How Does Your Garden Grow?

A morning stroll with Stephanie Linder, the new executive director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, in which we discuss fundraising, fences, “smellscapes,” and open spaces for a growing city.

The 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden opened in a time of international crisis, 1940, just before the United States was drawn into World War II.

Nearly 80 years later, the Golden Gate Park fixture — known as the Strybing Arboretum until 2004 — is heading into another crisis. Climate change is upon us, with average temperatures on the rise and a possibility that long droughts could become the new normal.

What’s a garden to do, especially one with delicate high-altitude cloud forests, rare Chinese dawn redwoods, and other non-native species? In a recent walk around the grounds, we put that question and more to Stephanie Linder, the new executive director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, the private nonprofit that has jointly run the arboretum-slash-garden with the city since 1955.

Linder grew up in New York’s Hudson River Valley. She says her mother was an avid gardener, and she now keeps a garden in her Inner Sunset backyard. But her background is fundraising, not flowers. She has done development stints at the San Francisco Parks Alliance, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the Trust for Public Land, and most recently, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Only 30 percent of the cash coming into the garden comes from the city; the rest, to cover docent tours, the bookstore, the horticulture library, the annual Flower Piano festival, and more, comes from fundraising and Garden visitors.

Critics howled when the garden, for decades free and open to all, decided in 2010 to charge out-of-towners a $7 entrance fee. It was supposed to be temporary; it wasn’t. Nonresident fees brought more than half a million dollars to the garden last year. (Total revenue and support last year was $4.8 million.)

Residents, critics said, would be next to pay. So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s still free if you live in the city and show ID. Part of Linder’s job is to keep it that way. What follows is a condensed, edited conversation with Linder and the garden’s director of visitor experience and marketing, Brendan Lange.

The Frisc: Any favorites so far in the garden?

SL: I love the redwoods and that you don’t have to get on the bridge in traffic to see them. I’m a native plant person so I’m always interested to see what’s happening in the California native plant section. I also love the garden of fragrance. I’m really interested in the smellscape of a place.

Lavender in bloom, Garden of Fragrance. (Photo: cultivar413/Creative Commons.)

TF: As the success of Flower Piano has made pretty clear, you’re looking to expand the public consciousness of the garden. The magnolias are big draw. What other aspects can you translate into public outreach?

SL: I did a docent tour a few weeks ago and learned not just plant identification but all kinds of interesting stories, like the garden’s creation story. We shouldn’t assume people know these stories, and that’s what people also come here to learn.

TF: With climate change, the potential for long droughts and shifting temperature ranges, is there a long-term plan for the garden? Could the garden end up with different mixes of plants, different landscapes?

SL: It’s something to think about. A lot of the garden are plants geared toward a Mediterranean climate. So they will do OK, but we’ll have to look at everything. Water is the first obvious thing. The drought situation and water management.

Brendan Lange: The park and garden are slowly but surely working toward recycled water from the wastewater treatment center out by the zoo, and to convert the aquifers under Golden Gate Park to emergency potable water storage. The whole park is entirely reliant on those aquifers and has been for its whole history.

“As an environmentalist and conservationist, attracting a more general public is a big priority. I don’t think the movement can move ahead with its current lack of diversity.” — Stephanie Linder

TF: Stephanie, Santa Barbara, where you worked most recently, never escaped the drought.

SL: My last two months in Santa Barbara were fires and mudslides. It’s catastrophic. You can’t exaggerate. I lived in Ojai and worked in Santa Barbara, those two areas were in the 2 percent of the state that never got out of the drought. The garden did reduce use by 25 percent during the height of the drought. It’s 100 percent California natives, so you can do that to a certain extent, but it’s hard on a garden.

TF: There was a lot of hand wringing when the SF Botanical Garden started charging out-of-towners. Should we worry about a slippery slope toward charging residents, too?

SL: I would hope we don’t have to, but I can’t rule it out. You should note that although we charge nonresidents, we have an early bird special. In the morning, 7:30 to 9, it’s free every day. Especially if you’re a birding person, it’s a phenomenal time. There’s still a lot of free access for nonresidents. I was here on Christmas Day and it was probably the most diverse crowd I’ve seen anywhere in a long time. It was a free day.

BL: It was our largest single visitation day on record. Over 10,000 people.

TF: San Francisco is now 850,000 people, the most ever, and we’ll be building more housing in the coming years. Can places like the Botanical Garden sustain a larger population? Do you have to start planning for that?

SL: I think that growth calls for even more parks and open space and community gardens. This garden can certainly take more visitors. San Francisco just recently hit the mark of everyone in the city within a 10-minute walk of a park or open space. That’s quite an achievement. I hope this garden will serve as inspiration for what you might bring back to your own backyard or to your neighborhood. Or to an uncared corner of land where you can put in a street park.

TF: Some people might think of botanical gardens as elite destinations for expert botanists. In a city with a growing socioeconomic gap, how do you attract a more general public?

SL: As an environmentalist and conservationist it’s a big priority for me. I don’t think the movement can move ahead with its current lack of diversity. [Ed. note: Click here for a brief history of San Francisco’s Save the Redwoods, which turns 100 years old this year.] Botanic gardens are a great place to inspire early love and interest in the natural world. Our school programs and children’s programs are great examples of that access. That’s where you’ll probably see the most diversity in terms of our visitorship.

TF: Has the homeless crisis affected the garden?

BL: There are people who sleep in here some nights. A lot of nights. We’ve been fortunate it hasn’t been a massive issue. More of an issue is burglary. Our nursery complex and our engraving room were broken into twice in the last couple of months. Some equipment, like a $10,000 embosser, was stolen, and lot of damage to doors and windows and computers.

There are a number of holes under the fence, especially at the western end, where the proximity to the children’s garden is a concern…

TF: Because of needles and human waste?

BL: Such things have been found in that area of the garden, yes.

TF: Is better fencing a top priority?

SL: Of all the funding priorities I don’t know if better, bigger fences are at the top of the list.

TF: So what’s at the top of your wish list for the next few years?

SL: There are a lot of great ideas, some more fleshed out, some just conceptual. My first 90 days will be taking inventory — everything from the Center for Sustainable Gardening, which has been proposed but not funded yet, to the exhibition space [to the right of the main entry gate], which is in need of repair and could be used for any number of things. There’s an undeveloped area where the children’s garden is. We’re sorting through and bringing together all the stakeholders to come up with a plan of what to tackle first.