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The standoff pitted the intangible values of beauty, passion and community against the unyielding wall of financial rigor, management expertise and the bottom line

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Tulips on the south carpet bed at the Toronto Botanical Garden on May 14, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz. But no one wonders where the self-described “little old ladies who garden” is, at least here at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Earlier this spring – back in March, when the magnolias were still waiting to pop – the LOLWG (whose membership includes men and people who are neither little nor old) were planning a public protest. They were protesting what they considered to be the heinous anti-gardening tendencies of the professional accountants who seized control of their beloved non-profit three years ago in the name of all-holy financial rigor and professionalization, and who – the LOLWG believe – were in danger of crushing a thing of beauty into the bare and lifeless ground. They were making signs, and planning to stage the demonstration in front of the garden itself.

Alas, very few of the six million-ish residents in Canada’s largest city (to say nothing of its tourists) even know it has a botanical garden – a pipsqueak four-acre triangle of 17 themed plots adjacent to Edwards Gardens, a public park on the verge of the Don River Valley that rambles up the eastern flank of the city. Thorncliffe Park, a ridge of high-rises teeming with newly immigrated Canadians, is a short walk to the south; Drake lounges in his massive pile a few blocks north, on the exclusive Bridle Path.

The TBG is puny next to Canada’s best known botanical gardens. Montreal’s (1931) is 190 acres; its former director, Pierre Bourque, later became mayor of the city. Vancouver’s gob-smacking VanDusen Botanical Garden is 55 acres of Eden, plus lake, hard by downtown.

The city of Montreal bestows $20-million a year on its world-famous botanical keep. The Toronto version has to drop to its knees for a token $25,000 a year from the city, the same amount granted since 1962 – ongoing evidence of Toronto’s horticultural stinginess. This forces the TBG to (mostly) break even on an annual budget of $4-million a year, almost all of it raised through donations, grants, parking, a retail shop, classes, weddings and other tricks of the botanical garden trade. But not by charging admission: the City of Toronto, which owns the TBG’s land, insists the gate be free.

Still, a quarter of a million people stroll through the TBG every year. Its 500 volunteers (out of 2,000 members) donated nearly 14,000 hours of sweat and labor to the garden’s care and sustenance last year. They love it. Some of them don’t like what’s going on.

Hence the protest march. “It’ll be so pathetic,” said Carol Gardner, the diminutive but relentless leader of the 150-strong insurrectionists. “What with all the walkers and wheelchairs.”

In the end, the protest never happened. Ms. Gardner and her miniature band of marching mulchers made their mark in more trenchant ways. More than half the TBG’s board resigned last month, opening slots the rebels intend to fill at the organization’s June 17 annual general meeting. “The board members are petrified,” a longtime insider at the TBG claims. “They’re scared for their reputations.” Ms. Gardner has been asked to bless a new slate of directors. Meanwhile her bête noir, David McIsaac, the TBG’s cost-cutting accountant and CEO, will step down in September.

At this point, you may be thinking, so what? A minor power struggle at an obscure public garden? But the tiny tempest is raising big questions as spring rises and freedom beckons in the postCOVID city. The standoff pitted the intangible values of beauty, passion and community against the unyielding wall of financial rigor, management expertise and the bottom line. To everyone’s surprise, beauty won. That victory seems to be evidence of new and nascent social priorities – a nod to the refreshed importance of urban nature, to the breasting status of volunteerism and to demands for more enlightened business managers. Not to mention hints of a kinder, greener, less-conventional city.

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Volunteers congregate at the Westview Terrace on May 17, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

Some saw it coming. Melanie Sifton, a former Brooklyn Botanical Garden executive who joined the TBG board a year ago, points out that “if there are conflicts happening within your community or your city or wherever, they’re going to come out at the garden. It happens in many, many, many botanical gardens. It’s happening across the city, and across the world.”

The tale of the TBG is about how managements lose control and insurrections begin. As Ms. Gardner and the LOLWG tell it, the trouble started three years ago.

The TBG was never a favourite at Toronto’s City Hall. Its predecessor, the Civic Garden Centre, was founded in 1958 by the members-only (references required!) Garden Club of Toronto as a way to edify and educate the public about gardening, garden design and even conservation. It was ahead of its time. Still, the Garden Centre didn’t become an official botanical garden – there are strict requirements – until 2004, after the city grudgingly lent it four acres of parkland.

