By: Nancy Adams, Mobile County Master Gardener, www.mobilecountymastergardeners.org
Maarten van der Giessen is a local nurseryman who believes Mobile is uniquely gifted with the location and natural resources to be the most beautiful city in the South. He also believes that the center of this transformation should be the Mobile Botanical Gardens (MBG). He is helping to make it happen.
Maarten has traced his horticultural ancestry back to the 1700s in the Netherlands. He grew up in Memphis, where his dad, Peter, was a broker for seeds and plants. Mobile was in his territory. Peter took a job as Manager of Cottage Hill Nursery in Irvington, Alabama, and moved to Mobile in 1975.
Maarten followed his dad in 1979 to enroll at the University of South Alabama. He studied chemistry, intending to become a chemist. But his own chemistry, along with some gentle encouragement from his father, led him into horticulture and ultimately to Van der Giessen Nurseries in Semmes, Alabama. “I literally fell into horticulture. When I was three, I fell into a bucket of root stimulator. I cried all the way home because I thought it would grow roots on my bottom. I guess I put down roots after all,” he quipped.
Maarten has written Lagniappe articles about significant contributors to horticultural development in south Alabama, including the Dodd family, Tsukasa Kiyono, and Kosaku Sawada, who brought camellia seeds to Mobile from Japan. Also, Maarten’s own family has made considerable contributions to the beautification of Mobile.
The van der Giessen Nursery is a 50-acre wholesale farm operated by Maarten, his longtime friend, Billy Lucas, and Maarten’s wife, Colleen Keleher. Established in 1990, it specializes in unusual azaleas and unique ornamental plants. He has served as president of the South Alabama Nursery Association, the Alabama Nursery Association, and the International Plant Propagators Southern Region.
In 2004, when MBG was at its low point with no director and few funds, van der Giessen was asked to join the MBG Board of Directors. He accepted, helped to rebuild, and served as president for three years. He is still actively involved and passionately believes in the importance of horticulture.
He has recently become interested in Japanese maples. Robin Krchak, the executive director of Mobile Botanical Gardens, told us, “In 2016, Maarten van der Giessen donated the nursery’s collection of Aromi hybrid azaleas to the Gardens, saying, ‘Mobile Botanical Gardens allows us to hand down what we value to our children, and to their children. It is an enduring home. It is our enduring home.’ And in the fall of 2019, Maarten entrusted us with nearly two hundred Japanese maples which, along with significant camellias from Bobby Green, have been installed in a new six-acre Japanese Maple Garden. Through the generous donation of plants from both Maarten and Bobby Green, along with almost $10,000 in donations from supportive members and friends, Mobile Botanical Gardens now has the largest collection of Japanese Maples in the Southeast.”
Maarten has said, “Horticulture is one of the best investments any homeowner or municipality can make. A great example is the return that the City of Mobile has experienced from replanting the azaleas on Spring Hill Avenue. For a paltry investment they transformed a bleak industrial median into a garden. Knowledge gives one the ability to see a richer world. And the younger folks are interested in the industry and hungry for information. When you’re talking plants, there is no generation gap. The excitement is universal.
“I envision MBG as a center where people become excited about learning how things grow and experiencing the broader possibilities that Mobile has to offer. Mobile Botanical Gardens is where Mobile comes to grow, and if it lives up to its potential, so will the City. The ultimate effect: Mobile becomes even more unique and beautiful.”
And what does Maarten do when the sun goes down? “I practice playing the violin that Colleen found in a garage sale. (Maarten is a long-time musician.) Sometimes the cat will even stay in the same room.” He was a delight to interview. (Maarten is pictured with his dog Rhody above.)