Holly Shimizu, Executive Director of the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) in Washington, D.C., lives a plant lover's dream. She has worked in world-famous gardens, including a year at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden in England. "I lived on the grounds near a huge, walled fragrant garden," she recalls. Her passion for plants and nature started at a young age in her grandfather's Rhode Island garden, "harvesting vegetables and devouring parsley." Like many high school seniors, she didn't know what she wanted to do. Then her mother suggested a horticulture program. "When it hit me that it was something I could do as a career," says Holly, "I realized that this is what I had a passion for."
She had been leaning towards specializing in food production, until summer internships at Longwood Gardens sparked her interest in public gardening. Wanting to travel, she wrote letters to gardens in other countries and landed a position at The Hillier Arboretum in England. "I lived in a house in the middle of the Arboretum and was exposed to this fabulous horticultural collection. It was idyllic, and I didn't want to come back."
She worked in public gardens and nurseries in Holland, Germany, and Belgium for several years before returning to the U.S. Back in the States, Holly spent eight years as curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum, was Public Programs Officer of the USBG for six years and then Assistant Executive Director for two years. She served as Managing Director of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA, for four years before returning to the USBG as Executive Director in November, 2000.
Gardeners probably know Holly as a correspondent on "The Victory Garden," the PBS television show, which she has work on for the last 12 years. "I like to share stories that have a message," she comments.
One that stands out in her memory involved a Nantucket writer and teacher who had stopped working after her daughter committed suicide. "Something made her pick up a spade and start digging," relates Holly, "and with the smell of newly turned earth, she felt her life returning." Although she had no gardening experience, she became invigorated by it, creating a warm and welcoming garden, and eventually resuming her writing and teaching. "It was such an amazing story of healing and human success," recalls Holly.
In her own landscape, Holly enjoys what she terms "useful" plants ? those that are edible, fragrant, colorful, or provide habitat for birds and butterflies. She encourages people to weave plants with multiple purposes into their landscapes. "Plant a crab apple that has wonderful fruit, not just flowers," she suggests. She uses organically grown heritage roses not only for fragrant bouquets but also to make rose water, and rose petal sandwiches. "Spread sweetened cream cheese on thin white bread and then layer the rose petals on top," she explains. "They have a wonderful flavor."
Holly has great interest in reaching out to children to stimulate their imaginations and help them connect with the growing world. "I believe that our real hope is in bringing kids together with the natural world so that they learn to love it," she comments. To promote that goal, a children's garden is in progress at the USBG, with an anticipated opening this summer. An outdoor courtyard surrounded by greenhouses will provide a place for play and classes. Kid-friendly features will include a bamboo maze, a wattle tunnel, and a second-story jungle (reached by stairs) populated by tree frogs and iguanas. Plants will pique interest with fragrance, texture, and other tantalizing features.
Other new USBG projects include the building of an Environmental Learning Center, which will provide a state-of-the-art teaching space for public outreach; and a Showcase Garden featuring plants native to the mid-Atlantic region. There is also an area slated for contemplation, to provide stressed-out visitors a serene environment to connect with nature. "We want to inspire people to realize the diversity of plants and how important they are to our culture," explains Holly. "It's an exciting time to be at the Garden."
For information about the U.S. Botanic Garden, visit the USBG Web site at http://www.aoc.gov/USBG/usbg_overview.htm.
Article published on September 13, 2004.