Seasons of Change
By Meda Kessler
Above photo by Hannah Ridings
Patrick Newman grows big ideas at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden
We’re standing under an arbor covered in wisteria blooms. After we mention our old vines barely produce blooms anymore, Patrick Newman, CEO and president of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Botanical Research Institute of Texas, reaches up carefully and plucks one of the blossoms. He gently unfolds the petals, showing us how wisteria is pollinated.
A self-avowed “plant geek,” Newman marks one year this month in his new job. While much of his time is taken up with meetings, paperwork and planning, he knows his flora and has been intrigued by plants since he was young.
Between two buildings, a pollinator garden lines the sidewalk and diverging pathways. Along with blooming shrubs, colorful perennials and verdant herbs, explanatory signage makes the walk a learning experience as well as a sensory one.
Among the plantings is fennel, its lacy fronds dancing in the post-shower morning breeze. It’s the plant that literally put Newman on his career path when a visit to a botanical garden as an 8-year-old sparked his interest in the study of plant life and science.
“I was with my maternal grandmother and took a bite of fennel,” says Newman, who was born and raised in Utah. “I couldn’t believe it tasted just like black licorice. I remember thinking that if plants could taste like my favorite candy, what else could they do.” Buoyed by his entire family’s love of the outdoors, Newman was attracted to the sciences in school. Originally, he planned to be a doctor, but an elective course he signed up for to fill his schedule set off another lightbulb. “I enrolled in a plant physiology class that met at 7:30 a.m. daily,” says Newman. “I loved it and decided to turn my attention full time to plants.”
He did detour a bit, however, signing up for the Peace Corps with his wife to teach in Azerbaijan. He taught English and science, but he also found a Soviet-era greenhouse that he used to connect his students to the plant world.
Returning to Utah, Newman became director of programming for the Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City before heading to Austin in 2016, where he worked as executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Newman credits the former first lady for her passion for natural beauty and having a vision for its importance in the future. “She was very prescient. Gardens should inspire, offer serenity and be welcoming to all.”
Newman has brought the same attitude to Fort Worth at a time of change for the oldest botanical garden in Texas (it was established in 1934), which has experienced some turbulence in transitioning to paid admission. The city still owns the land and most of the buildings, but the garden is now managed as part of a joint operating agreement with BRIT. Privatization means more money for growth and expanded programs, along with new strategies to increase the number of visitors.
“The city’s involvement is still key,” says Newman. “I think I met more city officials here in my first month than I did my first year in Austin.”
With a master plan in hand, Newman wants to more cohesively tie together the existing spaces weaving through the garden’s 120 acres as well as make improvements to “jewels” such as The Rose Garden and The Japanese Garden. At BRIT, continuing support for the research and plant collections that make it unique is key.
As we continue our walk, Newman points out an expansive shady spot that he envisions as a possible overnight camping area for families. He also would love to create a top-notch family/children’s garden.
To continue the garden’s outreach and broaden its appeal, Newman has introduced special weekends such as Dog Days, having done that in Austin to great success. He also has ambitious plans for Día de los Muertos (picture steps carpeted in marigolds). And for the holidays, look for Lightscape, a light spectacular from the United Kingdom that is scheduled to open Nov. 18. “It has been an international sellout and has made stops in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles,” says Newman. “We’ll be the first to have it in North Texas.”