National collections programs

Jim McKenney
Sat, 12 Jun 2004 11:38:04 PDT
Jane, thanks for broaching this topic.

Believe me, I'm trying hard to keep what follows from becoming a rant. 

When I was a kid, I had this idea that I would start a garden club. Among
other things, each member would incur the responsibility to maintain stocks
of one particular plant for as long as they were members actively gardening.  

Years later,  when in the late '60s I had just gotten out of the Army after
serving two years as a draftee medic and then enduring a family tragedy, I
needed a change. I grabbed my back pack and took off for the UK and Europe
for the summer. I visited lots of public gardens, took lots of photos and
had the horticultural education of my life. After that, things back home
looked, well, boring. We Americans spend a fortune on horticulture, but I
don't think we generally get good value for our money.

Of the many and varied things I saw, the "order beds" at Oxford and Kew
made a huge impression on me. It's such a simple idea, and such a source of
intense interest and gratification to a certain type of gardening interest.
Yet try to fine something similar in an American public garden. We do some
aspects of this well: for instance, we have institutions which maintain
important collections such as the bonsai collection at the US National
Arboretum. My guess is that there are probably only five or six cities in
the world which can offer anything remotely comparable. 

But by and large, unless there is some mediagenic, star quality to the
enterprise, American public institutions don't seem to have done this well

Where does the gardener go who wants to see a Heuchera collection, or a
Buddleja collection, or a tulip collection or an Allium collection? 
Here in the Washington area we have several wonderful public gardens which
maintain an impressive diversity of plants. But these facilities are
maintained with a keen eye on the overall aesthetic effect - the ever
irrepressible American talent for enterprise insures that these gardens are
always ready to become revenue generating venues for weddings, parties and
so on. 
Indeed, it's easy to get the impression that these gardens are run not with
the interests of keen gardeners in mind but rather with the expectations of
the least-common-denominator of gardening interest. I don't need to be
reminded that it is the taxes paid by the least-common-denominator crowd
which makes all of this possible; and I'm a firm believer that it will
eventually accrue to the good of us all to encourage an interest in
gardening at all levels. 
But the way we are doing things now presents a strange irony: a lot of keen
gardeners find our public gardens irrelevant.

I think a national collections program is a wonderful idea. And it would be
great if any such program included efforts to establish regional
mirror-image collections. 

I'm really fired up on this topic, but I'll stop here for now. I hope a lot
of others jump in with ideas and experiences - especially our UK friends
who now have years of experience running such programs. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery county, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, whose garden looks somewhat
like a national collection of something. 

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