In June, Jenny Rose Carey left Temple University-Ambler, where she had headed up the arboretum for almost a decade and taught horticulture for two years before that.
She was eager to travel and write a book about early-20th-century gardens in Philadelphia, one of her many interests. And for a while, she did both, writing and visiting family in England (she's from Kent), and exploring the flora of the American West.
Then, in December, surprising news: Carey would become the new director of Meadowbrook Farm in Abington Township, which J. Liddon Pennock Jr. bequeathed to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society upon his death in 2003. The estate includes an English Cotswolds-style house built in 1936, 18 wooded acres, seven acres of gardens, greenhouses, a retail nursery, and a gift shop.
"I wasn't really looking," she says, "but I love public horticulture, Meadowbrook is a fabulous place, and I figured I had one more garden in me."
Meadowbrook's "fabulous" designation is more aspirational than actual at this point. Its recent history has been more about management churn and stalled vision, two things Carey, 55, a former PHS board member and 25-year volunteer at the society's annual Flower Show, is determined to remedy.
On the churn side:
The last four years have seen the departures of Meadowbrook's longtime manager, John Story; Barrett Robinson, PHS' senior vice president for operations, who was recruited by PHS President Drew Becher to oversee Meadowbrook and who left after two years; and Chris Woods, designer of the celebrated Chanticleer garden in Wayne, who returned to California after just nine months at Meadowbrook, citing a job offer his wife had received.
Carey, who arrived Jan. 5, has 15 employees and an operating budget of almost $1.5 million. Meadowbrook's endowment is $14.5 million.
"I think everybody's looking for stability and leadership," she says brightly, "and churn means opportunities, right?"
On the vision side:
Becher, who succeeded Jane Pepper as PHS president in 2010, often recounts how, when he was being recruited, Meadowbrook wasn't even on his itinerary. The estate is tucked away in an upscale neighborhood, and even if you were headed there, until fairly recently, signage was nonexistent.
A master plan to bring Meadowbrook into line with PHS' horticulture and education mission, and to boost retail sales, is still in the works, but Becher and Carey sound very much on the same page. Here are some areas of concern:
Membership. Make Meadowbrook more welcoming to PHS members, especially suburbanites, with events and free programs.
Focus. Promote vegetable and wildlife gardening, sustainable practices, bird habitats.
Outreach. Reach out to neighbors and schools. Expand children's programming.
Retail. Continue emphasis on unusual plants, home, and garden stuff. "We can't compete with Home Depot," Becher says, "nor do we want to." And although Carey is primarily an educator, she does have retail experience. Before taking the Temple job in 2005, she had a wholesale business selling stationery and small gifts from England. "I feel very comfortable in merchandising," she says.
Infrastructure. "We have a lot of catching up to do," Becher says, remaining noncommittal about the famous Pennock kitchen, a retro affair with Formica counters and metallic wallpaper that inspires oohs and ewws.
Fund-raising. Can do, says Carey, who found support for, among other projects, three new gardens in the Ambler Arboretum - Albright Winter Garden (2008), Ernesta Ballard Healing Garden (2009), and Colibraro Conifer Garden (2010).
Events. Meadowbrook is not really set up for weddings, but music? Other programs? To be determined.
Carey, a Temple-Ambler alum and botanist's daughter, who also has an undergraduate biology degree and a master's in education, spent her first two weeks on the job interviewing staff, filling an old-fashioned copybook with her longhand thoughts and ideas.
"I'm so new," she says. "I want to get to know everyone and want them to get to know me."
Thousands of gardeners know Carey's grand Victorian home and 4.5-acre garden in Ambler, where she lives with husband Gus and their three daughters, Meade, 27; Janet, 24; and Emily, 17.
Thousands, too, have heard her lecture in this country and in Europe. She does about 40 a year on topics ranging from Jazz Age gardens and women in landscape architecture to herbs and shade plants.
"I'm a people person," Carey says. "I love lectures."
And what about that book she wanted to write?
She's writing now, though not the book she had planned. A few months before Carey was approached about Meadowbrook, Timber Press in Portland, Ore., called to offer a contract for a book on shade gardens.
Deadline: Nov. 1.
New book, new job, no wonder Carey is up by 4 o'clock each morning, writing and thinking in the quiet.
Is she stressed? Certainly not.
"Watch this space," she says of Meadowbrook.