Finding Eden

The path to a botanical garden isn’t all sunshine and roses

Story by Adam Patterson
Photos courtesy of Greg Greene

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Campbell's botanical garden will feature native flora of the Adirondacks.

Hopefully in five years, but realistically in 20, North Country native David Campbell will see his private land and the land of two fellow plant-loving friends turn into a place that showcases the indigenous flora of the Adirondacks. Thousands of local plants will be displayed and labeled, and classes and seminars will take place. People will walk for enjoyment, education, and the self gratification of being able to get their hands dirty by growing their own vegetables.

The future of this botanical garden sounds like a dream, and right now for Campbell, it is. However, in order to fulfill his dreams, he needs time, money, and a place to permanently house the garden until he, Drew Monthie, and Greg Greene can donate their land. The trouble with donating the land right now is they still have to live there—they have no place else to go. That problem is one of their smallest.

Campbell, Greene, and Monthie are self-described “plant guys” living in the Adirondacks. They are responsible for undertaking the almost Herculean task of establishing the Adirondack Botanical Garden, a place of horticulture and beauty for the Adirondacks in the same genus of the Brooklyn and Oxford botanical gardens.

However, dreams must first be dreamed. “I’m an only child and I don’t have children,” Campbell says. "And I’d not like to see my garden bulldozed when I’m gone.” Therein lies the seed of the botanical garden, and now that it has been pushed into Campbell’s proverbial garden of ideas, “we’re finding out it’s hard.” The wheels are in motion, but the specter of looming problems and the federal government might prove too overbearing to conquer.

The weeds they have to eliminate are roughly broken down by getting status from the government; finding land they can use; maintaining, staffing, and caring for that land; and fundraising. Each step is rife with its own problems.

“I’d not like to see my garden bulldozed when I’m gone.”

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One day, Campbell hopes to make his dream of owning a botanical garden a reality.

Since the idea is still in its infancy, the three men are primarily making sure everything can be done to facilitate the next step. Currently, the status they have with the government isn’t even a botanical garden; technically speaking, it’s a historical society with a museum. The next step is to find a site for the garden, but to do so there’s a catch-22.

The three men are not individually wealthy (or as a group), and they all have to live on their land—they cannot be uprooted yet. At this point, to find land, they’re banking on donations, even receiving several promising prospects recently.

Nonetheless, with the land comes property taxes, and since the botanical garden is so early in its formation, money is hard to come by. They cannot afford to pay the property taxes on swatches of donated land, so they have to apply for non-profit status with the government, which requires funding. Here lies a big problem and possibly the fate of the future garden.

“The first question out of everybody’s mouth is 'where is it,’” Campbell says, “because they want to go to it, and we don’t have it. That’s become a challenge.”  The scant few other options for funding, like associating the garden with a university or institution, will not be pursued.

There are schools with renowned botanical gardens like Oxford in England and Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., but, “as soon as you start affiliating with another institution, you get into bureaucracy. Then your hands are tied,” Campbell says. “You’re getting into a funding structure where you become limited—it’s a personal thing.”

“As soon as you start affiliating with another institution, you get into bureaucracy. Then your hands are tied.”

Campbell is admittedly not a fan of the corporate world, so instead of relying on the state or federal government or another institution, he’d like the future garden to be able to fundraise its own money and be financially self-sustaining. Even if he was interested in affiliating with a school, he would have to find one with a horticulture program and without a garden already, which is a rare combination.

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The endangered Trillium are one of the many featured flowers in the garden.

As it stands, the prospects of establishing a botanical garden are murky. There is no land, and the fight for non-profit status to dodge taxation on future donations is beginning to look like a David vs. Goliath title fight. However, the struggle continues.

“We haven’t done any fundraisers,” Greene says. “We’ve been doing the garden symposium. We bring in an outside speaker …and we’re trying to expand from there. Right now it [generating support and interest] is word of mouth in the symposium … we’re a very grassroots organization.”

The problems don’t stop there. “Botanical gardens tend to be associated with cities,” says Dr. Neil Buckley, chair of biological sciences at SUNY Plattsburgh. He says the desire for people to go to a botanical garden stems from there not being a lot of natural surroundings in the area. The gardens in Brooklyn and the Bronx are prime examples of how natural jungles invade the concrete jungle.

Either way, the three men are putting their future botanical garden in the Adirondacks, which seems like putting a sandbox in the middle of the desert, but Campbell says otherwise. Not even the difficulties of the region can cloud his skies.

“It’s extremely challenging,” Campbell says. “It’s been thought that you can’t grow many plants in the Adirondacks because we have such harsh conditions.” He also says places as close as Albany can have up to a month of time more than the Adirondacks that are conducive to growing plants. So, any plants from outside of the Adirondacks probably wouldn’t survive, not being able to handle the winters.  They wouldn’t erect a green house either, due to the expenses of heating them, and as Campbell says, “if it can’t grow here without protection, it doesn’t belong here.”

“It’s been thought that you can’t grow many plants in the Adirondacks because we have such harsh conditions.”

As Buckley describes botanical gardens, before there can be a place of research and horticulture, there must first be a beautifully manicured garden and a collection of aesthetically pleasing plants. It should also serve as a point of entertainment value and pride in a community.

Campbell, Greene, and Monthie understand this, and even with the list of problems involed in starting a botanical garden, they will push on, undaunted, to achieve the ultimate goal of a full-fledged botanical garden. “We have to wait,” Greene says. “Go one step at a time. Things like the physical design of the garden can wait.”

“We’re all in our 40s and we have plenty of time yet, so we’re not in that much of a hurry,” Campbell says. The large time frame, the problems, and everything else may seem unrealistic, but Campbell knows why the plight of their garden seems so difficult. “Usually you have a group of people with more time to devote to it.”

Still, the idea persists and things are moving forward. Even if it seems like things are going at an agonizingly slow pace, the idea for a full-fledged, true-blue botanical garden still has life. As long as the sun comes out, the seed of an idea will finally grow into a garden.

How much would you pay to visit a local botanical garden?

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