A Q&A with Jenny Du Pont, President of The Garden Conservancy

Jenny du Pont gives the dirt on America’s largest garden preservation program.
Jenny Du Pont President The Nature Conservancy

NYC&G: What got you into the gardening world?

JENNY DU PONT, PRESIDENT, THE GARDEN CONSERVANCY: When I was six years old in Dobbs Ferry, I started gardening a vegetable patch with my father. Now I grow flowers and vegetables in Tarrytown, where I live. I was a rabbit in a prior life.

Why is it so important to preserve gardens?
Being in a garden can have transformative powers. Gardens are part of a shared cultural legacy and are often a living history for people in a community.

The structure of the Garden Conservancy has changed dramatically over the last two years. What are your plans for the organization’s future? 
Change usually means there’s trouble, but that’s not the case with the Garden Conservancy. Our new board chairman, Ben Lenhardt, has done a great job running the organization. My predecessor, Antonia Adezio, along with [the late] Tom Armstrong and Frank Cabot, created an amazing institution with a $3.2 million endowment. We’re building on the successes and hard work of the last 25 years and aiming to make the Garden Conservancy a truly national organization. My goal is to increase our impact across the country, especially in the Midwest.

Will the conservancy continue to add gardens to its portfolio?
Absolutely, though we don’t necessarily “own” them. The plan is to help private gardens transition to public gardens, and each acquisition process is sui generis. For instance, the Humes Japanese Stroll Garden in Mill Neck is a jewel of a garden in a small community. We’ve been managing it, and also helping to preserve it by providing assistance with fundraising and increasing local awareness. The best thing for a garden is to make it a part of the community.

Jenny Du Pont President The Nature Conservancy

How does the conservancy select its gardens?
It usually starts with garden owners who express an interest in preserving their gardens. There’s no specific checklist, but a garden must have cultural and horticultural interest. We have a 16-person screening committee, co-chaired by Marco Polo Stufano and Claire Sawyers, that reviews gardens under consideration.

It’s the 20th season of the Open Days tours, when many of the conservancy’s gardens are open to the public. How do you keep the program fresh?
The Open Days program is how we reach the most people, both in terms of drawing bigger numbers to the gardens and in influencing how people are going to reassess their own gardens when they get back home. This year in the New York region we have added the Husband-Haylett garden in Kinderhook [June 28], the Hall Christy House garden in Pawling [May 17 and July 6], and the Tranquility Garden in Great Neck [ June 8].

Jenny Du Pont President The Nature Conservancy

How do we encourage people to keep gardening?
We need to capture the hearts and minds of children and inspire them to garden. I lived in England for a while, and I often took my kids to the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. It was where they could see a banana tree.

What’s the latest gardening trend you’ve seen?
New apps. People want instant gratification, so having an app like Leafsnap on your smart phone to identify a tree is immediately satisfying. It might seem antithetical to our notions of gardening, but these apps are the wave of the future.

A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of New York Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Growing Anew.