2016 Year in Review

2017 Annual Meeting, February 6, 2017
Gwen Stauffer, Executive Director

Good Afternoon,

As with every annual meeting, it is my duty and pleasure to share with you Lotusland’s accomplishments and successes of the previous year, as well as the challenges we face and the plans we have for the coming year.

2016 was a year of transition. We said farewell to two of our staff who had been here for decades – Mike Iven, who retired as Director of Grounds and Facilities after 31 years on the Lotusland staff, and Anne Dewey, who retired as Director of Development after 27 years.  Both began their service in different positions before Lotusland was even open to the public, and they grew into the roles that were the culmination of their careers. The institutional knowledge they hold is awesome, and we have done our very best to retain all that they know and achieved, so that we can carry on from their very good work.

We also heartily welcomed our new Director of Gardens and Facilities, Tyler Diehl, and also our new Director of Development, Rebecca Anderson. Tyler and Rebecca bring fresh experiences, energy, ideas and enthusiasm. The Lotusland team has never been more cohesive or more effective, and our outlook for 2017 looks bright.

In this coming year we are, in many ways, closing an era and starting a new one. This is a normal cycle of an organization. Endings, beginnings, death, birth, are the eternal cycle of life, and that cycle exists absolutely and relentlessly in a garden.

My father had a garden where I grew up in southeast Pennsylvania, and some of my earliest childhood memories are of my favorite plants among some of those he tended. Red tulips with yellow and black starry centers lit up the front garden, and I was astonished by how they opened with the warmth of the day and closed back up at night, as if going to sleep along with me. Outside the dining room stood a tall lilac which filled the house with heady fragrance when my mother opened the windows to let in fresh, spring air. Bridal wreath spiraea, otherwise an untidy plant, was gloriously covered in lacy white flowers each spring, once again confirming the right to its fanciful moniker. A huge Baldwin apple tree, which my siblings competed to climb the highest, produced fruit with perfect crunch and sweet-tart balance.

All those plants from my childhood yard are now gone. The memories are not, of course. It is not so much that I miss those individual plants, and I’ll admit my nostalgia for them.  But my experience with those plants was part of the foundation for the person I would come to be, and frankly, I am much more excited about the potential for rebirth. There is very little that amazes me more than how a shriveled, dried-up seed can become a vital, living organism. From the tiny acorn comes the mighty oak.

But even the mighty oak is not immune to time and will eventually succumb to old age, but not before it drops acorns to germinate and produce seedlings that will fill in the place left behind.

This evening we look back on 2016 as another successful year, but also a year of transition. Transition takes preparation, and preparation takes time.  2016 was filled with our usual activities, and I won’t go into them all because you were just reminded of them in Bob Craig’s terrific “Year in Review”, and you can also see lists and lists of accomplishments in tonight’s program.

Simultaneous to managing all those 2016 events and activities, Lotusland was deeply engaged in much less visible work of preparing for the momentous goals we set for ourselves in 2017.

In 2016, the evolution of our staff gave an opening to restructure the organization. In fact, our staff has steadily evolved over the past decade to more effectively tackle our most pressing needs, and take advantage of new opportunities.  Staff are to be congratulated for their ability to focus on day-to-day business and keep all the operational wheels turning, while also remaining alert and responsive to new opportunities that could benefit Lotusland.

In order to support this staffing evolution, we took a hard look at our facilities. This old house – now 100 years old –  has served us well, but has limits for office space and storage. To alleviate the pressure, we installed a new office for the Curatorial Department, made of recycled shipping containers, located next to the Garden and Horticulture staff’s facilities, otherwise known as the Green Cottage.  This new office is in keeping with our philosophy of sustainability, and not only did we recycle trash to make a beautiful office, but we did it with minimal impact on the environment. On top of that, it is the only office at Lotusland that has air-conditioning, so go visit Virginia and Paul on hot days.  I want to thank Geoff Crane for helping us with the details of the project, and all the donors who contributed to it – we could not have done it without you.

In this building, offices where repositioned for maximum efficiency, which meant quite a few people had to pack up their offices and move their stuff. It also meant that the garden staff had to put down their shovels and give a hand in moving furniture. I know it is not easy to pick up and move, especially without a break from conducting daily business. I give my deepest and everlasting gratitude to my staff for their uncomplaining willingness to look beyond themselves, to consider and deliver what is best for Lotusland.

I want to also give special recognition to the staff in membership, visitor services, reservations, development, events, office management and finance – for the thorough research they did in 2016 to select a new reservations system for Lotusland. The software system we had up to now, and the hardware it ran on, was so archaic that we feared the entire system would implode. We had no choice but to come up with a new solution, and this team chose carefully, prudently and wisely.  They are now in the process of bringing a new reservations system on line – one that we expect will last decades — and getting all staff trained so that we may open in two weeks with all systems go.

