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New Gardens Chief Tries Out Fertile Ideas : Horticulture: Ken Smith aims to rejuvenate the sagging attendance and sometimes wilting staff morale that have plagued the county's arboretums.

July 04, 1991|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A garden-variety garden inspires adjectives like lush , fertile and verdant .

That's fine, but it's not good enough for Ken Smith.

The new director of Los Angeles County Arboreta and Botanic Gardens wants the county's four public gardens to be more intriguing. Or exciting. Or even . . . compelling?

"That's one of the problems with botanic gardens--there is no sense of urgency to visit them today, tomorrow or the next day. They are always there," said Smith, who assumed the $90,000-a-year post of arboretums director at the beginning of June. "Occasionally, you need to create a sense of urgency."

That will be among the primary challenges for Smith, as he tries to rejuvenate the sagging attendance and sometimes wilting staff morale that have plagued the four gardens--the State and County Arboretum in Arcadia, Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and the Virginia Robinson Estate and Gardens in Beverly Hills.

Smith wants to jazz up the sleepy parks--now nearly the exclusive domain of garden clubbers, schoolchildren and the horticultural cognoscenti--so that they can attract enough visitors to sustain themselves without the $3.5 million a year they now receive in taxpayer support.

The greening of the county's gardens, however, will not be easy. Smith will have to cope with staff reductions, budget cuts, water restrictions and increasing demands on private foundations for financial support.

Into this brier patch steps--not the botanist or bureaucrat who was expected to get the job--but a Southern businessman and promoter who joked upon his arrival that "he might not recognize grass if he was standing on it."

Smith comes to the musty, academic headquarters of the arboretum in Arcadia from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla. He was president until last year of the glitzy entertainment center, which features lush gardens, water ski shows, a model train museum, a zoo and hostesses dressed in antebellum-style hoop skirts.

Within days of his June 3 arrival at the arboretum, Smith was plotting how to improve the gardens and attract more visitors. "We will still have the technical and scientific aspects of the gardens," Smith said, "but there is nothing wrong with having people enjoy them too."

His plans range from the mundane to the ambitious, including:

* Installing more benches and trash cans and providing more information about trees and plants. "Not just the Latin name," Smith said, "but whether it is used to make medicines or other products, or has some special history."

* Extending hours of operation in the summer. "We are closing at 5 in the evening. That is just getting to be a delightful time in the gardens."

* Making a "modest" increase in the $3 entry fee for adults. "What are movies going for in Los Angeles?" he said. "Are we saying we are worth less than half that?"

* Requiring employees to wear uniforms, so visitors know where to go for information.

* Joining forces with a university botany or horticulture department to take advantage of under-utilized facilities at the arboretum.

* Luring corporate sponsors for the gardens. Smith suggests, for instance, that a fertilizer company might supply its products free in exchange for the distinction of advertising itself as "the official fertilizer of the gardens of Los Angeles County." The ads wouldn't hurt attendance either, he says.

Smith, a tanned and energetic man of 58, has also made a point of bucking up spirits at the gardens. On his brisk, and frequent, jaunts through the grounds, he plucks trash from the ground, shouts praise to employees and chats warmly with visitors.

"We are very encouraged about the way he is going about this and really helping all of us to do our jobs better," said Richard Grant, president of the 4,000-member California Arboretum Foundation, which supports the Arcadia facility. "He is really building morale, as far as I can see, and that is really important."

The South Coast Botanic Garden Foundation is enthusiastic about having a new director in charge to make improvements at the 87-acre facility, said Norma Cantafio, the foundation's director. "We're ready to follow the county and listen to the directions that they give," Cantafio said.

But there are some skeptics. One arboretums employee questioned why the county hired a director with an entertainment background, but unschooled in horticulture or botany. "If it is going to be a botanical gardens, then the plant collection should be the primary focus," said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous. "I'm not sure that is going to be the case."

Similarly, Dr. Steve Cohan, director of the Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, said that research--which was an important part of the gardens' original mission--may be neglected in Smith's plans.

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