Is Mass Hort Withering on the Vine?


Things weren’t looking good for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society last month when the Boston Globe ran a story reporting that the organization has laid off almost two-thirds of its staff, taking it from an agency of 30 employees to only 12. The executive director resigned after questions arose about financial improprieties at his last job, and the story also reminded readers that the controversial sale of $5.4 million in rare books a few years ago seems to have not solved the organization’s financial problems. (many of those books went to the Chicago Botanic Garden, BTW)

And now, the latest development–Mass Hort has sent out a letter to its creditors explaining why they haven’t been paid.  I am the lucky recipient of such a letter; they owe me $2,758 in speaking fees and travel expenses for a talk they hired me to give at the New England Flower Show in March.   (Click the image of the letter to read it if you’re so inclined, or go here.)  The letter informs me that "the Society is not under a court order, has not assigned rights to other parties, nor has it filed for bankruptcy protection."  However, it goes on to explain, it is following the "well-respected protocol established by the US bankruptcy courts for treating creditors equally."

In other words, ain’t none of us getting paid.

For me, it’s an expensive lesson to learn. I’ll just have to be more assertive about getting payment up front.   Or, as I wrote to Mass Hort after I got this letter, "Unfortunately, I realize now that I should have refused to go onstage and
give my talk until a check was handed to me.  At the time it seemed like a
terribly rude way to behave, but now I realize that the true lack of
consideration was on your organization’s part, by allowing me to provide
services to you that you had no intention of paying for."

Mass Hort has put out a special SOS appeal to
try to "make sure that we can stay solvent."  I hope that appeal works
out for them, because I’m sure I’m not the only one who is out not just
a fee for a service, but actual out-of-pocket expenses.  And that’s to say nothing of the 18 employees who lost their jobs. (By the way, their letter tells me that I have the option of converting my "outstanding balance" to a tax-deductible contribution.  That would certainly be the largest and least voluntary charitable contribution I’ve ever made–at the moment I’m disinclined to do so.)

I hope Mass Hort digs their way out of this mess.  In addition to sponsoring the
annual flower show, they have the responsibility of caring for any
number of lovely gardens, not to mention the only Master Gardener program in the state.  It would be a shame to see all this hard work and expertise lost because of financial mismanagement.

Bostonians, keep us posted if you hear anything about Mass Hort’s ongoing struggles.

(UPDATE from an alert reader:  Their charming gift shop Flora is having what looks like a close-out sale this weekend.  If you’re in the area, go get your bargains.)


  1. I think Mass Hort has a huge pair of root balls to suggest to you that your ‘balance be converted into a gift to the Society … for tax deduction’.

    Bad Mass Hort. bad, not to mention shameful.

    This type of mismanagement and poor business behavior would make Charles Sprague Sargent and Frederick Law Olmstead take away your Emerald Necklace.

  2. A small correction…Mass Hort does not have the only Master Gardener Program in the state of Massachusetts – Barnstable County (Cape Cod) has a thriving MG program through the Cooperative Extension here – I am a volunteer MG myself. I also understand that the Berkshire Botanic Garden in the western part of the state also runs a MG program.

    Amy – as a speaker who also goes out fully expecting to be paid after the talk, I sympathize! all the best, C.L.

  3. Very sorry about your lack of payment. Also sounds like their director was a mess. But just like the economy is tough on lots of corporations, it is also very tough on non-profits.

  4. That is lousy and bad and shameful. I’m sorry you are out the dollars, and I hope the society can get itself together enough to make things right.

  5. The other Master Gardener program in Massachusetts is The Master Gardener’s of Western Massachusetts. This includes the Berkshires, and is not finacially connected to the Berkshire Botanical Garden.It grew out of Umass Amherst when the state stopped supporting the program.

  6. That is really too bad. Do we now have to stamp our feet before going onstage? I think the worst part is their suggestion that you make it a charitable contribution. It seems you already have.~~Dee

  7. Arrrrggggghhhhhhh. I am sorry for you, but I am also sorry for those of us who garden in/near Boston!

    As a gardener who lives near Boston, I spent hours this spring helping Mass Hort plant their section of what we call “The Greenway” — a string of gardens running between the harbor areas of Boston and the downtown/Chinatown areas. This area used to be horrific elevated highway, and was recently placed underground during the infamous “Big Dig”.