In 2016, this same team, along with marketing, developed a new membership program with more levels of engagement and new benefits, which was officially launched last week.

In 2016, the garden and curatorial staff completed the construction of the Palmetum, greatly expanding our collection of palms by 62 new taxa, which makes a 48% increase in palm taxa, or a 17% increase of all the individual palms at Lotusland, which number over one thousand. They also completed the renovation of the Insectary Garden, which serves as a living laboratory for our members and visitors to learn how to incorporate sustainable practices in their own gardens.  We thank Eric Nagelmann, garden designer extraordinaire, for donating his time and talent in designing these gardens, and we thank all the donors who stood behind him to provide the financial resources to make these gardens come to life.

The entire Lotusland team is lean but productive, persistent but flexible, creative and responsive. It is an honor to lead them and work with them, and I thank them.

In 2016, we were faced with another, very sad transition, and that was the sudden, although not unexpected, death of yet another scaffolding branch in our grand and iconic Monterrey cypress on the great lawn.  In the 1950’s Lotusland staff intervened on the tree’s behalf by placing cables in the tree to support all of its massive limbs – there are now 56 cables in the tree.  Since then, this tree – estimated to be nearly 140 years old – has received excellent care from us – the stewards of Lotusland. But we cannot stop the march of time, and even trees die of old age — no doubt accelerated by the drought.  In 2016, the Horticulture Committee, staff, and our expert arborists agreed unanimously that the tree is dying, has become a hazard, and should be taken down.

From a purely intellectual perspective, we know this is the right decision.  From an emotional perspective we are devastated to let go of the oldest being at Lotusland, and we can hardly imagine the great lawn without its majestic presence. We honor and pay homage to the tree, now draped in Tibetan prayer flags, and we left blank flags for our members and visitors to write a message of their own to the tree.  We will take it down at the end of February, but keep the circle of life and its iconic presence by replacing it with one of its own progeny – a seedling-  in spring.  Nothing is a more evident example of the transitions at Lotusland than this.

When I came to Lotusland in 2008, I spent my entire first day – at the instruction of the Board –  in the Japanese Garden to determine a solution for resolving issues with the pond.  In fact, Lotusland’s Master Plan, which was adopted by the Board in 2003 – five years before my arrival – named the renovation of the Japanese Garden as a top priority.  The Japanese Garden is the largest and most complex garden at Lotusland, and for eight years we studied the garden and researched its history to determine how to proceed. In 2015 we hired the design team of Derrik Eichelberger, principal landscape architect with Arcadia Studios who specializes in historic garden restoration, and Paul Comstock, principal with Comstock Landscape Architecture who specializes in Japanese garden design. They, along with staff, spent all of 2016 developing detailed plans to renovate the garden for modern use as a public garden, while also honoring the history of the garden and the vision of Madame Ganna Walska and her Japanese gardener, Frank Fujii.

Truthfully, the Japanese garden now is not what it once was, as it has been altered significantly since Madame Walska’s time. It is no exaggeration to say that the garden you see now is not the garden that was there when Ganna Walska was alive. Nor has the garden ever been what Walska and Fujii intended it to become, as some of their plans for the garden were never executed – they simply ran out of time. And now, the requirements for access in public gardens – particularly for those with physical disabilities – has become more demanding and imperative.

The concept of change in an historic garden is confounding. One would think that a historic garden should be held in stasis – preserved to look like it always had. It is possible to achieve this end, but not by doing nothing. Only when we can accept the inevitable change that naturally occurs in a garden – made up of living and eventually dying organisms – are we prepared preserve it.  Sometimes we must take a garden apart to put it back together again – prudently and respectfully – to restore as much of the garden as possible while also meeting the modern needs and expectations of a public garden. We look to the past while we act for the future to ensure that the Japanese Garden – and all of Ganna Walska’s Lotusland – will always be here, for generations to come.

In our time as stewards of Lotusland, there is no garden project that is more critical. But projects like these take huge resources, and in spring of 2016, we also launched a campaign to raise $4.6 million to complete the renovation project, and another $3million to endow the Japanese Garden.  In several months we were able to raise over $2.4 million for the renovation, and that is 52% of our goal.  The need to raise the remaining funds is urgent.

Mother Nature waits for no one, and winter is the time – while the pond water is cool – to move the Koi into a temporary home. Winter is the time – when plants are dormant – to dig up, box and save all the Japanese maples and pines that have been present in the garden for decades, beautifully pruned in the Niwaki style – some by Frank Fujii himself, and now by those whom he trained.  Frank Fujii died in 2016 – another tick in the passing of an era.  But our window for completing this time-sensitive work is right now, so in 2017 we have a renewed imperative to raise the remaining funds that we need to keep the project on schedule.

