Zilker Botanical Garden (ZBG) has the dubious honor of being the most underfunded botanical garden for its size, location, and attendance in the state of Texas, both in overall budget and in dollars spent per visitor [my updated botanical garden budget list to come]. There are areas of the garden that look nice, but over time, many of the beautiful gifts left to ZBG by past donors have deteriorated due to a lack of adequate horticultural expertise and proper maintenance, ultimately the result of too little money and misplaced city priorities. For many of those who have volunteered at ZBG for years, this creates both great sadness and a great dilemma. To say that ZBG needs help publicly can be taken as an insult to some on the Austin Parks and Recreation (PARD) staff for ZBG. It can also be seen as insulting or disheartening to the volunteers who work so hard to keep ZBG afloat. Nevertheless, this lack of funding and expertise at ZBG is a weight upon my heart that will not go away, as I see the results of this difficult situation every time I visit ZBG. I am a ZBG supporter who has spent thousands of hours helping ZBG over the past ten years, and I have asked others to spend countless hours volunteering at ZBG. Regardless of whom it may offend (and to them I offer my apologies - none of this is intended to be personal in nature), I believe it is now essential to have a frank, honest, and public discussion about the future management of this priceless cultural asset.
Some of you may have seen the Austin American Statesman article that appeared last June concerning the underfunding of ZBG. I was contacted by the author of that article, Brad Buchholz, and was asked for my opinion about the situation at ZBG, which I gave in hope of starting just such a public discussion about this issue. I did not attack any person in this article. I stated what I thought to be true (that ZBG was badly underfunded) and I backed it up with evidence. This article created a lot of controversy. This article was also directly responsible for the $220,000 just added to the 2006-2007 ZBG budget by the Austin City Manager. But this money has not and will not change the management priorities at ZBG. Much more ominously, it appears that my strong advocacy for change at ZBG has caused the PARD staff to seriously interfere with my work as a volunteer in the Hartman Prehistoric Garden (HPG).
In 1999, I was approached by the Hartman Foundation and asked to be the Horticultural Consultant for the HPG, a job that I eagerly accepted. I researched, designed, procured, and installed the plantings for that garden, as well as solicited plant donations and coordinated all HPG volunteers. As a condition of the donation, PARD had promised the Hartman Foundation that they would hire a full-time gardener for the HPG, construct restrooms near the garden, and make the new garden accessible to the handicapped. When the garden opened on April 1, 2002, none of this was done. In order to prevent a quick demise of the new HPG, I immediately started volunteering a minimum of 10 hours a week to make sure the garden survived. I have continued volunteering until just recently (Sept. 20, 2006), when PARD made it clear that they were going to manage the garden the way PARD saw fit and that I was now supposed to do only what they told me to do.
Prehistoric gardens are a relatively new concept to the horticulture world. A point in time needs to be picked - ours is the Cretaceous Period, about 100 million years ago - and research needs to be done about what plant families were present in that period (this research is ongoing as new paleobotanical discoveries are made). Plants also need to be selected based upon our climate and soil conditions. Many of these plants are rare, and therefore expensive, so funding sources need to be identified. Because PARD has provided little money for a plant budget for the HPG ($100 in the last 4 and a half years), I have had to procure plants through outside donations (the Austin Area Garden Council horticulture committee has been very helpful), and by propagating them myself. There has been much time, knowledge and research involved, as well as my connections for sources for rare plants and funding.
Most importantly, there is an individual aesthetic aspect to any fine garden. The aesthetic style of a rose garden is different than the aesthetic style of a Japanese garden, and both of these styles are different from that of a public park. Since prehistoric gardens are so new, an aesthetic style for them is still being evolved. I have been managing the HPG in a relatively thickly planted style in some areas, which gives the effect that a dinosaur may spring out of the undergrowth at any time. It also encourages visitors to stay on the path, which is a big problem at ZBG. Lots of plant material also means lots of habitat for garden creatures, and the HPG has a diverse and plentiful natural fauna that is well balanced, and a real joy to most visitors. This balance has had the added bonus of preventing all use of pesticides, as garden pests are kept to a minimum due to the proper abundance of natural predators. The HPG has become one of the best places in Austin to see butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies. The trimming of trees and palms is especially critical as the garden grows, as these plants need to be kept healthy and beautiful. They also must provide the proper shade for the plants beneath them. I always carefully considered the pruning of larger branches. One can cut a branch at any time, but once it is cut, it cannot be put back. Mistakes in trimming can affect the appearance of the garden for years. Choices must be carefully made.
Unfortunately, my voluntary involvement with the management of the HPG has now come to an end. PARD has begun making horticultural and aesthetic management decisions contrary to what I believe were the original intentions of the HPG. Recently I have gone down to the HPG and spent hours trimming a section of the garden to make it fit this original aesthetic, only to find a day or two later that someone on the PARD staff has pruned the same spot based upon some other criteria. This is a waste of my time. I have been told to take it up with the Austin Area Garden Council (AAGC) Horticulture Committee, which would mean yet another day that I have to drive down to ZBG. PARD does not take their pruning decisions in the HPG to the Horticulture Committee, they just do it, and once the branches are cut, there is little more to say. This is a conflict that will not be resolved in the garden, as PARD has made it abundantly clear that they are in charge. For many months now, I have also been banned from planting any new plants in the HPG, or even soliciting donations for such plants, I am told as a result of thousands of dollars of plants being stolen from the HPG last winter. None of these stolen plants has been replaced. Ultimately, the result of this depressing situation is the loss of volunteers.
Judging from what I have seen and heard in my travels and on the web, I have played an essential part in creating and maintaining one of the finest (if not the finest) example of a prehistoric garden in the United States today. I have given over 100 slide lectures about the HPG from California to Florida. The HPG has already influenced the creation of two new gardens in Dallas and San Antonio.
Will the HPG continue to be the garden that the Hartman committee originally envisioned it to be? I was recently told by one of the ZBG senior staff that PARD could easily hire someone and with three weeks of training they could do everything in the HPG that I used to do. Who knows? Maybe they can. But with this attitude, I regret to say that PARD is going to have to find out the hard way if they are wrong, and the garden will pay the price. But I will be there with my camera to compare the current style of management by PARD with pictures taken when the garden was closer to the original intent. You can follow this debate in the days to come at this web site.
What can be done? Everyone who loves ZBG must become more involved in deciding the future management of ZBG if things are to change. You may your questions and/or comments to through this web site. You may also E-mail your Austin City Council Members with your concerns. If ZBG is to become a real botanical garden for all of the people of Austin, something needs to be done now. A beautiful garden hangs in the balance.
Dr. Craig Nazor
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