“Getting in the zone” is a familiar phrase, indicating a return to a personally comfortable attitude or environment. However, to Dr. F. Todd Lasseigne (Lah-SAN, with a silent ‘G’), new Executive Director of Bellingrath Gardens, returning to his home Zone has a meaning that most serious gardeners understand. A native of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Dr. Lasseigne grew up with grandparents who loved to garden, growing plants adapted to Plant Hardiness Zone 8-9 with average annual minimum temperatures of 15-20° and near enough for weather to be influenced by the Gulf of Mexico. He comes to Mobile after ten years as CEO and president of the Tulsa Botanical Gardens in Zone 7 with mean low temperatures of 0-5° and no hurricanes to worry about. Welcome back to Mobile’s Zone 8-9! [More about Plant Hardiness Zones in another Lagniappe article soon.]
Dr. Lasseigne earned his undergraduate degree in horticulture from the University of Louisiana- Lafayette; M.S. at the University of Georgia; and Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from North Carolina State University. His career plan to become an academician shifted to working in public gardens after receiving the Martin McLauren Horticultural Scholarship from the Garden Club of America. This paused his graduate work for ten months to study in England. He spent six months at the world-renowned Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, and three months at Kew Gardens, while also travelling throughout England to visit 85 other botanical gardens!
Todd, as he prefers to be addressed, has a plant explorer’s gene, exploring plant communities in China, Mexico, the Republic of Georgia and Japan. His plant-seeking adventures in the U.S. have taken him to every county in Alabama among about 60% of all counties in the U.S. He estimates that he has visited over 450 botanical gardens, worldwide.
Todd and his wife, Heather Toedt, enjoy windshield botany wherever they travel. He is familiar with the Mobile area, often a great lunch stop on his travels from the University of Georgia to home in Thibodaux. He had been to Bellingrath Gardens a number of times previously, including during his honeymoon. Todd is excited to join old friends and plantsmen (plantspeople!) such as Linda and J. Guy, Bobby Green, Maartin van der Giessen, and the Dodd family in south Alabama.
His career has included creation of the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden in Kernersville, N.C, transforming an “abandoned Dairy Queen and a seven-acre kudzu patch.” In 2003, he assumed leadership of the fledgling 70-acre Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Garden, directing the implementation of a new master plan, grounds and collections development, fund-raising and building construction. The nationally recognized garden is now known as the Tulsa Botanic Garden, Oklahoma, and has its own “Garden of Lights” holiday exhibit established under Todd’s leadership!
Now, Todd welcomes a different set of botanical garden challenges and opportunities at Bellingrath Gardens and Home. The Gardens were designed for Walter and Bessie Bellingrath by architect George Bigelow Rogers in 1927, following the plans of Mrs. Bellingrath. The Home was completed in 1935, and the Gardens were opened to the public for the first time on April 7, 1932. After Bessie's death in 1943, Walter dedicated the rest of his life to work on the Gardens she had worked so hard to create. Multiple storms and hurricanes since then have damaged the Gardens but have resulted in replacement plantings and repeated restoration efforts.
With the Gardens’ long history, expectations of the Foundation Board, as well as frequent visitors, a changing audience and travel culture, and the natural requirements of managing mature plant collections and exhibits, Todd is dedicated to keeping the “Wow” factor and “This is cool!” reputation of the Gardens and Home. Immediate goals are to clean up the plantings, thin overgrown collections, exposing the diversity of plant specimens in the 3-D bed layers, remove weeds and exotics, and rejuvenation pruning of older specimens. (Visit now to observe this work underway with the Southern Indica azalea plants).
Todd and staff are also working on GIS mapping of plant types and rebuilding a comprehensive species list of the collections. Administratively, he wants to seek new avenues of marketing the Gardens, appealing to a changing audience and vacation travelling patterns. New events, such as the inaugural Bellingrath Beers and Blooms, are in the plans. Additionally, evening events are being explored but will require new lighting within the Gardens. Todd also wants to increase volunteer involvement and add educational programs.
In all, these are exciting times for Bellingrath Gardens and Home! Become a member and visit frequently to enjoy these new and often surprising experiences! Welcome, Dr. Lasseigne.
- By Dr. Judy Stout, Mobile County Master Gardener
Garden Events for Your Calendar
What Visit Bellingrath Gardens
Where:12401 Bellingrath Gardens Rd, Theodore, AL
When: 8 am to 5 pm daily
More info: www.bellingrath.org
What: Visit Mobile Botanical Gardens
Where: 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
When: Wed-Sun (check web site for hours and fees)
Lunch: Reserve a lunch Wednesdays and Fridays
More info: www.MobileBotanicalGardens.org
What: Alabama Garden Chat, a Zoom Space
to learn about seasonal garden problems
When: Wednesdays, 2 - 3 pm (April through August)
Questions: Email AlabamaGardenChat@gmail.com
Join with this link: auburn.zoom.us/j/82398811386
What: At Home Beekeeping Series, by Zoom
When: Aug 31 and Sept 28: 6:30-7:30 pm
Join with this link: http://auburn.zoom.us/j/904522838
What: Chainsaw Safety Workshop
When: Sept 13 at 8 am – 3 pm
Where: Jon Archer Agricultural Center
1070 Schillinger Road N, Mobile 36608
For more info: 251-259-6507 firstname.lastname@example.org
Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769