The communication between public gardens and commercial horticulture could be strengthened, allowing for more relevant information to be shared between plant professionals. So we talked with Harvey Cotten, director emeritus of the Huntsville Botanical Garden, about the benefits of reaching out.

American Nurseryman: Tell us a bit about your background.

Harvey Cotten: I went to work at a local garden center when I was 14 years old, not knowing the difference between an azalea and a boxwood. That job was the greatest thing that could have happened to a teenager, for it showed me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I worked at the garden center all through high school and then moved over to the production nursery in college. After graduating with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture I was very fortunate once again to find a unique opportunity – restoring a historical landscape in Natchez, Mississippi. The antebellum home was undergoing a complete restoration and the owners wanted to restore the gardens, also.

After six years in Natchez, I moved back to Huntsville to work at Chase Nursery Company; the nursery that gave me my start in horticulture. At this time Chase was undergoing a transformation from a field-growing operation to one producing large trees in containers. While I was at Chase I became involved as a volunteer with the creation of a local botanical garden in Huntsville. The idea of having a public garden in Huntsville intrigued me and I was more than happy to volunteer my time to help get it up and growing. I later became a board member and from there made the decision to go on staff. The Garden was a very different way to stay engaged in horticulture and one that I loved being involved in from its infancy. I retired from the Huntsville Botanical Garden in 2014 but still volunteer today.

My business card reads, Garden Writer / Designer / Consultant. Now I spend my time traveling around the South talking with garden clubs, Master Gardeners, other gardens about numerous topics in horticulture. I co-authored a book in 2009 called “Easy Gardens for the South,” and I enjoy sharing it with different groups. I have served on numerous boards and committees, including the Alabama Invasive Plant Council (Past President), Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association (Past President and current Trustee), AmericanHort – Nursery Connector member, and Horticultural Research Institute (Past President and current Treasurer).

Denver Botanic Gardens by Sally Benson.

AN: What do public gardens contribute to horticultural knowledge?

Cotten: When I first became involved with a public garden I thought of them as a zoo for plants in its simplest form. That is a true statement, but one that is a bit simplistic. Public gardens have four main tenets that are incorporated into their structure, and each garden will determine how strong each tenet or focus will be as they implement their mission. The focus areas are: Botanical Displays; Education; Research; and Collections.

Moreover, public gardens have direct contact with the general public – those who are avid gardeners all the way down the spectrum to those who are just looking for a bit of entertainment or relaxation on a Sunday afternoon. Through our educational outreach and our botanical displays, we have the opportunity to influence gardening practices and behavior while exciting people about horticulture.

I believe the educational component of many public gardens has become one of their most important focus areas, from programs to reach young children all the way up to adults. Public gardens are on the front lines and can be a major influencer on how horticulture is perceived in a community and the benefits it can provide that are much greater than just aesthetic.

AN: What can growers learn from public gardens and their research / staff?

Cotten: One could think of a public garden as a very large focus group. Gardens rely on visitation for their survival, and the reaction of these visitors to new botanical displays, plant combinations, new introductions can be quite useful. Moreover, issues regarding care and maintenance in the landscape, especially over time, provide excellent feedback on plant performance. Horticulture staff at a public garden have a different perspective than, say, a landscape contractor or even retail garden center – they are looking at garden performance over a long period of time and are able to see the public reaction to these plantings.

AN: What can public gardens learn from commercial growers?

Cotten: Gardens are always looking for new and exciting plants to show to their visitors. Gardens are like other museums, and one thing that will keep visitors returning are changing displays – and our plants are the major display items we present to the public. Being able to trial new plants in the garden and see which are the best performers and have the most impact on visitors.

AN: How do we facilitate the exchange of information and support? How can association membership and participation help to improve the exchange of information?

Cotten: When I first became involved with the Huntsville Botanical Garden, I became aware that the green industry and public gardens did not interact as much as I thought they would. Frankly, it seemed that public gardens only reached out to the nursery industry when they wanted free plants, and the industry only saw the garden as something that always had its hand out. I know this is an over-simplification, but it appeared that way to me from the outside.

Today, I think there is much more collaboration between the two groups both at a national level (AmericanHort and American Public Gardens Association; APGA) and locally. I was very pleased to see that both AmericanHort and APGA were part of the founding members of the Pollinator Garden Network promoting the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. This was a natural collaboration between the two associations and helped to foster cross promotion.

I have always encouraged the horticultural staff at public gardens to get out and visit the nurseries on their areas: Start the conversation to see how the two of you can benefit each other. Public gardens can definitely influence plant sales at local garden centers. Visitors see a beautiful display or spectacular specimens in a garden and will then go to a local garden center and ask for that specific plant. I have seen it happen numerous times, and that is encouraging.

Networking is the key to improving the collaborations, so I would encourage growers to visit public gardens and get to know the horticultural staff and vice versa.

AN: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your work with public gardens?

Cotten: Dream no small dreams. When I look at the Huntsville Botanical Garden today and realize the journey it has taken since 1988, I am overwhelmed. The power of perseverance, people working together for a common goal and a vision to make it happen can overcome many obstacles. The garden grew from just an idea in the minds of 14 individuals to one of the top tourist attractions in the state of Alabama, a leader in sustainability efforts, a remarkable educational facility for both children and adults, nationally recognized collections and a major influencer on the quality of life for our community. If those who were involved in the beginning did not believe in those “dreams,” it would have been easy for this garden to settle along the way.

AN: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your work with HRI and AmericanHort?

Cotten: Get involved – everyone has a something to contribute to the betterment of all. I have been amazed at what engagement can accomplish. With HRI, it is so gratifying to see that the vision of those back in the 1960s to create this organization that would take industry dollars to solve industry problems has done exactly that many times over. To have an endowment topping 12 million dollars and the ability to address the needs of our industry with input from that industry is very gratifying.

By having skin in the game yourself, it is much easier to influence others to join you in solving problems. This has been very apparent with our success in working with USDA in many efforts that have proved beneficial to our industry. Without the engagement of our industry members, this credibility is diminished.