By 2013, Harry Jongerden, the TBG’s executive director, had had the kind of brainwave that changes an institution – and maybe a city – forever. Mr. Jongerden is a certified horticultural genius. He has put in time as head gardener at the Stratford Festival, as head of horticulture at the Royal Botanical Gardens (Canada’s largest) in Hamilton, and as garden director at Vancouver’s VanDusen. When Mr. Jongerden told his pals on the West Coast that he was headed for the wilted and underwatered TBG in landlocked Hogtown, they thought he’d lost his mind.

But he saw potential. If Toronto’s department of parks and recreation could be persuaded to hand over control of Edwards Gardens, a 35-acre slice of ravine and public park adjacent to the TBG – a trifle in the city’s 8,000 hectare empire of parks – Mr. Jongerden knew he could create a world-class botanical garden. He figured he’d need 10 years (and $50-million) to establish the project and kick off a boom in garden tourism in Toronto. After all, 80 million people traipse through public gardens in North America every year, half again as many as travel to Vegas.

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Harry Jongerden gives a tour of the TBG and his long-term vision for it on May 14, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

That was in 2013. Progress was intermittent. Toronto’s department of parks and recreation was initially reluctant to embrace the newfangled public-private social enterprise. It was 2018 before city council approved the Jongerden master plan. Whereupon Mr. Jongerden stepped down as executive director of the TBG to devote himself to making “the expansion” a reality. To replace him, the board did something it had never done before: it hired a non-gardener.

Hélène Asselbergs was a specialist in management systems – a professional professionalizer. Her approach to the TBG was to leave gardening to the gardeners, while she oversaw the bigger executive picture. If the TBG was going to expand and become world class and attract a million visitors a year, she told me not long ago, “the TBG needs to be encouraged to keep professionalizing. Because that’s what organizations do.”

To that end Ms. Asselbergs created the TBG’s first annual reports. She hired executive search firms. She spent large sums to expand its public profile, and contracted outside lawyers to design rules of governance (or HR procedures) for what was still a tiny, garden-first (and often garden-only) culture of no more than 30 employees. She was like a student who, given a book to read and review, decides to write instead about how book reviewing can be improved. Within a year, the TBG had run up an unprecedented and life-threatening deficit of $597,000. The gasps were audible.

The board’s solution? Hire another non-gardener, but this time, an accountant – Mr. McIsaac, an MBA-wielding CPA who had overseen financial operations at a string of for-profit businesses such as Manulife Financial and Northern Trust. He immediately clamped down on all aspects of the TBG’s spending.

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David McIsaac, CEO of the TBG, next to the Bull-Elephant sculpture on May 18, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

Suddenly money mattered more than the garden’s public mission. A botanical garden needs plants – bulbs for the jewel-like Iris reticulata “Katharine Hodgkin” in the entry garden, butterfly weed and Starlight peonies for the perennial garden, multifarious conifers in the conifer patch (conifers are hot this season), yews and the box hedge and donkey’s tail spurge and every other living thing in the garden’s 17 displays. Suddenly there was no money to pay the garden’s suppliers. The TBG’s long-standing public gardening programs for children and adults were frozen. Its famous botanical library – the largest collection in Canada – languished. To the LOLWG, such depredations were a betrayal of their beloved cause.

The accountants’ stranglehold tightened even more once COVID hit, as other sources of TBG income dried up. Morale drooped like an unwatered pansy. Paul Zammit, the TBG’s beloved director of horticulture, left in despair. His replacement, Paul Gellatly, aka the Tattooed Gardener (he was executive director of the Waterloo Horticultural Society at the age of 13), was quickly fired or resigned in turn: no one knew for sure, because the ultra-professional McIsaac managers now insisted on HR-approved non-disclosure agreements. Volunteers who questioned Mr. Gellatly’s release received letters of rebuke from Mr. McIsaac’s managers, telling them to pipe down.

Nor did the carnage stop there. The head gardener’s position was left empty (and still is); the TBG’s manager of special events, its highly respected director of education and all of the education staff were given notice. By the spring of 2021, according to one estimate, a third of the TBG’s full- and part-time employees had been temporarily or permanently let go, all in the name of cutbacks and COVID.

