As Tom Buchter strolls down a path at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, in Sarasota, a group of visitors asks him to snap their picture while sitting on a bench in front of the garden’s colorful koi ponds. He obliges and continues on his way. The group probably has no idea that it was Selby’s new CEO who took the photograph.
When it comes to gardens, Buchter prefers an open approach. Throughout his career in horticulture, which spans more than 30 years, he has refused to put up signs such as “Keep off the grass” or anything with the words “Do not.”
“It sends the message that (children and families) are not welcome,” Buchter said.
That’s exactly the message he doesn’t want to send.
Buchter, who began his position Feb. 23 at Selby, hopes to draw a wider audience to Selby Gardens. One of the projects he is most excited about is the Children’s Rainforest, for which Selby is in the process of developing a timetable for construction. He hopes it will provide children with the chance to explore a new environment, while planting the seeds for a lifelong interest in plants.
“Many will stay with Selby throughout their lives,” he said. “Gardens are for people of every age.”
Buchter’s love of plants goes back to his childhood in New Milford, N.J., located just minutes from midtown Manhattan. Looking back, he admits that it seems like an odd place to foster a love of nature. But Buchter grew up helping his parents in the garden when he wasn’t pursuing his other interests, such as sports. Gardening complemented another of Buchter’s interests — cooking — because he grew things such as fresh vegetables.
Buchter majored in horticulture at Delaware Valley College, in Doylestown, Pa., and after graduating in 1971, he began his career at Skylands Botanical Gardens, in Ringwood State Park, N.J. The challenges there were vastly different from the ones he faces today at Selby. Selby, Buchter said, is in top condition, and its major challenges relate to fundraising and maintaining financial viability. In contrast, the Skylands garden had been abandoned, so Buchter helped restore it. He continued to work there for five years, and during that time, he met his wife, Kent, who was the first woman to work in the garden at Skylands.
Buchter went on to work at a variety of jobs, both at non-profit organizations and private companies. He worked at a landscaping firm, and, later, as deputy director at the garden at Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, near Wilmington, Del., where he oversaw the restoration of that garden and the creation of the Enchanted Forest. Most recently, Buchter served as director of horticulture at The Holden Arboretum, in Kirtland, Ohio.
Today, at Selby, Buchter is surrounded by plants such as bromeliads and orchids, which, for most of his life, he considered houseplants. He is also in the process of growing his roots in the Sarasota area. He vacationed on the east coast of Florida and in St. Petersburg for years, but he’s a newcomer to the Sarasota area.
Buchter was recruited by the Chicago-based firm of Kittleman & Associates and selected from a pool of more than 100 candidates. He replaces Jessica Ventimiglia, who served as interim CEO for 15 months and continues to serve as a consultant.
Currently, Buchter lives at Lands End on Longboat Key. His wife, a paralegal, is in the process of joining him in the area. They have two sons: Andy, 20, and Joe, 24.
Selby is the largest organization that Buchter has led, with a staff of approximately 50, in addition to more than 500 volunteers. He is excited about the research the organization is doing, particularly its participation in the Everglades Rare Plant Propagation Project, a collaboration with Everglades National Park and the Institute for Regional Conservation.
Selby faces the same challenges that just about every non-profit group faces, according to Buchter. Its main challenge, Buchter said, is increasing contributions to perpetuate financial stability. In order to do that, Buchter said that the organization will hire a director of development and work to increase planned giving.
“In the nonprofit world, an organization is constantly reinventing itself to adapt to changing needs,” Buchter said.
The couple enjoys gardening together, but, for now, his wife keeps him up-to-date about which plants are blooming in their Ohio garden.
Buchter began his position at Selby during the height of tourism season, when, on a single day, admission can reach 400, compared to 200 for a typical off-season.
Tom Buchter may have a knack for gardening, but he doesn’t use the term “green thumb.”
“A green thumb is a medical condition,” he jokes.
Supporting Here’s a look at a few of the many events coming up at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Call 366-5731 for more information.
• Sarasota Bromeliad Show and Sale — takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, April 24, through Sunday, April 26. The show is one of the largest of its kind in the southeastern United States and features hundreds of bromeliads.
• Gardens Music Concert Series — continues from 1 to 3 p.m. Sundays through May 10. A different musical group will play at each concert in the garden.
• Mother’s Day Brunch — takes place in three seatings at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 10. The event features a brunch catered by Michael’s On East, in Selby’s Great Room.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].