In his seven months at the helm of Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Executive Director Todd Lasseigne has been welcomed by a continuing global pandemic and a very active hurricane season.
Lasseigne, who grew up in southeast Louisiana, is no stranger to big storms, but even he admitted the “two and a half” storms that hit this part of the Gulf Coast were a challenge for the gardens.
“Hurricanes and gardens don’t mix well,” he said. “I have an experienced staff who worked to secure the gardens and the home, of course. All horticulturalists are weather geeks so we were aware of them before they came ashore, and the only thing you can really do is just prepare.”
Just like in downtown Mobile, Lasseigne said, Hurricane Sally, a relatively small storm, damaged a surprising number of trees in the gardens.
“We were all surprised by broken limbs, trash and tree debris,” he said. “I brought my chainsaw in the next day and got to work next to everyone else.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was well underway, but still very much an issue when Lasseigne came to Bellingrath from the Tulsa Botanic Garden in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, Lasseigne called the pandemic “devastating” for Bellingrath, which was closed for two months last spring.
“You do not want to close a garden in the spring,” he said. “We had to lay off staff. It required the same sort of thinking everyone else had.”
The pandemic led to a new batch of processes at the gardens, Lasseigne said, including during the facility’s signature event, Magic Christmas in Lights. Bellingrath enforced social distancing and sold timed tickets for the event to make it as safe as possible, he said.
Still, the gardens, being mostly outdoors, fared better than indoor entertainment venues like concert halls and theaters, Lasseigne said.
“We had better cards in our hands because we could have people outside,” he said of the pandemic. “Like everyone else we still had to straddle the line between responsible and aware of our business needs.”
Now, with more Alabamians getting vaccinated, Bellingrath is beginning to plan more events for this spring, Lasseigne said. The facility even hosted a festival in early March called Beers and Blooms, with more planned to take advantage of pent-up demand.
“It was a solid event,” Lasseigne said. “People are beginning to desire a return to normalcy. We feel the trends are good.”
Lasseigne came from Tulsa, where he was tapped to start a botanic garden, basically from scratch.
“The group that started it was fresh,” he said. “My job was to come up with a master plan.”
He and the group were able to raise some $20 million in capital funding and helped “put it on the map.”
“It was a lot of fun, starting something new,” Lasseigne said. “I was there nine and a half years.”
It was a change for Lasseigne, to go from a brand-new garden to gardens as steeped in history as Bellingrath. It’s a consideration he’s not taking lightly.
“I knew it from my childhood,” Lasseigne said of Bellingrath. “It’s one of the grand dames in the South’s garden world.”
He said he thinks “deeply about the place” and consults with an experienced staff before considering changes. Although Lasseigne realizes there will have to be efforts to modernize some of the facilities, there are no “wholesale” changes planned.
“I know better than to rip the azaleas out,” he said, joking.
However, Lasseigne wants to host more events that bring new folks to the gardens and home.
“We own a lot of land,” he said. “We could have a trail network. I think the world’s our oyster.”
He wants to promote and create new exhibits, like a possible children’s garden. Promotion of gardening and better sustainability could be something new, too.
“We can be socially relevant and cutting edge, while still being historic,” he said. “It ain’t easy, but you can do it.”
A focus on engagement of K-12 schools in the area is also on the wishlist for Lasseigne. The gardens get school groups for tours, but he would like better outreach on the part of the staff to drive new and younger visitors.
“We don’t reach out, especially to underserved audiences,” he said. “Not everyone is coming for the azaleas. We want to give people more than one reason to be here.”
Lasseigne received his undergraduate degree from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, then attended the University of Georgia for a master’s degree and North Carolina State University for a Ph.D. in horticulture.
As part of his graduate programs, Lasseigne said, he studied and worked in England, Japan and the nation of Georgia, before landing a job at a small garden in Kernersville, N.C.
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