What offended Carol Gardner – a woman who spends so much time at the TBG, she claims her car can drive there on its own – was that there seemed to be plenty of money for everything but the garden. For instance, Mr. McIsaac’s salary nestled in between $250,000 and $300,000 a year – roughly twice as much as any previous TBG executive director had been paid, and a lot more than the salary of the head of the massively more complicated 2,700-acre Royal Botanical Garden. (Mr. McIsaac says half his pay was covered by a gift from a donor.) He also took the title of chief executive officer – a shocking display of non-gardening self-regard to the earthbound LOLWG.

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Carol Gardner reaches down by yellow and white daffodils on May 17, 2021.The Globe and Mail

Ms. Gardner had more troubling questions as well. The board credited Mr. McIsaac’s financial discipline with eliminating the TBG’s deficit. But a $500,000 gift from a single donor, and another of over $250,000 (both listed in the 2019 annual report) more than filled the $600,000 hole. The Toronto Botanical Garden also received payments under the federal Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy program. With all that free cash pouring in, why did so many employees and programs and plantings have to be pruned?

The last time the TBG ran a deficit – $75,000, in 2012 – senior staff took a 20 per cent pay cut to help pay for it. Not this time.

Thus, the insurrection. In March, as spring slowly warmed the neglected garden, as Ms. Gardner peppered the board with demands for transparency, as a growing number of members and volunteers expressed their alarm, Aldona Satterthwaite, a master gardener and former executive director of the TBG, wrote a bristling letter to the board. Its theme was one every gardener knows to be true: gardening is not a casual flirtation. “Yes,” she wrote, “gardens renew themselves every year, but unless they’re properly looked after, they go downhill even faster.”

She ended with a long P.S., detailing the carnage in the neglected plots. “The Spiral Mound! Good Lord, what a mess. All the green netting and rubble has emerged, making it look like a slattern showing her bedraggled petticoat.”

Needless to say, last month’s news that a majority of the board had resigned to clear the way for new rootstock was greeted with some glee.

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Aldona Satterthwaite atop the spiral mound on May 17, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

Of course, Mr. McIsaac and his backers on the ex-board don’t see their stint that way. To them, the TBG needed modernizing.

Before Mr. McIsaac and his band of reckoners showed up, there was “zero online capability” – no online retail store, not even a computerized way of knowing whose membership had been renewed.

The accounting was – well, vice-chair Cynthia Webb says, “I wouldn’t even call it bookkeeping.” The staff layoffs, meanwhile, were because of COVID. “There’s nothing for them to do.”

Mr. McIsaac’s generous salary? “You get what you pay for,” says Penny Richards, one of his now retired board members. “The TBG is now up to date.”

And the LOLWG? “A minority,” Ms. Webb says, with a bit of a sniff. “We’re getting ready for growth. And when any organization is getting ready for a growth phase, a lot of people do not like the changes.” Ms. Webb speaks from experience: she chaired the foundation that financed the building of Toronto’s Bridgepoint Health facility.

Mr. McIsaac is equally unapologetic. “The organization is probably in the best shape it’s been in a while,” he told me a few weeks ago. “I think it would’ve been hard for someone with just a pure gardening background to come in and deal with some of the things that I had to deal with.” His own lack of gardening background he deems irrelevant. His job wasn’t just finding a way out of the deficit. “It was actually ensuring we had the proper controls and processes and things in place so that it would never happen again.” If he has done that, of course, he has managed what no other executive has ever accomplished in the history of capitalism. But you have to admire his ambition.

“I think what’s happened over time,” he continued, “is that as the TBG has aspired to be more ambitious, we needed to understand that we can’t operate the same [way] any more. We aspire to be one of the top five destinations for visitors that come to Toronto.” Which is why “there’s nothing I would have done differently.”

But a deeper issue runs beneath the standoff at the TBG corral. While institutions that specialize in horticultural education now routinely add financial management to the training of gardeners, the education of financial managers rarely includes much acknowledgement of the role of emotion and passion, especially in the humid world of non-profit social enterprises. “Not everyone has all the skills you need to run something as complex as the TBG,” Gordon Ashworth, one of the board members who is staying on, said to me recently. “You also need someone who knows what the mission is. Gardeners are the most passionate people you can find.” It’s convenient, in an age when data dominates, to claim that the bottom line is the only dependable quantum of achievement. But that’s an increasingly old-fashioned idea.

