Corks pop in Santa Barbara

Posted on | February 23, 2010 | 7 Comments

“After 18 years as head of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Edward Schneider is leaving for a job at the University of Minnesota, where he will become a fully tenured professor and take over as director of the arboretum,” reports the Santa Barbara Independent. Schneider leaves California’s most important native garden without half of its volunteers and all of its status. For background on his directorship, and that of his board led by former Arizona governor turned pastry chef Fife Symington III, click here and here.

A personal theory as to why Schneider and his board were so disastrous for the garden can be summed up in the difference between two terms: “arboretum” and “botanic garden.” Arboretums are collections, originally of trees, and often occupy the estates of some dead robber baron. They represent the plunder and show ethos of a bygone era in which exoticism was the prize and native flora a weedy background.

As an imperfect rule, their boards attract society figures who invariably embark on capital construction projects. (“Wouldn’t it be lovely to put a terrace on that ridge?”) Their calendars are peppered by events that have nothing to do with the environment other than that they take place out of doors.

To this writer’s eyes, Schneider mistook Santa Barbara for an arboretum. Under his directorship, it demoted then fired first class horticulturist Carol Bornstein and embarked on the horribly controversial “Vital Mission Plan.” At its silliest, it was reduced to hosting “Doggie Bagel Brunches.”

By contrast, botanic gardens tend to be scholastic institutions with an emphasis on research and teaching. They are inquisitive rather than showy. Their storehouses of botanical knowledge have never been more necessary as we gird for climate change and must as a matter of urgency change out our urban plant repertoire to respect diminishing water supplies and curb green house gas emissions of lawn grooming machinery.

For a local example of the difference between an arboretum and botanic garden, compare the Arboretum of Los Angeles County to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Do not be fooled by the whimsical tacking on of “botanic garden” to the arboretum’s name some years back. Their comparative programs tell the story. That is not to call the Los Angeles Arboretum disastrous. It is a very pleasant place for a picnic among the peacocks. However, the day would be welcome when its board can hang onto a director long enough to become the kind of educational magnet needed to steer California out of its garden-led water crisis. In the meantime, it is the most excellent place to paint watercolors or to see where Tarzan was filmed.

Yes, there are exceptions to the rule — the Arnold Arboretum, Asa Gray and all that. But here in Southern California, I stand by my theory. The day that the volunteers at LA’s Arboretum greet visitors with the enthusiasm and knowledge of Rancho’s, I’ll take it back. How I would love to take it back.


7 Responses to “Corks pop in Santa Barbara”

  1. Debra Lee Baldwin
    February 23rd, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    Interesting about the difference between arboreta and botanic gardens. I do wonder, though, if the recession and subsequent staff layoffs followed by a fire that damaged much of the SBBG didn’t have something to do with Schneider leaving. Must have been very demoralizing.

  2. EmilyGreen
    February 23rd, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Hi … a good and generous comment. I’m sure you’re right that all of those things contributed to his decision. However, to my admittedly unforgiving eye, it is in just such a crisis that a true leader stands firm. And the staff layoffs, led by him and a shambles of a board, were incomprehensible — keeping a highly paid PR and laying off horticulturists?

  3. Ben Armentrout-Wiswall
    February 23rd, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    Thanks Emily for your astute observation regarding arboretums and botanic gardens.
    I had not closely followed the recent troubles of the SBBG, culminating in the dismissal of Carol Bornstein: it sounded like office politics at its worst. But Edward Schneider had been there for 18 years: has the trouble been that long brewing?Maybe the Board is more to blame?

  4. EmilyGreen
    February 23rd, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    Hi Ben. I’m glad you haven’t been burdened by the SBBG saga. It’s a heartbreaker. I got onto it because from the very beginning of garden-writing for the LA Times, I used to use the SBBG library and pester its experts, none more frequently than Bornstein. I’m sure that the board has its share of the blame for the woes — the appointment of Fife Symington is incomprehensible. I may have been unfair to Schneider, but I hammer him because the SBBG lost its way on his watch and that makes it his problem. Now it’s ours. My fervent hope is that the garden will understand that its fiercest critics are its most devoted allies and that every place makes mistakes. There’s nothing that can’t be undone. My vote as a first step would be to hire back Bornstein, who I do not know personally but who I admire unreservedly.

  5. Jean
    March 7th, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    I leave near the Garden and have no idea what the issue is. Dr. Schneider has done an amazing job – the Garden has improved, SBBG is recognized nationally for their research.

    Emily please share the woes other than Bornstein was asked to leave? While a fine person, she was not the Garden and neither is Dr. Schneider.

    What has gone wrong – all the national recognition, the awards, the papers the beauty?

    This is a bunch of insider problems. And then Symington – his family has funded much of the Garden – how about you Emily?

  6. EmilyGreen
    March 8th, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    Dear Jean, Thank you for commenting and lucky you for living near to SBBG. The woes include reductions across the staff while a well paid top trio of executives, including a PR, were allowed to stay. But from a greater distance, the single thing that is startlingly clear is that just as SBBG is most needed on the scene to help to deal with the state’s overwhelming water crisis, it is in disarray. Half of its volunteers are gone. Its preeminent voice on native flora is gone. It’s not even dominant in the other key argument — firescaping — where, given its experience, one would think it would be a western leader. The disasters besetting the garden itself and the rest of the state should have been good for SBBG if its directors understood its core mission. The garden should have been a target for massive reinvestment about saving water through appropriate horticulture and fire containment strategies. Instead it’s being torn apart by its own directors. I admire your loyalty, but I wouldn’t downplay what you call “insider problems.” They leave the worst kind of gaps at the most pressing moments for the outside. Thanks for writing. I admire your courage and loyalty and sense of fairness. EG

  7. Jean
    March 8th, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    Thanks Emily – it seems that your familiarity about SBBG is limited or from the very small group who are upset that SBBG are trying to improve facilities after a half century.

    WATER CONSERVATION: SBBG is a national leader in water conservation. This is evidenced by their Institute of Museum and Library Services leadership grant in modernizing their irrigation system -a process that not only saves significant water,
    but also staff time.

    FIRESCAPING: And for firescaping, SBBG is a leader and their new Vital Mission Plan landscapes will be the model system for California.

    SALARIES: You should also know that the salaries of the top senior managers is not out
    of line with other non-profits. Furthermore, the senior managers took roll backs in salaries. Some had hours reduced. I think the SBBG economic planning was well thought out given the harsh economy of the State
    and nation. We read about it everyday in the news. While it is true that many staff are on reduced hours, all gardeners and facilities maintenance staff remain full-time. My understanding is that several of the SBBG
    gardeners and scientists are viewed by their peers as being among the most
    knowledgeable about California native flora.

    VOLUNTEERS: The volunteers who protested were just 45 of 200 active
    volunteers and now more than 30 of us have joined as new volunteers since the Jesusita fire
    to help with the rebuilding efforts.

    Emily – you seems fair and seem to want real information, not the propaganda from those who want to run the SBBG but are unwilling to deal with the tough issues.

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