For as long as he can remember, George Ball, Chairman and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee and Chairman of the Board of the Burpee Foundation, has been gardening. As a young boy, his grandmother would send him to the yard to weed, watching him from her rocking chair on the porch. As George recalls, at the beginning of one spring, tulips popped up and he was enraptured by their beauty – he’d never seen anything like them. Curious, he put his nose into a tulip; he was so small that the flower engulfed his entire face. George remembers feeling absorbed by the wonder of the tulip; it was like a little world, with the petals enveloping his cheeks and an ant crawling around inside. A fascination, love, and reverence for flowers was born, as the tulip encounter tickled his senses of sight, smell, and touch. George was hooked, and gardening eventually became his lifelong work and passion.
When George heard of our need for funding for the upcoming exhibition, Cultivating America’s Gardens, he and the members of the Burpee Foundation put the proposal on the top of their pile. “The Burpee Foundation is committed to educating the public about gardening and horticulture in the United States,” says George. “We’re thrilled to partner with the Smithsonian to tell the story of the American garden to visitors from all over the country and world, both in person and online.”
Using books and objects from Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens, Cultivating America’s Gardens will include topics such as early horticulture publications, prominent landscape designers, selling seeds, victory gardens, the romance of the American lawn, and gardens of today. The Burpee Foundation grant will fund exhibition design, fabrication, conservation of books and objects, installation, programming, website design, and marketing. The exhibition opens in the Smithsonian Libraries Gallery at the National Museum of American History in April 2017.
Cultivating America’s Gardens will feature the Smithsonian Libraries’ unique collection of 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs dating from 1830 to the present. The catalogs document the history of the seed and agricultural business in the U.S., as well as provide a history of botany and plant research such as the introduction of plant varieties into the U.S. Additionally, the seed trade catalogs are a window into a history of graphic arts in advertising, and a social history, through the text and illustrations, showing changing fashions in flowers and vegetables.
“The Smithsonian Libraries’ seed and nursery catalog collection is hugely important,” says George. “You don’t have a memory without these archival materials, and it’s vital to have caretakers committed to their preservation. These pieces are a history, a story of civilization.” While George stresses the scholarly element of the materials, he also emphasizes their exquisite delight. “While garden illustrators captured flowers and vegetables accurately, they had fun around the margins, through the text, and along the background. The colorful ads bring whimsy and cheer, a playfulness that is so important to visual arts.”
For George, time is the most interesting thing about gardening; it is indirect, involving delayed and unintended gratification. “Timing is key,” says George. “The secret of gardening is knowing when. You can give children a sense of time through gardening, gently introducing them to the ‘when’ of life.”
George’s fascination with gardening in America spans from historical to contemporary times. “America was overwhelmingly agricultural until the Industrial Revolution,” says George. “While there’s a growing movement today to ‘buy local,’ for most of history that’s all you could do.” He continues, “One particular feature of American gardens is space. When Europeans come to the U.S., the size of our gardens blows their minds. You really can’t conform the ‘American garden’ into a box – there is too much of a climate diversity between cities like Seattle, Boston, Phoenix, and Miami. The only thing American gardens have in common is time.”
For George, asking him to choose his favorite plant is like asking a parent to choose his favorite child. However, he concedes that the onion is one of his most treasured plants due to the wonderful flavor it infuses in vegetables and other foods. He encourages everyone to take up gardening, noting, “You can learn about your environment from a gardening perspective. When do winter, spring, summer, and fall come? How is the water running? Are you on a slope? Gardening is the ultimate local activity.”