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GUEST COLUMNIST: An interview with Dr. Ari Novy, CEO of the San Diego Botanic Garden

Dr. Ari Novy replaces Julian Duval at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Image courtesy of the San Diego Botanic Garden.

By Susan Starr.

Dr. Ari Novy became CEO and President of the San Diego Botanic Garden on October 15, 2018. The former Executive Director of the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC, Dr. Novy sat down with me one week into his tenure at SDBG to talk about his new position.

Working in the Goldilocks Zone

I began by asking Dr. Novy what drew him to the San Diego Botanic Garden. He described San Diego as a kind of “Goldilocks zone for plants,” where “you could grow almost everything.” The Garden itself spoke to him in several ways. “Public gardens in general, and botanic gardens in particular, are usually either some estate that was later repurposed into a botanic garden or something that was set out right from the get go in the traditional European style.”

In contrast, Novy felt that SDBG had an “organic kind of growth from partially residential, to open space, to county park, to concerned citizens coming in and saying we want to make this a botanic garden.”

The Garden also appealed to him because “it was just in the right stage of development for a place that I’d be interested in….I wanted a place that was established, but that hadn't yet gotten around to filling all of the roles of a full botanic garden, such as a research department. I was looking for a place that I thought I could help develop. In a really exciting and wonderful way, San Diego Botanic Garden fit that bill.”

Julian Duval, the outgoing CEO, was clearly also a draw. “I love Julian. I trust him. I think he’s a great leader, and a great plantsman and so I get to be part of a proud tradition.”

The Science of Gardens: More Than Form and Function

Dr. Novy hopes to continue to do research while managing SDBG. “I'm trained as an evolutionary ecologist, which means my research is essentially on plant genetics, and how plants organize themselves in the landscape. However, the last few years my publications have been very much in botanic garden management and some of the areas that relate to a botanic garden’s function.”

The broad scope of his interest is reflected in his recent publications, which include Ex Situ Propagation of Philippine Rafflesia in the United States: Challenges and Prospects, as well as The World Is a Garden and We’re All its Gardeners and Botanic Garden Profile: The United States Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.

An academic career is not in the cards for him however. “I think part of the reason I wouldn't have made a good academic was that I can't focus on one line of research. It would've been really hard for me to do seven years of one topic for tenure.”

The Importance of Children's Gardens

The Hamilton Children's Garden is one of Dr. Novy’s favorite parts of SDBG, which he feels has some of the best children’s gardens in the country. “I built a children's garden at the US Botanic Garden and we did a great job, but my favorite children’s garden is our Hamilton, particularly for active play in a natural environment.

My second favorite is the children’s garden at Winterthur, in the Brandywine Valley in Delaware, which is like a fairy garden….Children are the most important audience; they represent the future. It’s an honor to come to an institution with a children's garden like the Hamilton.”

Inspiring a Love of Nature and Seeing the Beauty of Plants

Reflecting his interest in food and agriculture, Dr. Novy also loves the subtropical fruit garden and “of course the bamboo collection is amazing. But I also love the fact that the Garden incorporates native habitat so you can take a walk through what's essentially a native coastal scrub.”

Dr. Novy has a small garden of his own, where he is enjoying growing vegetables in our year-round growing climate. He hopes to plant natives as well. “I want to garden for the ecosystem wherever possible, but I recognize that there are certain things that human beings want, including me, that are not native. Food of course. But there's other things too. We plant birds of paradise because there's something that really speaks to us about the beauty of that plant. I like to encourage people to plant as native as they can for the ecology and wildlife of the area, but that it’s ok to plant for more human needs as well. Your kids need something soft to play on, like turf, and some of that is fine. But let's avoid the really nasty invasive plants and be trending ever towards a more integrated ecosystem.”

At the Botanic Garden he plans to infuse all of the education programs with these kinds of messages. “The most important thing in a botanic garden, and the mission of San Diego Botanic Garden, is to inspire a love of plants and nature. Different audiences are going to connect to plants in different ways. Some people really connect through the ethnobotany of their ancestors and forbearers.” For others it’s beauty. “Here's the beauty of orchids, of poinsettias, of traditional plants that were floricultural plants around here. Anything you can do to help people recognize the depth and the wonder of plants, that's the first step. And then from there you can start to help people develop more nuanced understandings of the natural ecosystems and our stewardship of the plant world.”

Dr. Novy hopes that SDBG and SDHS can work together to deliver these messages. “Horticultural societies have all this deep knowledge about how plants have been grown in an area, how to grow different plants, what happens if I use this fertilizer or that particular pruning technique. That’s just invaluable knowledge….[and] botanic gardens are [simultaneously] doing a lot of onsite education using their collections. So botanic gardens end up with a lot of knowledge of how to reach people.” Together, there's no limit to what can be done by pairing horticultural societies' knowledge and botanical gardens' access to the public. "These things just go together and the only limitation to us working together is our willingness to do it.”

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