For nearly 22 years Fred Roberts has been tending garden -- the premier public garden in the country -- and now he is ready to retire, dig his own gardens and get back to farming.
Roberts gave his notice three years ago and plans to step down as the director of Longwood Gardens in June. He will be 64 years old and, having reached the pinnacle in his profession, he said his time has come "to rest, regroup and then find something else to do in agriculture."
Agriculture is in Robert's blood. He went to work on his family's Connecticut farm at the ripe age of four. He has been working ever since. He earned his undergraduate degree in horticulture with additional focus on landscape architecture and some art electives. His graduate degree is in public horticulture administration, and he spent two years in the Longwood graduate student program.
As a horticulturist he thinks like a scientist, he said, but is "charmed by the artistic side" of garden design. He said he loves to take a design and bring it to life. Over the last 32 years he has built many a garden and been the director of three public gardens. He began with the Kingwood Center in Ohio, another former estate garden similar to, yet much smaller than, Longwood.
The Worcester County Horticultural Society in Massachusetts hired him to build a public botanical garden. But, soon after accepting that position he was contacted for the directorship of Longwood Gardens, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not wanting to leave Worcester in the lurch, he stayed for a year to achieve stability, raise the necessary funds, write a long-range plan and hire a replacement director. He continued to consult from afar, helping them design their first conservatory, one of his areas of expertise.
Roberts was well aware that the position at Longwood was "one of the two tops jobs (in horticulture) in the world." He said the only other public display garden that can compare is the Kew Royal Botanic Garden in London.
Long range planning and financial management, Roberts said, have been the keys to his success at Longwood.
"My best talent is project work," he said. There have been innumerable projects completed on his watch over the last 22 years, including the massive multi-year project just reaching completion, the East Conservatory and related renovations.
"I live to build gardens. Physical plant renovation isn't my love, but is very necessary," he said.
When asked of what he is most proud, he said the staff he has developed, the financial management of the gardens and its safety program.
Longwood adapted the DuPont Co.'s approach to safety as a culture and a philosophy. He asserted that Longwood Gardens has the best safety program in public horticulture, taking into account every element of the gardens, from the greenhouse roofs to the walking paths, for the safety of the people who work there, the students who work and study there and the tremendous number of people who visit there. "You can never have a perfect safety program, but we are always working toward perfect. We have state-of-the-art everything, including safety," he said.
Operationally, he said he most enjoys the people who work at Longwood and will miss their creative energy.
"The talent and what they can produce, great creative talent 365 days a year; it never stops. It's phenomenal," he said.
The target date for Robert's retirement is the end of June, but he said he will stay on "within reason" until his replacement is found. The search for his replacement began a year ago with the help of a headhunting firm and the board of directors.
Fifty applicants are beginning the interview process.
Retirement for Roberts means a return to agriculture. He hopes to own three farming properties, not for the investment, but for the quality of life and the fun of it, he said.
Roberts said he is passionate about a diverse range of farming interests and will soon have time to try them. He wants to produce maple syrup and grow Christmas trees on his rural family property in Connecticut. He has a "crazy interest" in growing bayberry and making bayberry candles in Virginia or North Carolina.
He is also excited about relocating further out in the country to the perfect farm property, where he and his wife would live, he said. Once there, he would like to keep animals, have the ultimate vegetable garden and try the latest low and high tunnel gardening and grow hay and nursery crops.
Somehow, he said, he will have to find a way to satisfy his "artsy side," maybe by writing for gardening magazines. He has admitted to being a frustrated garden writer and has a lot of experience to share.