Rochester Civic Garden Center and Director Christine Froehlich
by Michelle Sutton
Anyone who attends classes and other programs put on by the busy Rochester Civic Garden Center (RCGC) is surprised to find out that there are only three staff members, all with just part-time appointments. Christine Froehlich, executive director since 2007, Judy Hubbard, education program coordinator since 2003, and Marjorie Focarazzo, administrative coordinator since 2014.
The staff works with dedicated volunteers at historic Warner Castle in Rochester’s Highland Park. This piece focuses on director Christine Froehlich, the ways in which RCGC has evolved since she started there, and some of the individuals who have been instrumental in its evolution.
Can you tell us about your education and career pre-RCGC?
CF: In the early 70s I studied art in college at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. I knew I wanted to do something creative and I hated working inside. I applied for a job at Maymont Park, a Victorian era estate with wonderful gardens in Richmond. The superintendent of horticulture told me they weren’t hiring women, saying that “the public wasn’t ready to see women working outside yet,” but he eventually relented and we women got to work outside. This was back when public gardens had lavish budgets. I worked there for a few years and had access to talented people who taught me a great deal.
After Maymont, I went to live in the mountains of Virginia and worked as the horticulturist at Sweetbriar College, which back then had magnificent gardens, and I once again received a lot of good training. Then I moved back to Connecticut where my parents lived and in 1976, I got a job as head gardener on a small estate. This was an amazing job experience; I worked with a designer named Luther Greene who had also been a producer on Broadway. This estate was quite grand, with five or six different garden rooms and a big crew of people for me to manage. It was my first experience on a private estate of such sophistication.
I stopped working for a while to have children—Patrick (now 39), Anders (36), and Emily (34). Eventually I started going to work part time here and there on estates, and in 1984, when the kids were bigger, I turned that into a full-time design/maintenance business, which I ran until 2003 in Ridgefield, CT and then Litchfield County, CT. In the last five years of running the business, I got really burnt out, in part because I never wanted to do that much maintenance and I never wanted to have the responsibility for such a large crew. It just kind of evolved that in order to have the design work I had to provide the maintenance.
I wanted to do something else but it took some time to figure out what. During this time I got remarried in 2002 to musician Phil Sanguedolce. We met at a party where his Zydeco band was playing; he’s the lead singer and plays the frottoir (rubboard). (I love Zydeco and Cajun dance especially). We decided to move to the Rochester area, where Phil grew up, and fell in love with a house in Sodus Point, quite close to Lake Ontario.
I became friends with Rochester horticulturist Beverly Gibson who introduced me to RCGC by way of the spring garden symposium. In the meantime, Judy and then-director Susan Latoski had read my article in Fine Gardening about growing perennials in containers and wanted me to teach a class on the subject. That was in 2005. Over time I kept adding to the courses I’d teach. When Susan left the directorship, I applied for the position. I continue to teach and design and install gardens, and I do some writing. One of my favorite courses to teach is a yearly report on new plants in the trade—how they performed for RCGC, for me, and for my clients.
When you became director, what did you see as the major challenges and opportunities?
CF: The biggest challenge was and remains not having enough funding, which is the lament of all nonprofits. Judy runs the education program and I’m in charge of making sure we have enough money to do it all. Development work on this scale was new for me, but two things helped prepare me for it: running my own business all those years, and helping run dances in Hartford, Connecticut, including some…in my own barn, with fellow volunteers. All the things that went into putting on those dances are experiences that come in handy for me now in putting on RCGC events and raising money.
The biggest opportunity I could see then and one that is being well realized is the growth potential and quality of RCGC’s education programs. Judy and I work well together, bouncing ideas off each other, then setting about making them happen. The course offerings continue to expand in variety and quality. For Judy and Marjorie and me, this is so much more than a job.
Another thing that’s been really exciting is how the grounds are being rehabilitated by volunteers under the direction of garden designer and board member Milli Piccione, and how that enables us to use the grounds for more classes, especially the popular hands-on ones like preparing gardens for spring, midsummer maintenance, and putting gardens to bed in fall. I used to have to go look for other gardens in which to host the classes but now our gardens are more developed and we can teach here. At the same time, Milli and crew are bringing back some of the historical features of the gardens. So in these ways the outside is a better reflection of what we do on the inside, and the gardens just look so much better, they are more joyful, and we get a lot of positive feedback. Milli has helped train volunteers who want to bump up their skills, which is another way that education takes place here.
What are some other changes that have taken place of which you and your colleagues are proud?
CF: Our board of directors has gotten much stronger, and together we worked on a strategic plan, the main component of which is making the most of this building and the grounds and having them work together. The improvements in the gardens help drive attention to the castle, which can be rented for events, and to the programs that are going on here. With the enhancement of the grounds and the ever-increasing quality of our course offerings, we are getting more recognition and financial support from private donors and people in the regional green industry.
We are proud that we’re attracting new homeowners and younger people generally to come and learn about gardening. (Part of our master plan is to more things with kids and families as well). We’re doing much more with our website and social media. There’s also been an exciting change shepherded by our RCGC Board Vice President Linda Phillips that enables more people to take advantage of our exceptional horticultural library. People used to have to come our library during limited hours to borrow books. Now we have a contract with the Monroe County Library System (MCLS) whereby our catalog is online and you can pick up and return our books to a County library of your choice. That’s huge! Next up is digitizing some of the significant old bulletins and historical documents we have here that we want people to have access to.
Milli Piccione on the Castle Grounds
“The estate gardens at Warner Castle have fascinated me for a long time. The most well-known feature, the Sunken Garden, was designed by Alling DeForest in the early 1930s. By the time I became involved , the multiple gardens beds had received minimal attention for many years. I started redesign of the sunny main border in 2011. Working with a dedicated group of volunteers we planted in 2012, beginning the long-term revitalization of the estate’s upper level that guides you gently into the Sunken Garden. Last season RCGC received grant money to install the 180-foot-long historically recommended fence and to rebuild the rock wall, both vital elements of the shade border. This season the rose treillage is being installed which will, once again, connect the two borders both visually and aesthetically. The garden volunteers, with the intermittent help of the Parks Department, plant and maintain the beds. It is an endless delight and satisfaction for me to see these gardens return to life and beauty; the opportunity to guide that work is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Three gardens complete; four to go!”
Judy Hubbard on the Center’s Growth
“The RCGC already had a good foundation when I started in 2003, so I guess I would say we’ve worked to improve on what we do best, which is to offer high-quality educational opportunities in gardening and horticulture. The key is identifying instructors with a depth of experience who are also good teachers—and we continue to find them! Rochester also has some wonderful private gardens, and finding great gardens that are new to us is pretty darn exciting. We provide an opportunity for gardeners to spend time in those gardens, meet the homeowners, and learn more about gardening from the pros—that’s definitely how I want to spend a summer evening! And of course technology has changed since I started; we are now able to have a much more interesting and useful website that we can easily keep updated. We can take registrations online, and we send out an email newsletter…All this means we can get out our message more effectively, that it is easier for new people to find us, and easier to sign up.”
Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, writer, and editor living in New Paltz, NY.