    It is so wonderful to see some pedestrian-, insect- and bird-friendly green space in the heart of the city, and it was a huge volunteer effort — with what seemed to be only 1 or 2 paid staff worked on site.

    I hope MassHort has retained enough staff to continue to coordinate volunteers to maintain these new gardens. Likewise, the new Adrian Bloom-designed perennial garden planted last fall needs volunteer maintenance, as does the fabulous children’s garden designed by Julie Meserve. I am happy to give them my time — but I am scared to give them my money….

    How can they restore confidence in the business management skills?

  8. Very bad. Very, very bad. And it gives hort a black eye with their wicked behavior and irresponsibility.

    FWIW, I learned many years ago to get half of all fees up-front before committing to a project. That way, I’m not out altogether in a situation like this one.

    Gardening Examiner

  9. I, too, am appalled by this grievous lack of accountability since I actually attended, and very much enjoyed, your lecture and meeting you in person. Where did those millions go? Inquiring minds want to know!

  10. As a member of Mass Hort I have been saddened by the financial misfeasance,but and appalled by the lack of payments to all kinds of creditors. Its alarming that things could have gotten to such a pass before steps were taken. However, I have hope(just like a gardener) that the organization will come back in good form because they have many valuable resources – not the least of which is noble volunteers.

  11. Being in the hort industry in NY I have heard a lot about the problems with the MAss Hort Society. It has been going for several years now.
    A shame indeed………..
    The TROLL

  12. I too was an exhibitor at the show who did not receive payment. I am out $3500 and this is money that I had saved up for college. Hopefully some sort of solution comes about and soon.

  13. Mass Hort has new leadership. A team of committed staff, volunteers and Trustees are working diligently to restructure the oldest horticultural society, during these difficult economic times. With rising energy costs, past management issues, and stiff competition for donor dollars, Mass Hort is focusing on its core mission. Many of us hope that we can turn Mass Hort around, and be worthy of your praise. Your support, understanding, and patience will be greatly appreciated.

  14. You guys have no idea how much of a criminal the old director, Bob Feige is. He destroyed a previous company, lives, and pulled cash from the company, ultimately destroyed it. It’s the same mode of operation that probably did there..I’ll bet he started out as a volunteer, offered to help, then ingratiated himself to people until he “inherited” the job. Then wierd stuff probably started happening..vendors didn’t get paid, overspending and he probably paid himself an ungodly amount of money. same as he did before…he is a con man and he has conned many smart people including Mass Hort trustees.

  15. All these problems started in 1992 with the hiring of John C. Peterson (described in the “Boston Globe” as a snake oil salesman – one of the more flattering remarks made about him) and the Board of Trustees who enabled him for more than a decade to dismantle, defile, and cheapen the Society. He was putrid and the trustees had to have had some inkling – some of them were fairly bright.

  16. What is happening to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society happened recently to the Newcomen Society in North America, the learned society based in Exton, Pennsylvania. Once a powerful organization with many influential members, the society began a slow decline after the loss of its visionary directors. It was taken over by individuals who looked the part but lacked the founder’s burning commitment. Membership dropped off. Seeing that Newcomen was going down, one of the directors absconded with the society’s endowment, a blow from which the non-profit organization never recovered. To survive, Newcomen’s assets were sold, including art, antiques, real estate and its splendid library. But that only delayed the inevitable — closure. Short of a miracle, M.H.S. will follow.

  17. Makes me wonder if there’s a connection between Mass Hort and KAS Publications, who was selling subscriptions to gardening mags at the March flower show? It dawned on me this weekend that I’ve never gotten my magaizes, so I called the number on my Visa statement and was told “oh, your subscription should start next month.” Hm. Something smells a little fishy, given that my card was charged in March. Had I not called, what then?

  18. Mass Hort Elm Bank Gardens and Greenway Gardens are beautiful.
    With a limited staff and generous volunteers, the properties are being maintained and enhanced.

    Mass Hort is operating with a new team. The Trustees are diligently addressing issues and a concerns, and working for a new future.

    The past is over, and unfortunately the mess is not cleaned up yet. If enthusiastic, committed, goal-orientated gardeners who want to make Mass Hort the place and institution it SHOULD have been, then Mass Hort will thrive again.

    Please join forces with us as volunteers? We are not the ones who caused the problems; we can be the ones who solve them.

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