The new president and chief executive officer of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay plans to leave the creation and care of the gardens to others. Gretchen Ostherr is the first CEO since the gardens opened in 2007 who is not a trained horticulturist.

“I think the search committee believed that the organization has reached a level of maturity where it needs a leader who can run the organization, finish the vision of the garden and establish it as a destination in Maine and an economic force in the region,” Ostherr said in a telephone interview.

The horticultural team is both seasoned and talented, and while she intends to support them as CEO, she will leave them to do their jobs.

In a normal year, the garden gets a great many visitors. Several times during our interview, Ostherr said she would like to see the economic benefit from these visitors ripple out to bring greater prosperity to the neighbors, town and region. She hopes to put the garden alongside storied Maine tourist draws like L.L. Bean and Acadia National Park — a must-see stop for visitors to the state.

Ostherr’s new job is just the latest in a career involving the outdoors in Maine. Her father was one of the founders of Hurricane Island Outward Bound in Camden, and Ostherr worked for Outward Bound before becoming director of Outdoor Discovery programs at L.L. Bean. She believes that spending time outdoors – whether in the wilderness, a home garden or a public garden like the botanical garden – makes people happier and healthier.

“What the gardens have to offer is so relevant right now, given the positive impact being outdoors has on people and what we are facing with climate change,” Ostherr said. “Not just for the positive impact it has for people being in the garden but the incredible educational programs we have to offer.”

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is weathering the pandemic, but it is a struggle. The organization received some money from the federal stimulus, and was able to open June 1 on a limited basis, with no more than 50 people per hour, and reservations required.

On sunny days with a good forecast, the garden is filled to its COVID capacity, Ostherr said, but on many other days it could handle — and would love to have — more visitors.

She has come on board at a time the updated master plan for the gardens, created in 2015, is a work in progress. A new visitor center and parking lots were completed in 2017. But construction hasn’t started on other projects, such as a conservatory or greenhouses for propagating plants and doing research; Ostherr said hoop houses have been put up for the horticultural staff to use until the greenhouses can be built. These projects are still planned, Ostherr said, but with the decrease in revenue caused by the pandemic, none is expected to be completed in the near future.

Asked about the lawsuits and friction with neighbors that arose during the 2017 construction, Ostherr said she believes the matter has been resolved and that relations with the town are now good.

Although she is not a horticulturist, Ostherr is an avid gardener. She keeps a garden of perennials and flowers, with her husband Mark Rixon and 18- and 15-year-old daughters, and some years has a vegetable garden, as well. With a big new job and everything else going on, Ostherr said she was glad that they did not start a vegetable garden this year.

Although Ostherr emphasized that she loves all the many gardens at the botanical gardens, I pushed her to pick a favorite. She named the Giles Rhododendron Garden, one of the first created on the site. “I love that it is off the beaten path and you have to make an effort to get there,” she said. “I love water feature and how it is quiet and allows for contemplation.”

I mentioned to Ostherr that when my wife Nancy and I volunteer at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens booth at the Maine Flower Show, we are always shocked that so many people with an interest in gardening have only been to the garden during Gardens Aglow, its hugely popular holiday-season light show. She has found that, too, as people congratulate her about her new job.

“That is something I want to change, even though I am glad they come to Gardens Aglow,” Ostherr said. “Now is when the gardens are in their glory. And it changes every month. They should come multiple times, from May through October.”

The staff is hoping it can hold Gardens Aglow this year, if COVID-19 rules and the economy allow. But it’s not a sure thing. So make a reservation and go to the garden now. Bathe in the beauty of the flowers and landscapes, and find some peace.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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