VOLUNTEERISM IS the lifeblood of horticulture in this corner of the country. It starts at ground level, with volunteers weeding arboretum beds and clearing parks of invasive ivy. But they’re far more than foot soldiers. Volunteer boards lend expertise, plan programs and work in partnership with paid staff at every horticultural institution I can think of. We rely on this great generosity of spirit and skill to keep our region green.
Sue Nevler personifies volunteerism in her effectiveness and professionalism. She’s omnipresent in the horticultural community, where she raises funds and furthers connections between all manner of gardens and institutions. “You have to collaborate,” says Nevler, who is in a unique position to see the possibilities from her vantage points on the University of Washington Botanic Gardens Advisory Committee, the board of the Miller Garden, and the Northwest Horticultural Society Advisory Committee.
Oh, and she just stepped away from the board of the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island to pay closer attention to her youngest son’s last years of high school. But not before she co-chaired a summer fundraising party that brought a record-setting 450 guests to Bloedel.
What inspires Nevler? “There’s such a creative aspect to horticulture,” she says. “Gardeners tend to be sharers and collaborators,” she adds with obvious relish.
Most everyone involved with gardens around here has worked with Nevler or benefited from her work. But until I sat down with her to talk volunteerism, I didn’t know her background. Turns out Nevler did three years of doctorate studies on small-scale agriculture after earning a degree in agricultural geography. She grew up on Cape Cod, where at age 16 she landed a job at a farm stand. By college she was working summers and ended up managing a 40-acre historical landmark farm she calls a “pick-your-own-pumpkin kind of place.”
Why gardening? “It was very much a surprise to my family — my dad was a sea captain,” she says. As was her first husband, whom she followed west to Seattle.
In the late 1990s, because the historic Dunn Gardens was in her neighborhood, she volunteered as a docent. “I learned every plant in the garden; I just flew with it,” says Nevler. Soon enough, the Dunn Gardens created an executive director position for her. Nevler started a number of programs, including a popular art walk that drew attention to the Olmsted-designed property. But when she was widowed in 2008, Nevler resigned to spend more time with her sons. She’s since remarried and taken up fresh volunteer challenges as well as a new garden of her own.
These days Nevler is spending time garnering support for the Great Plant Picks program she so admires and working with other members of the Miller Garden board to develop a strategic plan for the garden. She’s learning all about the UW Botanic Garden’s urban farm. She loves to further connections between the worlds of horticulture, art and science, and hopes to draw more kids and young adults into gardening.
Along with abundant charm, energy and enthusiasm, part of Nevler’s success is that she never thinks small. “I love the Olmstedian concept of the emerald necklace . . . why don’t we have that in the emerald city?” asks Nevler, who is no doubt busy figuring out creative partnerships to connect our city’s parkways and greenswards.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.