BEHRE COLUMN: Conservancy chairman keeps 'living art' alive

Ben Lenhardt's downtown garden, which he designed and maintains, shows his passion for gardening. Last year, he became the third chairman of the Garden Conservancy, a national advocacy group based in New York and San Francisco.

Robert Behre

Ben Lenhardt often spends his spare time getting dirty in the exquisitely manicured yard next to his home in Charleston's historic district. But this work is just a slice of his devotion to preserving and maintaining gardens.

Lenhardt also serves as the new chairman of the Garden Conservancy, a 23-year-old advocacy group whose mission is to preserve America's exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of all.

It's an ambitious task because unlike plaster and stone, gardens are ever growing and changing.

"Gardening is perhaps the most difficult art form there is," he said. "Once you paint something or sculpt something, you leave it. This is a living art, which makes it more difficult to execute."

It's also vital because 29 percent of the nation's flora is facing extinction, and the world may lose 12 percent of all plants, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

"Regardless of the percentage, we are facing an extinction crisis with plants," Lenhardt said.

The Garden Conservancy, based in New York and San Francisco, has 16 project gardens, where it provides funding and other support to maintain some of this nation's most exceptional gardens.

The nearest of the 16 can be found just off Interstate 20 in Bishopville, where Pearl Fryar has turned the land around his ranch home into a fantasy land of pruned trees and shrubs --all carrying a message of love, peace and happiness.

Lenhardt called Fryar's creation "truly exceptional -- not just because of the art form and horticulture but because he has been able to inspire and invigorate an entire community. It's certainly been significant for Bishopville."

He noted that Fryar's garden became a Garden Conservancy project because of the advocacy of Lenhardt's fellow Charleston board member, Patti McGee.

The conservancy also helps maintain the Elizabeth Lawrence Garden in Charlotte's historic district. Lawrence, a newspaper writer, began the garden in 1949 and used it as her laboratory and real-life muse.

Perhaps the most famous and visited of the 16 projects are the gardens of Alcatraz, the former prison and current National Park Service landmark. Those gardens have existed for more than a century, tended by soldiers, corrections officials and inmates on the windswept island in San Francisco Bay.

The conservancy sponsors educational programs and has held "open days" at hundreds of other private gardens to show people some of the best of the best. The group also plans to add "affiliate gardens" where it provides advice to owners trying to transition their private garden into a public one.

And then there's advocacy work, such as its current battle to encourage UCLA to keep its Hannah Cater Japanese Garden in Bel-Air, Calif., open to the public.

The conservancy's mission is to preserve exceptional American gardens for the education and enjoyment of all.

"I would hope that people would say, when we talk about preserving gardens, that the Garden Conservancy is to gardens what the National Trust (for Historic Preservation) is to historic sites," Lenhardt said.

"We're on our way."

And in those moments when he is not busy with that work -- or back at his other home north of Chicago -- Lenhardt savors the chance to pursue his passion with both hands.

"You hopefully get some sense of peace and tranquility and connection with nature or religious belief," he said. "I'm addicted to computers and iPads and things like that. This is a wonderful escape."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.