Campus News

‘Voyage of discovery’

Botanical garden director Wilf Nicholls is working to increase collegial research and teaching relationships across campus and throughout the state.

State Botanical Garden director discusses his first year on the job, plans for facility’s future growth

Columns: How has getting used to a new system been for you?

Nicholls: It’s been a bit of a transition. I was director of a botanical garden that had less staff, so I was head of most things. Now I’ve got a garden with a director of horticulture, a director of research, a director of development, a director of education, a director of facilities; all wonderful and committed people so that has been a real joy.

I would still love to get my hands on a few more plants once in a while, but there’s a lot of administration that needs my attention. All in all though, my philosophy and my enthusiasm for the garden haven’t changed since I got here and I firmly believe that the work of botanical gardens has never been more important. We’ve got some great opportunities and responsibilities for educating our children, undertaking and promoting plant conservation and getting people back to appreciating plants.

Columns: Has appreciating plants fallen out of favor with the public?

Nicholls: I think we, as a society, have managed to divorce ourselves from nature. This is especially pronounced in our more urban settings. We often talk of our children having a serious disconnect or “nature deficit disorder” as we spend more and more time in front of screens. 

Do our kids really know where our clothes come from, where our food comes from, where our medicine comes from, where the oxygen that we breathe comes from? Are we really teaching our children the importance of plants? Books, films, websites can only do so much. Being surrounded by and touching and experiencing plants and the environment can do so much more.

Certainly there are centers that do that, but, as botany departments close or sink into bioscience, the world’s botanical gardens remain bastions of organismal plant knowledge. Quite honestly, as we lose biodiversity, I fear we are not training people to recognize one species from another!

Our job is to engage people, especially youngsters, in a philosophy of respect and appreciation of the natural world. These are our future advocates for our natural world. You can think of plants as providing services to us. Anne Shenk, our director of education, will often refer to the services that plants give us so that kids can understand the importance of them.

Here at this botanical garden, with free admission, with it being close to campus, we see a lot of people just coming out here and enjoying the landscape or the trails. And that’s great too. Visits do not have to have any academic requirement, they can be a tranquil, emotional, restorative experience; and if the truth be known, most of my visits to gardens would be classed in the latter category.

Columns: What have you done in your first year that you’re excited about?

Nicholls: My mandate has been to try to make more links between the botanical garden and other parts of the university. There is no doubt that we have some financial issues that aren’t going to go away. We need to focus on greater self-­reliance but we also have to maintain and increase collegial research and teaching relationships with departments and personnel across campus and the state.

As part of public service and outreach we reach out to communities of Georgia and further afield. We have wonderful relationships with gardens and educators in South and Central America, we’re taking our native plant certificate course to Savannah this fall, and we hope to take it down to Tifton soon. We must remember that this is the state botanical garden, not the Athens botanical garden and not the UGA botanical garden. We have to make sure that we keep taking the whole state into account.

Columns: What kind of projects are on the horizon?

Nicholls: The design, installation and programming of a children’s garden is on the front burner now. It’s going to need some fundraising but we have a major gift already in the kitty.

But, let’s face it, if we’re going to be putting in a children’s garden, we’re going to need a master plan. A master plan is usually a five- or 10-year vision that answers the questions “Where do we put this and where do we build that, how do we access this area and service that?”

We could find all sorts of external people to do that, but why not have UGA work on this? Let’s make it a teaching and training opportunity for students under the supervision of skilled faculty; let’s make that connection so it becomes both a valuable service for us and a real-life professional experience for another UGA department and their students.