In 1947, two parcels of land on the eastern boundaries of Memphis were purchased for $400,000 to be used as a new city park.
This pink lily pad flower is one of the thousands of blooms found in the Memphis Botanic Garden’s 28 specialty gardens spread over 96 acres in the heart of the city.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
At the suggestion of political boss E.H. Crump, an avid bird enthusiast, the park was nearly named Bluebird, yet would come to be known as Audubon Park, home to a shooting range and golf course among other amenities.
There was no area set aside for formal gardens at the time. In 1953, however, 2,500 rhizomes donated by the family of Morgan Ketchum were planted on the east end of the park, known afterward as the Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden. The idea self-pollinated, and garden clubs and societies such as the Memphis Men’s Garden Club and the Memphis Wildflower Society soon had their way with plantings. The city moved its rose collection from Overton Park to what was rapidly becoming heralded as the Gardens of Audubon Park.
Sixty years later and that rich patch of dirt has blossomed into the Memphis Botanic Garden with 28 specialty gardens spread over 96 acres in the heart of the city.
The 1960s saw growth as the Goldsmith family honored department store founder Jacob Goldsmith with a donation to create the Goldsmith Civic Garden Center as a gathering place. Three years later the Memphis City Council formally designated it the Memphis Botanic Garden, and in 1969, the foundation was formed that would manage the city-owned property.
In 1996, local philanthropists Helen and J.B. Hardin made a significant donation and Hardin Hall was built, creating space for receptions, conferences and a grand main entrance.
“That event certainly helped the Garden in terms of being able to generate income and sustain the operation,” executive director Jim Duncan said.
Having said that, Duncan noted that hard times were ahead for the attraction.
“I was approached in 2004 about providing a business touch to the Garden,” he said. “Our membership had declined to about 809 families at that time, we were about $600,000 in debt, we only had a staff of about 19 people and did not have enough gardeners, candidly, to create an attraction that people wanted to see. … It was a challenging situation.”
That plot of land for flowers, shrubs and trees, which had begun almost as an afterthought and practically by accident in 1953, had been set on a new path. There was a sense of urgency by Duncan and his staff to become better stewards of this city treasure. A renewed focus on the earned income component, the revenue-generating events that could be counted on year in and year out, would help them see their goal.
“It was difficult with the Garden’s status being what it was then to ask people for money simply because, as we said, we hadn’t earned the right at that time to ask for donations,” he said.
They hired additional salespeople to boost rentals, revamped the model for the premier fundraiser, Live at the Garden, and “just focused on doing the things necessary to … increase revenue and decrease expenses.”
Over the next few years Memphis Botanic Garden paid off its debts, became a Level IV Arboretum (the highest classification achievable), was recognized as one of 15 certified Hosta Trails in the country, and increased staff to the point that there are more horticulturists than there was total staff nine years ago. A horticulture center was built, as were specialty gardens such as those for photography and herbs, and in 2009, a $5.73 million, 2.25-acre children’s garden was created. Duncan said My Big Backyard “pretty much changed the face of us” and is one reason that membership has grown to more than 3,500 families.
Live at the Garden continues to dominate fundraising, setting attendance records year after year.
“We realize that every decision we make has a financial implication and we run this place like a business, and it works well,” Duncan said.
Much of that business-minded philosophy includes looking to the future and a capital campaign is underway to build a permanent stage for Live at the Garden. Another goal is to attract young professionals. Last year The Roots, a membership level just for that demographic, was created.
“We’re really trying to connect younger people back with the Garden … in both horticulture and social outlets,” said Ashley Mayer, manager of special events and sponsorship.
Benefits include free entry to events such as Food Truck Garden Parties, Cocktails in the Garden, and the upcoming Diamonds & Denim party to celebrate the 60th anniversary – the diamond anniversary – of Memphis Botanic Garden. The event will be held on Friday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $60, and are free for Roots members.