Botanical Gardens have been around a long time. The first one so named, specializing in medicinal plants such as lovage and lavender, seem to have been established by Cosimo de Medici at the University of Pisa in 1544. Botanical gardens are the organized catalogue of what has grown on this Earth, a record of both nature’s output and the 10,000-year-old human impulse to make gardens – to fence space for horticultural purposes. Most of the great marauding civilizations have gardened: the ancient Egyptians did, and so did the Greeks and the Romans (they invented topiary). The Italian Renaissance garden begat the French formal garden which begat the English landscape garden which begat Gertrude Jekyll and the herbaceous border and the manicured picturesque high style (and high maintenance requirements) of Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst, the likes of which (more or less) begat modern Western garden tourism.

Gardens, in other words, are never just failed or successful experiments (and they are always all three): they’re a form of collective memory. We kneel and dig in them not to shape them so much as to be shaped by them. The glassed-in orangeries at London’s Kew Gardens (1759) were first heated to grow geraniums, which originally came from Africa: plant those in your flowerpots and think about that, a story preserved by botanical gardens. Why is it that Italian immigrants tend to cut down the trees in their gardens wherever they settle, in favour of cultivated plots? Because (Simon Schama pointed this out in Landscape and Memory after visiting countless botanical gardens) Italians, collectively, don’t trust trees and forests: the Huns and the Goths and the Germans emerged from the woods surrounding northern Italy, and they did not treat the Italians nicely. Gardens – the ones we make, the ones we visit, the ones we admire and envy – root down to our best and worst and deepest selves, and we ought not lightly throw away that shared generational knowledge. That was the real sin of the now deposed accountants at the TBG: they did not grasp the depth of their mission, the power of the ancient human need for plants. They thought the bottom line was more important than the age-old longing the LOLWG sought to satisfy in their beloved public garden – as a balm to the sadly non-perennial nature of our own short lives. The accountants missed that bit.

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Beni, one of only three seasonal gardeners, works near the straw bale shed on May 17, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

But that’s nothing new. As Melanie Sifton, one of the younger (mid-40s) and newer and remaining members of the TBG board says, public gardens have a way of focusing larger social angers. Ms. Sifton should know: she has attended three postsecondary institutions in the course of studying both horticulture and public garden management, and is now working on a PhD at the University of Toronto (her latest passion is soil). She was director of the Humber Arboretum and Centre for Urban Ecology and vice-president of horticulture and facilities at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She’s the new hybrid model of professional horticultural leadership. Next to her evolved understanding of the gardening business and the business of gardening, Mr. McIsaac’s bottom-line-only tactics look like wax relics.

“The TBG is not the only turf war happening about who’s able to manage land,” Ms. Sifton said a couple of weeks ago over the telephone. “Any number of community groups are trying to establish an interventionist role in land and river management in the city, with an aim to restoring them. And it’s not just in Toronto. It’s really across North America. It’s a movement of volunteers.”

These days, bigger botanical gardens – in Chicago, in the Bronx – even offer courses in “garden conflict resolution.” Their syllabi cover everything from land use to land claims. “A lot of the heavier issues that you might think gardens would give you a break from,” Ms. Sifton told me, “are now no, no, no, you get to experience it and work through it.”

COVID has revealed all over again how essential public gardens are to our collective health. “I don’t know,” Ms. Sifton continued. “We gardeners plant the beans. Maybe we don’t count them well enough. It definitely happens in every garden. And even if you’ve got a garden president who is a horticulturist, the gardeners can still mistrust the accounting department. I think the only way you get around that is if the accountants come out and just garden every once in a while, with the gardeners. That’s probably the best strategy. Get your hands in the dirt together.” In a top-heavy world where the average CEO of a public company makes 227 times more than a typical worker, digging side by side might be worth a try.

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Sculpture by Passmore Mupindiko in the Westview Terrace on May 17, 2021.Jon Laytner/The Globe and Mail

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