All the Japanese stone lanterns – known as ishi-doro – must be moved out of the garden to protect them from damage during construction. This week, we will begin to move them in position along the driveway, directly across from the Japanese garden, to create a temporary exhibit called the Ishi-doro of Lotusland, until we can place them back into the garden near the end of the project.

The renovation project is well underway, and we must raise another $1 million by April so that contractors for grading and the reconstruction of the pond can join the team to break ground this spring. Our schedule is to close the Japanese garden to the public for all of 2017 and to finish the project and open the Japanese Garden in fall of 2018 – just in time to celebrate 25 years of Lotusland operating as a public garden.

In 2016, Lotusland also completed the last year of its Five-Year Strategic Plan, which was adopted by the Board in 2011, and we succeeded in accomplishing the majority of our goals and objectives of that plan.  In 2017, Lotusland’s Board and staff will embark on another planning process to develop a new Strategic Plan for the next five years.  While we will carry over many of the goals and objectives from the 2011 plan that we want to continue or address for the first time, much has changed in five years, and we must examine how we have changed and how our community and the world around us has changed, to determine how we are to proceed in the next five years to continue to be an effective organization and a relevant resource to the community.  We must examine the needs of our ageing infrastructure – Lotusland as a historic estate is 135 years old.  We must continue to develop capacity and leadership of both the staff and Board, and we must continue to plan for succession. We must also continue to work toward securing Lotusland’s future, by building our endowment. I give a special thanks to all of you who are Lotus Society members, who recognize the importance of sustainability and have made gifts specifically to our endowment.

2017 is the year for taking the long view.

Lotusland opened to the public in 1993, with a Conditional Use Permit that allowed only 5,000 visitors per year. Ten years later, Lotusland was permitted to steadily increase to 15,000 visitors per year, which is where we are capped today. Lotusland is the most highly regulated garden in the nation, which makes the challenges we face very different and much greater than those faced by most others. Our efforts to achieve financial sustainability are thwarted by the Conditional Use Permit, and this is the greatest and most pervasive challenge we face.  On the other hand, Lotusland is the most unique garden in the nation. In 2016, Lotusland was named one of the top ten gardens in the world by renowned world traveler and garden writer, Christopher Bailes.

In 2016, Better Homes and gardens positioned Lotusland number ONE in their list of the top 14 gardens of the world.  I thank all of you – Trustees, staff, donors, members, volunteers – these honors belong to you.  Your contributions have made Lotusland one of the most distinguished gardens of our time. Every day we hear people say, “I Love Lotusland!”  That constant mantra is inspired by this beautiful garden and is now the tag line for our marketing strategy.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine, who loves gardens, confessed that while she certainly understood plants as living beings, she never considered the fact that they have lifespans. She said to me, “I think of them as always being here.”  Yet, we have said farewell to a number of wonderful plants – and wonderful people – very recently. A garden and all living beings in it will naturally evolve. The difference is that, the individuals may come and go with the passing of time, but the garden as a whole will remain – but only with a strong community dedicated to continued stewardship.

An old Chinese proverb reads: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”  In 2017, we will be planning the celebration of Lotusland’s 25 anniversary in 2018.   We want to remember, honor and celebrate the accomplishments of all those who planted the seeds of success for Lotusland, even more than 20 years ago.  In 2017 we will also plan for Lotusland’ s future, by planting new seeds, new trees, new ideas, new vision.

I want to thank all of you – the true cultivators of Lotusland:

Board President, Connie Pearcy, for your unfaltering passion and support, for your positive, can-do, yet practical mindset.

With Connie, I want to thank our 2016 Executive Committee – Crystal Wyatt, Ian Fisher and Mick Thomas – some of the transitions of 2016 were very difficult, and there was never a time that Lotusland needed you more. I asked so much of you, and you gave that and more, willingly.  Thank you for your undeniable commitment and generosity in every way.

Our Trustees – you provide advice, support and inspiration – thank you.

Our volunteers – 264 of you gave an incredible 28,692 hours of service in 2016.  Amazing!  You are our family and our community – we need you and cannot operate without you.

And ever so importantly, our members and donors – because you have passion for the garden and willingly participate in our vision.  You are key stewards of the garden and we learn from you and are inspired by you.

Just as my friend thinks of plants as always being here, I think of Lotusland as always being here, and with your help in 2017, we will ensure it.

Thank you.

Gwen Stauffer, Executive Director