On paper at least, the American Horticultural Society, founded in 1922, should be poised to move into its second century as a major player in the green world, an organization with a compelling mission and a rosy future.
The pandemic has reinforced the importance of gardens and gardening, reflected in surging vegetable seed sales and the desire of people to visit public gardens and other green spaces to find succor in anxious times.
COVID-19 aside, public gardens offer enormous potential to connect an ever urbanizing population to a planet in environmental crisis and to bring together diverse groups at a time of social, political and economic unrest.
But the AHS, located at its pastoral 25-acre property on the Potomac, River Farm, is facing its own moment of reckoning.
Citing the pandemic as a contributor, the society recently announced on its website that it was considering leaving River Farm, merging in some unspecified fashion with the American Public Gardens Association, and putting the prime piece of real estate on the market. This is a situation much in flux — the society’s board is said to be reevaluating its options after a backlash to the plan — but it is clear that the nonprofit is at some sort of existential crossroad.
Like other such organizations — in the United States, examples include the venerable Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society — the AHS was formed to guide and promote the plant and garden passions of its members. It puts out a glossy magazine, the American Gardener; has published garden books and encyclopedias; holds workshops and symposiums; and has organized travel study trips to gardens around the world. It was a pioneer in the children’s and youth garden movements. The property was once part of one of George Washington’s satellite farms and sits a few miles north of Washington’s Mount Vernon estate on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
The announcement “took all of us in the community by surprise,” said Dan Storck, who represents the Mount Vernon district on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “And that should never be the case for an organization that prominent in the community.”
Storck supports efforts to rethink the sale of the property and wants AHS to engage with the county and others to examine ways of saving River Farm as a public green space.
So far, the society is keeping quiet through this. Attempts to reach Bob Brackman, interim executive director, and Terry Hayes, chair of the board of directors, were unsuccessful.
It is tempting but perhaps futile to compare the AHS with the granddaddy of them all, Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society. Their respective size is so disparate as to be practically incomparable, but the RHS does at least demonstrate that an invention of the 19th century can still be a potent force for gardening, in