Smith Names New Director of Botanic Garden

Photo by Brittany Todd

A plant scientist who is deeply committed to plant conservation and native species has been chosen to lead one of the nation’s outstanding academic plant collections.

Tim Johnson, currently head of preservation at Seed Savers Exchangean international non-profit organization that works to conserve, share and promote heirloom seeds and plants—will begin work as director of the Smith College Botanic Garden in June.

Johnson’s appointment is significant as Smith’s Botanic Garden is one of the best indoor and outdoor college plant collections in the United States. The entire Smith College campus was designed in 1893 as a botanic garden by acclaimed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for designing New York’s Central Park.

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Katherine Rowe says Johnson joins Smith at “a propitious moment as the college seeks to expand the curricular impact of its unique collections.”

New opportunities for collaboration are a key focus of Smith’s strategic plan,” Rowe notes. “With his experience leading strategic planning, his ability to collaborate across organizations, and a forward-thinking and reflective leadership style, Tim will be a great addition to the leadership team at Smith.”

Johnson said the Smith position provides an opportunity to build on two of his great passions—plants and the life of the mind. While visiting Minneapolis’ Como Park Zoo as an undergraduate, “it suddenly dawned on me,” he said, “that all the plants had stories—that each of these plants had found its way to this place by some circuitous, interesting route. That visit made plants so real—I could feel their stories, touch them, smell them. And so the idea that I could be paid to work in a place that helps to tell those stories—and especially at a place like Smith, with its strong commitment to women’s education—is an amazing opportunity.”

As director, Johnson joins an outstanding team at the Botanic Garden, who partner with faculty and staff in advancing botanical and environmental literacy among students and the public, foster student research and lead plant conservation efforts. Johnson will be responsible for the leadership, care and management of the garden, improving and maintaining the living collections as an instructional garden; overseeing public programming, education and outreach; and directing ancillary teaching and research activities in botany, horticulture and landscape studies.

Johnson joins the college at an important time in its landscape development, during the ongoing re-imagining of Smith’s Neilson Library—a project being led by renowned designer Maya Lin and venerable architecture firm Shepley Bulfinch.

The author of numerous scientific publications, Johnson has presented at conferences across the United States and has received grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 1772 Foundation and United Natural Foods Incorporated, among others.

Johnson holds a bachelor of science degree in biology with a minor in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He earned master of science and doctoral degrees in environmental horticulture from the University of Florida.

Johnson says he is eager to meet people at Smith and to develop collaborative relationships on and off campus. He plans to spend much of his first months on campus listening and learning, he says.

His highest hope, he says, is that people will use the Botanic Garden.

“Smith has put a lot of effort into building a taxonomically diverse collection,” he says. “What’s also important, going forward, is how the collection is used and seen. I want people who don’t currently understand the value in plants to see the value in them.”