The Botanic Man
No horticulture experience? No problem. Jim Duncan's "green thumb" nurtures the bottom line and keeps this garden growing.
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“People will remember the mustard spots.”
Meanwhile, MBG continues to add attractions, including the Delta Garden that’s filled with ornamental cotton, peas, beans, cucumbers, and other other native species, and the fragrant Herb Garden that contains 2,000 plants and 500 varieties. “We maintain that we’re the largest herb garden in the South,” declares Duncan, then adds with a smile, “and if somebody asks me how many we have, I say one more than anybody else!”
Opening this month is a new exhibit, the Nature Photography Garden, designed primarily with birds in mind — as well as those who love to capture their images. “In fall and winter, the plants will have tough waxy skin higher in fat content to give energy when the birds migrate,” says Duncan, “and in spring they will have high carbohydrate fruits and berries.” Completing the scene are vines to support the fruit, a large birdbath, and concrete that’s “pervious” — i.e. water doesn’t run off but instead soaks through to the ground. Throughout the area are pathways, laid out by a nature photographer with good light angles, so that the photographers can set up their tripods on any part of the pathway, three to five feet from the subject.
That’s not to say that cameras aren’t clicking every day in some area of this green haven. As Duncan rolls past the Japanese Garden of Tranquility’s red bridge, he says, “We claim this is the second most photographed place in Memphis.” And the first? “Graceland.”
Glancing around the edge of the lake, Duncan mentions that earlier he saw a Canada goose sitting on her nest. “Ah, there she is,” he points — just as her mate swoops in, almost grazing us in his flight. “He saw me point, and he’s protecting her.”
As he tools along on his tours morning and afternoon, Duncan keeps his eyes peeled for eyesores, or what he calls “mustard spots.” “You can be wearing a $250 tie and have a mustard spot on it and people will remember the mustard spot. So we pride ourselves on keeping the place clean and picked up. I spend a lot of time explaining why that’s important. But if our staff understands that, we get results.”
“If Jim hadn’t come along when he did . . .”
Married 47 years, with six grandsons, Duncan coaches a sixth-grade basketball team at St. John’s United Methodist Church, is active at Christ United Methodist, and serves on the boards of the National College Football Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Council of Urban Forestry. He also finds a few hours for music, reading, or an occasional movie. But his wife, Elizabeth — development director for the Salvation Army — good-naturedly tells him he spends too much time at work.
“I don’t really count the hours,” says Duncan, who oversees 44 full-time employees and a top-line revenue budget of $4.75 million. “It’s a fun job, and I love the staff. I’d match them against any I’ve ever worked with. They’re hard-working and creative.”
One of those staffers is Rick Pudwell, director of horticulture, who in his 17 years at MBG has worked under six directors. “All of them had their strengths,” he says, “but Jim is the first who has been tenacious in keeping our finances in the black. I’m sure that if he hadn’t come along when he did, [MBG] would have ceased to exist in the form it is now. Instead we have been able to add some major new gardens and increase our staff in spite of the slow economy.”
Acknowledging that Duncan “is definitely not a plant man,” Pudwell says he’s quick to learn — but his real strength lies in “taking care of the business end and giving us the freedom to make horticulture choices.” Perhaps best of all, adds Pudwell, “Jim embraces change. He’s not afraid to try something new. He really loves for us to stand out from other gardens in our region.”
And MBG does stand out. Among its honors are having its hosta trail named one of only 15 nationally recognized trails by the American Hosta Society, and My Big Backyard designated as an Outdoor Classroom by the Arbor Day Foundation. MBG also achieved Level Four Arboretum status through the Tennessee Department of Urban Forestry and was recently named the first Center of Excellence for Urban Forestry in Tennessee.
But Duncan’s not resting on any laurels. Instead he keeps an eye out for new programs and looks forward to seeing MBG “move into the elite status of U.S. public gardens.”
“We’ve got more to do,” he asserts. “I can never envision saying, ‘My work here is done.’ The garden just keeps evolving.”
Marilyn Sadler is senior editor of Memphis magazine. She’s also a longtime fan of MBG, an avid gardener, and a tree-hugger from way back.