Keep Growing 2020: The Ten-Year Strategic Plan
Chicago Botanic Garden

Sophia Siskel

Sophia Siskel
President & CEO

The famous proverb "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in" captures perfectly the essence of the work we do at the Chicago Botanic Garden. My experience of nearly six years in this job has also caused me to consider how gardening—in our back yards, along our windowsills, or on the grand scale of the public Garden—can provide a guide for how we might approach other parts of our lives.

For what does gardening require?

Above all, patience, like the proverb suggests. And in addition to patience, a thriving garden requires a commitment to beautiful design, science, learning from each other, hard work, respect, and faith. It is these six components bundled together that form my gardening ethic, one I see manifested daily at the Chicago Botanic Garden and one that, if applied broadly, could bring about positive cultural change. Here, the results are a strong financial bottom line and a healthy, vibrant living museum.

What do I mean?

First, let's focus on the benefits of creating beauty.
The word beauty has taken on negative—superficial—qualities in past decades. But if we reflect on the skill, effort, and time it takes to design and craft something of enduring beauty, we can again realize its importance. A key tenet in the Chicago Botanic Garden's belief system is that beautiful gardens are fundamentally important to the mental and physical well being of all people. At the Garden, amid spectacularly beautiful surroundings, the healing power of nature is evident every day, calming the spirit and nurturing the body and mind for nearly one million visitors each year. And by providing beautiful surroundings to people who need them now more than ever, the Garden can thrive economically, and provide jobs. In 2012, attendance was the highest in the Garden's history for the fourth year in a row. This success allows us to employ 240 full-time people, plus more than 300 seasonal workers, and provide meaningful opportunities for 1,300 critically important volunteers.

When we integrate the beauty of nature and gardens into our lives, it is scientifically proven that we are healthier—mentally and physically. More of our Garden programs now center on health and wellness, and concentrate on the healing power of horticultural therapy. In 2012, the Garden graduated seven students from the Horticultural Therapy certificate program and enrolled 12 more for 2013; we hosted military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, expanded our relationships with local and state veteran organizations, and advised on creating healing gardens at medical facilities.

Second, let's look at the importance of science.
In our earliest elementary school science classes, we begin to learn about plant science. We learn about Earth's most basic functions—photosynthesis and the carbon and water cycles. Somehow, though, by the time we are adults, many of us have forgotten that humans are dependent on plants and healthy ecosystems for food, clean air and water, medicine, clothing, and shelter. We forget that the future of life on Earth depends on how we understand, value, and protect plants and the habitats on which they depend.

Here at the Garden, science informs much of what we do. The Garden's conservation science efforts span the globe while remaining centered around the United States and the Midwest in particular. In 2012, Garden scientists worked within and outside the nine laboratories of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. They mentored students within the Garden's Science Career Continuum for underserved children throughout the Chicago area. They taught classes at Northwestern University as part of our joint graduate program in plant biology and conservation. Since 2001, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management, the Garden has placed 700 conservation science interns at sites throughout 13 western states. Additionally, our Plants of Concern program engages citizen scientists as part of a diverse constituency that monitors 237 rare plant species at 308 sites.

The Garden's science programs have a positive impact not only on plants, but also on the Garden's bottom line. Increased scientific productivity resulted in more than $4 million in grants received in 2012, and had an impact in building stronger economies, environments, and human capacity.

Third, let's consider the ways gardening reinforces how we must always be learning from each other.
A garden, and then, after the harvest, a kitchen, provide the perfect places to learn from each other and work together. People from different generations, cultures, religions, and abilities have different ways of actively and productively participating in the gardening process, from seed to soup. There are many examples, but one in particular resonates with me: last September, on the West Side of Chicago, a former jail inmate and I shared a crunchy beet—one he had grown through our Windy City Harvest urban farming and jobs-training program. Our brief but personal encounter reinforced my conviction that gardening forges basic human connections.

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we understand that fascination with a single brightly colored blossom—or beet—has the potential to bloom into a career in plant science, a lifelong commitment to conservation, or a devotion to gardening and growing our own food. We know that people live better, healthier, and more satisfying lives when they can create, care for, and enjoy gardens. So, here at the Garden, we offer more than 500 formal and informal education programs. From family drop-in activities to Camp CBG, and from the Science Career Continuum to graduate education, for students in any phase of life, the Garden offers programs that heal, entertain, and train.

And again, investing in the long term—which is what education is—can be good business. In 2012, Garden revenue exceeded projections by 13 percent for adult education classes, and Camp CBG increased revenue over 2011.

Fourth, let's acknowledge that a thriving garden—anything productive in fact—takes hard work.
The Chicago Botanic Garden uses our knowledge and plants, and the intense impact they have on people's lives, as a catalyst for change. Windy City Harvest, headquartered at one of the City Colleges of Chicago, is part of a pipeline of opportunity within the criminal justice system offered to a selection of offenders and ex-offenders who work toward transitional jobs and eventual college certification in urban agriculture. Through Windy City Harvest, the Garden operates one of the top three urban agriculture production programs in Chicago, and the only one that awards an accredited certificate. So far, 89 percent of students in the urban agriculture certificate program have found employment. Additionally, our Green Youth Farm program offers mentoring for at-risk teens.

In 2012, on a total of five acres throughout the Chicago area, the Garden's community gardening program generated nearly 80,000 pounds of produce. Again, this work makes good economic sense: produce sales were up 30 percent from 2011. Portions of the harvest help to feed underserved communities within and outside of Chicago. Last year, 1,500 bags of fresh produce were distributed to Women, Infant, and Children distribution centers. Since 2003, participants have grown and harvested more than 200,000 pounds of produce, serving more than 1,000 Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest students and adults, and generating more than $300,000 in sales.

My fifth point about what gardening can teach us is about respecting the finite resources of our earth.
As the planet's population continues to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, we will need to determine the best way to interact with nature, to protect the principal it provides and live off the interest. We need to understand our inputs and do all we can to make a difference, even if we think it's not a high-impact gesture. At the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2012, we reduced pesticide use, celebrated our fifth year of not selling bottled water, and composted 39 tons of waste. Thanks to the many sunny (hot!) days we had last year, 2012 was also a great year for generating solar credits. Our Plant Science Center and the Children's Growing Garden together provided the Garden with 58 Solar Renewable Energy Credits, which we sold for nearly $15,000.

Finally, my sixth point about gardening and life is about faith.
Even with the best intentions, design, science, education, hard work, and respect, we still have to have faith that the seed we plant will grow. Here at the Garden, we see a nature-based faith practiced every day in those who visit, one that complements whatever religious backgrounds our visitors may have. Our founders intended for the Garden to be a place where all people could come and learn about and enjoy nature, and so over the years we have become a place of human as well as plant diversity.

What does all of this mean?

I see the gardening ethic I have just described applied every day at the Chicago Botanic Garden, with exceptional results. In my view, these same principles collectively applied can and should be part of a global solution to the challenges of our time. And we can just as readily apply these principles to our daily lives. If we as individuals show a commitment to the long-term health and well-being of those we serve, and who serve us, and we model principles of patience, science, and hard work, we will go a long way toward ensuring our ability to provide that metaphorical shade to our grandchildren. All of us can work together to practice a gardening ethic if we are going to proceed gracefully, with beauty and respect, into the twenty-second century.

Thank you for all you do for the Chicago Botanic Garden,

Sophia Siskel
President & CEO