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Nothing Mickey Mouse About This Visionary

Meet River Farm's New CEO

The path from the hype and fantasy of Disney World to the tranquility and reality of George Washington's River Farm would certainly qualify for Robert Frost's road "less traveled by."

Will it make "all the difference" for Katy Moss Warner, the new president and CEO of the American Horticultural Association (AHS)? Probably not.

But for the nation's oldest gardening organization and its vision for the future, those two divergent roads of this experienced horticulturalist, businessperson and leader may be the exact combination "to connect every person in America with plants and gardens and create a land of gardeners."

After four years as director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and a year at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on a Loeb Fellowship, Warner assumed the reins of the AHS on April 2.

"As modern Americans, we face a multitude of daily distractions. We need to make plants and gardens fun and colorful and lively, so that we can stay focused on the important role they play in our lives," Warner said. "In addition, the role of open space, green space, within our communities is vital to our way of life."

IN EXPLAINING AHS' new vision, Warner noted that "it is a huge challenge. And our focus here at River Farm is to create a model of what we should be doing nationally with green space to make gardens a central part of our life."

A native of Garrison, N.Y., on the Hudson River, Warner graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in landscape architecture. She received her master’s degree in public garden administration from the University of Delaware's school at Longwood Gardens.

"She is a very dynamic and capable person. We were very lucky to get her after her service at Disney. Katy is a visionary and was one of the driving forces for our new vision," said Kurt Bluemel, incoming chair of AHS and owner of Kurt Bluemel Inc., Baldwin, Md.

This opinion was echoed by Dr. H. Marc Cathey, AHS president emeritus and one of its most senior members. "She is an amazing horticulturalist with an outstanding knowledge of what gardening should be. She's extremely enthusiastic and very supportive of the Farm's scientific projects," he said.

To achieve AHS' new vision, Warner said she plans to forge close relationships with other horticultural and nonhorticultural organizations and seek partnerships to introduce gardening to more Americans. "Although the Society has a strong presence in print, that is not so with television, radio and on the Web," Warner pointed out.

EDUCATION OF ALL ages, to become environmentally responsible caretakers of the earth through gardening, is a key to the new vision, according to Warner. "We hope to inspire everyone to make a difference in their communities through the art and science of horticulture," she emphasized.

"We used to create beautiful parkways, gardens and landscape areas. We don't do that any more. It seems all we create are highways," Warner complained.

Her creative thinking was touted by first-year AHS board member Duane Kelly, producer of the San Francisco and Northwestern flower and garden shows. "AHS is very fortunate to get her at this particular juncture in its history. In fact, the entire national gardening community is very fortunate. She thinks big, and that is just what we need."

Susie Usrey — assistant vice president, Monrovia, a horticultural center — described Warner as "one great package of knowledge, passion, creativity and intelligence. Her expertise in the industry is unlimited."

That expertise was honed during her 24-year stint at Disney World, where Warner was responsible for planning and maintaining the landscapes of four theme parks, 15 hotels and more than 70 miles of roadway. She also has received numerous awards for her work, including the Garden Club of America's Margaret Douglas Medal for notable service in the cause of conservation education.

BUT HER RESIDENCE at River Farm is new to her only as a home. She has a long and close association with AHS. A member since 1980, she served on the board of directors for 10 years and was chair from 1998 to 2000.

"During my years on the board, I became very familiar with the area, particularly Old Town Alexandria," she said. "I would get the others to go there to try new restaurants and interesting, fun spots."

Included in the Society's vision is the creation of a new Horticultural Media Center, the launching of an updated USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map this fall, the publication of regional gardening guides, and offering more gardening opportunities for gardeners, young and old, novice and expert.

Founded in 1922, AHS is an educational, nonprofit organization that recognizes and promotes best practices in horticulture. It is especially known for its educational programs and the dissemination of horticultural information.

Warner's aim includes positioning the River Farm's 25 acres of landscaped lawns, meadows and woods on the banks of the Potomac River, just off the George Washington Parkway, south of Alexandria, as the Center for American Horticulture.

"I think River Farm can be a model for gardening in America. This is our opportunity to showcase the best-of-the-best, connect what we practice to a national audience and to be leaders in the stewardship of this beautiful land of ours," Warner said.