Fellows Focus:
Courtnay Daniels

A garden folly viewed through a 150-year-old white oak (Quercus alba) at Whilton Farm, the garden of Courtnay Daniels in Greenwood, VA. Photo by Marion Brenner

With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting everyone and all organizations around the globe, this feels like a good time to check in with the chairman of the Garden Conservancy board of directors, Courtnay Daniels, about her perspective on our organization’s role today and in the future.

How can the Garden Conservancy help people during the current pandemic?

We can mitigate collective distress by reminding our members to take time for solace through work with the Earth, to walk, to breathe in the peace and magic of their own gardens and the magic of others. We can use this time to regroup. Our In My Garden email series to members on Tuesdays, our Garden Conservancy newsletters, and our Open Days Directory are regular reminders of this. Their informative optimism is also a reminder of why we garden and what we look forward to in this time of chaos. These publications remind us of what is happening in our gardens, in nature, and in our lives—and what will still continue.

From your perspective, how has the Conservancy changed throughout the years?

From one man’s vision of finding a way to help one extraordinary garden—Ruth Bancroft’s garden in Walnut Creek, CA—that needed a future, the Garden Conservancy has grown into a national organization that helps to provide assistance in many different ways for many different gardens. The Garden Conservancy has grown larger through expanded outreach and through the engagement of all of our members and partners.

What is the role of the Conservancy’s new strategic plan?

Our world has changed significantly since the Garden Conservancy was founded 30 years ago and we needed a road map and plan for the future. The result of a year of meetings with the staff and Lord Cultural Resources (a business planning firm specializing in museums and other cultural organizations internationally), our new Strategic Plan 2020-2025  will help us build an even stronger organization by, among other things, redefining our governing committees and their structure and by acknowledging and building on the significance and strength of our Open Days program.

We have strengthened our mission statement to broaden our outreach. We will reach out to a more diverse audience by working to open different types of gardens; by offering an array of public programs, including our Garden Masters Series and Digging Deeper programs, Speaker Series talks, and the more intimate Salon Series; and by partnering with other like-minded organizations. We will continue to help private gardens become public entities and will continue building our exciting new digital Documentation Program. With its huge national outreach, Open Days is a critical conduit for much of what we do, an incubator for all of these programs. Communication of what we do is thoughtfully being presented by the staff in a growing number of ways.

Our dedicated board of directors is also going through some changes. Among other changes, we have restructured our board committees, adding a new Open Days Committee and a restructured Nominating Committee, combining it with Governance. This new structure, based on strategic plan recommendations, will allow us to better expand our mission and reach and to provide more depth to everything we do.

Open Days is a catalyst. Much of our programming comes directly and indirectly from Open Days, which builds our network and opens a path to more gardens, more lectures, more partnerships, and more advocacy.

Our film documentation of gardens is a way to permanently record the beauty and importance of many more outstanding gardens, be they small or large. The documentation is capturing the creativity, the “why” and "how" a garden began, which are so important to learn and share.

Contrasting foliage, textures, and colors at Whilton Farm. Photo by Marion Brenner

What are the key goals for the Conservancy in the near future?

As the catalyst for much of what we hope to accomplish in the next few years, building up the Open Days program is key. Our new board committee on Open Days has been tasked with overseeing the building of a new business model for the program, which will become the road map for developing Open Days as the gateway to—and the center of—the programs we develop for our growth. Open Days also provides an important way for us, as a national organization, to connect with local communities and build local support and affiliation.

We are also working to improve our branding by better explaining how Open Days relates to our mission. Our communications continue to raise awareness of all we do and present it in an informative, aesthetically pleasing way. We are also continuing to diversify our board and to research new funding ideas through sponsorship and other opportunities.

A small part of Courtnay's collection of evergreens at Whilton Farm. Photo by Marion Brenner

Tell us a bit about your own garden.

My garden is an experiment, an education, and a source of tranquility and solace all rolled into one. I was a painter growing up and on my way to Cranbrook, an art school in Michigan, when I met my husband. We moved with two children to New Jersey when he went to work on Wall Street. We rented a cottage in the country and our landlady had me on my hands and knees, double digging a border for the cottage, just one week after we moved there. A great plants person, she mentored me and got me started down this magical path of gardening.

There is never a day when I don’t learn something new or love what I do. I was drawn to gardening because of form and texture and, to this day, I still love to experiment. At home in Virginia, I now have 29 acres of gardens and a small arboretum. I collect trees, including Japanese maples, magnolias, and conifers, and have a series of house gardens.

There has never been a day when I don’t learn something new. The joy and amazement of planting something and then turning around 25 years later and it’s 40 feet high, or seeing the breath-taking beauty of a magnificently grown Acer palmatum (Japanese maple), or waking every morning to a symphony of birdsong, is indescribably soul satisfying.

Courtyard garden at Whilton Farm. Photo by Marion Brenner