LEAVES BEHIND A LEGACY THAT SPANS NEARLY THREE DECADES
BY JESSICA MEDITZ
It’s the end of an era for the Queens Botanical Garden.
Susan Lacerte, who has served as executive director of the garden for the past 27 years, retired at the end of September. Lacerte began her tenure at the Queens Botanical Garden as an intern. At the time, the garden was headed in the wrong direction: staff left, people felt demoralized, plants died and were left uncared for, and there was excessive waste. It was during this time of crisis that she was hired as the new executive director.
Since then, Lacerte has gown the garden’s visibility in the community and overseen the creation of several new gardens within the 39-acre oasis Thanks to her leadership, the garden will open a new Education Center Building in 2024. Lacerte also spearheaded the construction of the Visitor and Administration Building in 2007, which set a new benchmark for sustainability by being New York’s first building to receive Platinum LEED certification.
“It was new at the time,” she said. “People weren’t doing things like geothermal and solar panels, so people came from all over the world to see it. It was absolutely thrilling to be on the leading edge of the green wave that has swept the nation.”
Lacerte’s passion for plants began when she was a young girl, living as one of six children in her parent’s ranch-style house in Groton, Connecticut. In their yard, her father tended to the vegetables and her mother to the flowers. As a family, they were always around nature.
“We used to go camping for vacations,” she said. “I never stayed in a hotel or motel until I was a senior in high school, so I was always around nature and I just became fascinated.”
Lacerte started her college career studying forestry at Penn State University, but eventually returned to her home state to study environmental horticulture at the University of Connecticut. It was a job at a museum in New Rochelle that brought her to New York for her post-grad work.
“I realized in New York plants are more important because you don’t have as many,” she said. “People treasure them here.”
That’s reflected in the 165,000-plus people who visit the Queens Botanical Garden every year. Lacerte emphasized the importance of the word “oasis” with regard to the garden.
“When you look at a map that shows the garden in this scheme, it’s so densely populated that we’re really an oasis,” she said. “People come here because they want to be around nature.”
During her time at the helm, Lacerte has worked hard to make sure that everyone in the diverse population of Queens felt welcome at the Queens Botanical Garden.
“We developed cultural advisory committees with the Chinese, Korean and Hispanic/Latino communities,” she said.
She said that in the Chinese culture, peonies are quite meaningful, so some were planted at the Queens Botanical Garden as part of its Gardening Day program. She said plants have brought together cultures and overcome language barriers.
“We had people from those communities come in and we asked what the ten most important plants were in their culture, or the ten most important holidays,” said Lacerte. “It was wonderful.”
Being in such a demanding position, fears come along with the thrills. For Lacerte, it was about money. She said that she would worry about having enough resources to pay the staff and continue to fund all the good ideas to continued to grow the garden, even with a budget just shy of $5 million. Authenticity and honesty was how she combated this fear.
“I’ve communicated with elected officials for 27 years,” Lacerte said.
“I’m very honest about how things are going and I always put my best foot forward. We serve their constituents, so it’s a community service and partnership. When you have partnerships like that, everyone sees the value,” she added.
All of these efforts will be continued by Rebecca Wolf, the garden’s assistant director, who will replace Lacerte on an interim basis. The search for the next permanent executive director is ongoing. Lacerte’s last day at the Queens Botanical Garden is September 30.
After her retirement, she plans to move to Portland, Maine, with her husband, where her two children, Gwen and Tom, also live.
Although the staff is sad to see her go, Lacerte said she will always be in touch and is confident in the direction the garden will take.
“Change is good, for the organization and for people too,” she said. “I think you learn new things and it gives opportunities to others.”