American Horticultural Society faces an uncertain future

On paper at least, the American Horticultural Society, founded in 1922, should be poised to move into its second century as a major player in the green world, an organization with a compelling mission and a rosy future.

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of gardens and gardening, reflected in surging vegetable seed sales and the desire of people to visit public gardens and other green spaces to find succor in anxious times.

COVID-19 aside, public gardens offer enormous potential to connect an ever urbanizing population to a planet in environmental crisis and to bring together diverse groups at a time of social, political and economic unrest.

But the AHS, located at its pastoral 25-acre property on the Potomac, River Farm, is facing its own moment of reckoning.

Citing the pandemic as a contributor, the society recently announced on its website that it was considering leaving River Farm, merging in some unspecified fashion with the American Public Gardens Association, and putting the prime piece of real estate on the market. This is a situation much in flux — the society's board is said to be reevaluating its options after a backlash to the plan — but it is clear that the nonprofit is at some sort of existential crossroad.

Like other such organizations — in the United States, examples include the venerable Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society — the AHS was formed to guide and promote the plant and garden passions of its members. It puts out a glossy magazine, the American Gardener; has published garden books and encyclopedias; holds workshops and symposiums; and has organized travel study trips to gardens around the world. It was a pioneer in the children's and youth garden movements. The property was once part of one of George Washington's satellite farms and sits a few miles north of Washington's Mount Vernon estate on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

The announcement “took all of us in the community by surprise,” said Dan Storck, who represents the Mount Vernon district on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “And that should never be the case for an organization that prominent in the community.”

Storck supports efforts to rethink the sale of the property and wants AHS to engage with the county and others to examine ways of saving River Farm as a public green space.

So far, the society is keeping quiet through this. Attempts to reach Bob Brackman, interim executive director, and Terry Hayes, chair of the board of directors, were unsuccessful.

It is tempting but perhaps futile to compare the AHS with the granddaddy of them all, Britain's Royal Horticultural Society. Their respective size is so disparate as to be practically incomparable, but the RHS does at least demonstrate that an invention of the 19th century can still be a potent force for gardening, in all its forms.

The RHS has more than half a million members, generates revenue of about $130 million annually, and has four large demonstration and ornamental gardens across England and is planning to open a fifth next year. Its world-famous Chelsea Flower Show, held each May, was canceled this year because of the pandemic.

For many years, I've had this wistful and no doubt naive dream that River Farm, being a jewel of a site, could become a jewel of a garden. Not perhaps another Wisley, the RHS showcase garden outside London, but something akin to New York's Wave Hill, a place of similar size and aspect built around an old house, in a leafy, riverside neighborhood of the Bronx. Wave Hill is a serene and inspiring cultural and horticultural center overlooking the Hudson River.

River Farm, by contrast, is a landscape of unfulfilled promise, struggling to look decorative but ultimately failing. Much of its acreage between the entrance and its colonial style house is a prosaic lawn, a horticultural wasteland. The period formal spaces around the house seem unresolved. The boxwood-lined arbor walk intersects side gardens where the beds are decked out with annuals and tropical plants, but the seasonal plantings seem incongruous at best. The grass is wearing thin. The whole site has some stately old trees but where are the freshly planted trees for the future?

The property was gifted to the society in the early 1970s by the horticultural philanthropist Enid A. Haupt, but it did not come with an endowment. The dilemma for the society is that it is trying to operate its national programs for members while attending to the financial burdens of keeping an old estate maintained.

“It was not intended to be a public garden,” said Katy Moss Warner, the society's president emeritus and former CEO. “So that balancing act was always a problem because maintaining a … property with historic buildings is expensive.”

Still, what a canvas River Farm might have been to lay down a collection of sophisticated, beautiful and inspirational gardens that speak to contemporary issues: climate change, habitat protection, edible gardening, culturally and racially inclusive gardening, and more.

I've saved the worst till last. Between the east side of the house and the river lies a four-acre sloping hillside. Here was planted a meadow of native grasses and wildflowers. This began 16 years ago, driven by the late German American plantsman Kurt Bluemel, then the society's chair. His nursery supplied the plants and seed for the undertaking, and I remember standing with admiration as teams of volunteer gardeners planted tens of thousands of plant plugs to get it started.

Such meadows, far from being wildly self-sufficient, require regular care and an annual cutting or burning to maintain. Somewhere along the line, that stopped. To walk the grassy paths through the “meadow” today is to experience something almost dystopian. There are glimpses of what was meant to be, a clump of northern sea oats here, a goldenrod there, but all is now smothered in invasive vines and brambles and miscanthus grasses.

Maybe it's because I remember its origins, but walking these paths the other day was one of the saddest experiences I have had in a garden. I seemed to be immersed in a cloud of neglect, decay, erasure and sorrow, the very forces that a garden is supposed to resist.

Perhaps the AHS will weather this crisis, perhaps River Farm will one day fulfill its potential. Perhaps.

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