, transformation of open fields to gardens, or restoration of woodland spaces. Our gardens are valued as places of green respite; we’ve reprinted Judy Zuk’s graceful piece about opening the Brooklyn Botanical Garden without charge post September 11 in this issue. I vividly remember visiting the intact mixed hardwood forest preserved as part of the NY Botanical Garden during a week-long educator’s conference and feeling the sense of being home and momentarily away from the hustle and bustle of the city. In urban areas, gardens and parks serve as “green lungs” and even in the most congested and chaotic international cities (I’m thinking about places like Mumbai, Mexico City, and Quito), trees, shrubs, and flowers provide a connection to nature that is otherwise absent.

Most of us think charitably about our institutions’ missions and goals regarding conservation and the environment. After all, what could be ‘greener’ than promoting plants, growing them, and encouraging our visitors to value them. But many of us are now thinking about doing more than that - about how we can encourage our supporters, the participants in our programs, and our visitors to transform their own approaches to living in a more sustainable, and ‘green’ way.

In my state of South Carolina, I’ve taken note of the upcoming statewide Master Gardener Conference, whose theme is Greening Carolina: Creating the Eco-friendly Landscape. The program organizer, a dynamic leader, exemplifies the trajectory from formal gardener to wildlife gardening advocate. The theme of South Carolina’s Spring Midlands Master Gardener Symposium is How Green is your Garden. In our neighboring state of Georgia, an upcoming special lecture at the Atlanta Botanical Garden features speakers that “show how an understanding of natural communities and processes helps gardeners meet the regional challenges of drought, soil, and climate while creating enduringly beautiful, meaningful spaces.”

These are the values that we need in our gardens, and that we need to promote to our communities. Plants from far away places that are well-adapted to whatever climate zones we’re in -- well, why not. But the ones that need to be on life support to survive in our gardens - well, maybe not.

This may mean some choices that aren’t easy to make, but if public gardens don’t provide ‘green leadership’ for visitors, what message do we send?

Perhaps North American gardens have been a bit slower than our international colleagues about putting themselves forward as models of garden stewardship, green practices, and advocates for conservation and restoration.

My experiences attending the International Congress on Botanical Garden Education sponsored by BGCI in New York, at Brooklyn Botanical Garden in 1997, serve as an example. Although I’ve been an environmentalist throughout my life, and an educator with an ecological bent for almost 25 years, I found this conference full of remarkable experiences. A garden educator from England did a program called the Whole World Cake (illustrating the path of global food), which predicted our current American interest in where our food comes from by over a decade. A garden educator from Mexico told me to reduce the slide projector speed to ‘save the bulb’ (who knew?) and an educator from a Nigerian botanical garden talked about not having pencils in his garden classroom. These international perspectives on needs, wants, and concerns regarding environmentalism in garden education programs was clearly way ahead of what we were doing in our North American gardens. A more recent International Congress on Botanical Garden Education in Oxford in September 2006 was full of similar thought-provoking experiences.

This issue reflects a growing awareness that all of our institutions have a significant role to play, not just the conservation gardens, or the gardens that have gifted environmentalists as leaders.

The articles in this issue present a variety of approaches for stepping up our efforts to provide green leadership, through individual staff efforts, inspired leadership from the ‘top’, and efforts encouraged by outside consultants.

Let’s get growing green in all of our gardens!