Ten years ago, while Harry Jongerden was head gardener at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival before moving on to become head of horticulture at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, his first cousin, also named Harry Jongerden, owned a Weed Man franchise.
“At times it was embarrassing,” says Harry. “At the least it was confusing. I’m kinda glad he doesn’t have that franchise any more.”
Harry, since mid-July executive director of the Toronto Botanical Garden, isn’t shy about making a little fun of himself. In 2008, after his stint at the RBG, he moved to Vancouver to become director of VanDusen Botanical Garden. “Boy, was that an eye opener,” he says. “A couple of climate zones warmer than I knew, with plants we couldn’t grow in Ontario. I had a lot to learn, and when anyone asked me for plant advice, I’d have to go and ask the staff. Now I’m back in my comfort zone. “
I met Harry in the late ’90s, during his time at Stratford, when the TV show I was hosting (“Canadian Gardening Television,” on HGTV) did a segment on the Elizabethan Garden outside the Festival Theatre, which Harry designed. He was the perfect candidate for the job, he says, because of his English degree and interest in Shakespeare–a Dutch kid who grew up in the gardening business and went to university because he thought he should get a white-collar, clean-hands job, then went right back into the business.
“You can’t escape destiny,” he says. Harry was a great interview back then–talkative, funny, enthusiastic and well informed. And he hasn’t changed.
He joined VanDusen at a critical stage of development as it was planning a $22 million entrance and visitor centre, and he carried the project through. “After five years, I was ready for a new challenge,” he says, “and I think the TBG has the potential to become quite wonderful, even great.”
I had to point out the TBG has come a long way since the mid ’90s, when it was the Civic Garden Centre, a useful but tired small-town horticultural centre in the biggest city in the country. Opened in 1958, it borrowed on the beauty of the adjacent Edwards Gardens , a 22-acre formerly private estate on one of the tributaries of the Don River West Branch. The modern stone building was designed by well-known architect Raymond Moriyama, and it housed the largest library of gardening and horticultural books in the country.
By the ’90s, however, even though the CGC fulfilled many community commitments with meetings, courses, workshops, lectures, plants sales and tours, the gardens around the building were a bit of an embarrassment. A revitalization was spearheaded in the ’90s, and today the Toronto Botanical Garden, as it’s been renamed, boasts 17 themed gardens, including an entrance garden designed by Dutch designer and plantsman Piet Oudolf, a kitchen garden, children’s teaching garden, a formal knot garden, a natural garden and a roof garden. The building has been expanded in like style, and the whole place, including the staff and the various activities they foster, has taken on new vitality.
“As a former board member, I feel kind of proud of it,” I say. “What potential are you thinking of?”
“The TBG can do a lot more for Toronto,” Harry says. “Thirty percent of all tourists visit a garden when they come to a city…that’s an awful lot of people, and Toronto isn’t tapping into it.
“But it’s a small garden and lacks the revenue of any other botanical garden. We need to correct those two things. We get no money from admission, or government, or endowments, and every other institution is able to tap into at least one or two of these streams. Right now, to be frank, we’re doing a lot without much support.”
Harry allows that the TBG may never be the Chicago Botanic Garden, but the Chicago garden receives an annual $15 million from the city and county on a $38 million annual operating budget. Brooklyn’s botanic garden gets $5 million on a $20 million operating budget. The Montreal Botanic Garden operates on $29 million annually.
“We get $25,000 from the City, and the operating budget is $2 million. That should have increased a million years ago, but it didn’t happen.” (Due to former executive director Aldona Satterthwaite’s tireless lobbying last year, the City did grant the TBG a one-time increase of $75,000 for 2013, but this is not expected to be repeated).
Surprisingly, Harry thinks the TBG can get physically bigger, attract larger audiences and generate more activities and revenue at no cost to the city. “We have a formula, and we’d like the opportunity to enlighten people about the potential of this place. We’ll be looking for money, yes, but institutions are hard pressed to maintain their present grants and allocations, so how can we ask?”
Unfortunately, despite my prodding, Harry’s formula and the specifics of his vision remain under wraps for now, but it almost seems like fate that he’s arrived at the Toronto Botanical Garden after all these years. It had been looking for a new executive director since the stellar Aldona Satterthwaite announced her retirement many months ago, but Harry wasn’t on the recruitment list until he heard about the job by chance at a conference in March.
“I applied right away and just got in under the wire,” he says. “They were already seriously considering other candidates.”
TBG is now offering handheld audio tours of the gardens that can be done at your own pace by following a map and signs in the garden.
Cost is $5, and units are available at the gift shop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.