By many accounts, Steven Chamblee is a big name in the Texas horticultural world.
The Longview Arboretum and Nature Center Foundation has brought not only his big name to its soon-to-open gardens, but his desire to transform what will be the city’s outdoor home.
“I was out there (at the arboretum) the other night, and the lights had come on — it was the first night that the lights had come on — and I had just dedicated a little tree out there,” the horticulturist and storyteller said.
“I had planted two little trees and was consecrating one of them, and the sun was going down, and the lights were flickering, and the geese were flying overhead honking and all this. ... The place is magical,” Chamblee said of the 26-acre site, “and I just thought to myself, ‘This is home. This is really a sweet place to be.’”
Chamblee arrived in Longview earlier this month, after the Longview Arboretum and Nature Center Foundation board of directors hired him as executive director and just ahead of the grand opening of the first phase of the arboretum on Nov. 2.
The board said it believes Chamblee’s hiring positions the Longview Arboretum to be one of the highest regarded new gardens in the state, as Chamblee brings connections and experience and also knows almost everyone in Texas horticulture.
Chamblee is considered one of the top five horticulturalists in Texas by Neil Sperry, a man regarded as Texas’ guru on all things horticultural, according to a statement this week from the foundation.
As writer of the column, “Native Son,” Chamblee has been a regular contributor to Sperry’s publications over the years — first to the now-defunct Neil Sperry’s Gardens magazine and now to the Neil Sperry’s e-gardens newsletter.
“Longview will be immensely proud of the day that he was hired,” Sperry said.
Author, horticulturist and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agent for Smith County Greg Grant — a Longview High School graduate — mentioned Chamblee’s enthusiasm, saying that he brings “incredible horticultural knowledge and experience,” as well as plant diversity.
Grant called Chamblee an “outside-the-box thinker and philosopher” and a “good friend and an incredible stroke of luck for my native Longview.”
Barney Lipscomb of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth has known Chamblee for at least the past 25 years.
“Steven is a writer, contributor and public speaker and therefore will raise the level of awareness of the Longview Arboretum and Nature Center with not only a local community but also with local, state, regional and national horticulturists and botanists,” Lipscomb, director of BRIT Press and Library and Leonhardt Chair of Texas Botany, said in an email. “Steven thinks locally but acts globally! I think Steven will engage the Longview community and the importance of gardening and studying nature to education, science and conservation.”
Chamblee’s connections extend beyond state boundaries, however, as he’s received pledges of support from colleagues and business people in other states.
“I’ve got a lot of people who are anxious to help with this. I’ve gotten calls from a couple of plant guys — they’re well known in horticulture — and a couple of nurseries as far as Alabama who are saying, ‘Let me know what to put on the truck. We’ll send it your way.’”
Arboretum board officer Suzanne Cook said of hiring Chamblee, “Getting him was a complete coup, in my opinion. ... The lucky timing was one thing. He was ready for a change, but to get somebody with his experience and his charm, actually — he is charming — it’s just going to be fabulous for our arboretum.”
How the arboretum got here
Chamblee will handle the day-to-day responsibilities for running the arboretum and attached nature center, according to the board. He will cultivate volunteers and plan programming work for what is proposed be an interactive park.
The overall master planned arboretum development is designed to showcase the ecosystem and native landscape of East Texas. The main entrance includes the Visitor and Nature Center, which will house ongoing exhibits, children’s activity rooms, a gift shop and an event hall.
The late Dencil Marsh, supported by his fellow Gregg County Master Gardeners, originated the idea for building an arboretum on the Grace Creek floodplain and spent years cultivating the idea to officials and groups across Longview. Marsh also was a member of the Northeast Texas chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas and drew on knowledge of its members to identify ecosystems within the 26 acres, along with native plants that should be showcased.
In 2006, a volunteer group then known as East Texas Gardens, Arboretum and Conservation held a 99-year, $1-a-year lease with the city for the land. Five years later, that lease was canceled by the group, which returned the property to city ownership to focus on fundraising.
The city has designated all 26 acres of the arboretum as a municipal park. The volunteer group, now known as the Longview Arboretum and Nature Center Foundation, continues to raise funds and manage the facility under a memorandum of understanding.
This past spring, the Longview City Council dedicated $1.5 million of its voter-approved bond funds toward the arboretum, including the installation of plants.
The foundation has raised more than $2 million in grants and private donations, and Gregg County has provided labor and equipment to help clear arboretum lands before construction.
Road to Longview
Chamblee will be at the grand opening of the first 11 acres at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at the main entrance at 706 W. Cotton St. The grand opening is a free admission day.
Overflow parking is available at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center, 100 Grand Blvd., with a west gate entrance into the arboretum.
The grand opening might seem like a festival, Chamblee said.
“Every time I talk to a board member, they’ve come up with something new,” he said of the entertainment lineup, “so even I don’t know what will happen here, but that’s what I love about the board, too. There’s some very traditional people on the board, and there are some who are very imaginative and very creative people. And (when) you put a blend like that together, it’s really going to be an amazing thing.”
‘The same fell swoop’
Chamblee was born in Orlando, Florida, but didn’t see his first birthday there. As the son of an Air Force father, he called several locales “home” until moving to Texas one day after his 18th birthday.
He’s called the Lone Star State his home ever since.
His first job was helping in his father’s tree-transplanting business, using a machine to move dirtballs measuring up to 6,600 pounds or 78 inches across, thus beginning his more than 40 years in horticulture.
“My parents were divorced at a young age. I didn’t know my father all that well, so when I moved to Texas, I started helping him on the weekends, and I got to know my father and found my vocation all in the same fell swoop. So that worked out pretty cool,” he said.
“That’s one of my favorite stories. I don’t know if it’s entertaining, but it’s one of my favorites,” he said.
Chamblee spent eight years as a gardener and greenhouse attendant at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
His higher education began with Tarrant County Junior College, where he earned an associate’s degree of applied science in ornamental horticulture.
He later earned a bachelor’s degree of science in horticulture from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, before attending the University of Delaware’s graduate program for public administration in horticulture.
Along with attaining his master’s degree, he completed a graduate fellowship at Longwood Gardens, regarded as a “pretty prestigious” botanical showplace in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, he said, calling it, “arguably the nicest garden in North America.”
Longwood Gardens was built by Pierre S. du Pont in the early 20th century. Upon his death in 1954, du Pont left the gardens with “a very generous endowment, which was, of course, built upon by the trustees of the foundation, so they deal with a lot of money,” Chamblee said. “It was interesting to be in a place with all of this grandeur and travel opportunities for everybody. They do things on an exceptional level.”
From there, Chamblee went on to gardens and museums financed on significantly smaller scales.
“I worked at the Heard Natural Science Museum in McKinney for about a year and a half right after graduation, and then I went back to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden,” he said.
He returned as the Botanic Garden’s grounds manager, which was tricky, he said, because he was now supervisor to many of the employees whom he had “been such a cutup with” when he was a gardener and greenhouse attendant in previous years.
“I had been their peer, and all of the shenanigans had been remembered well,” he said.
Chamblee spent four years as the grounds manager, then another four years as the education director.
From there, he went to Chandor Gardens in Weatherford for what he thought would be only five years, “but ended up staying 13” years before moving on earlier this year.
Still, Chamblee said he’s proud of his service at Chandor Gardens.
“Chandor Gardens was an older garden and had been ignored for a long time, so the city (of Weatherford) did all of this revamping of the garden, and then a lot of people thought the garden was finished, and that all it needed was some occasional maintenance,” he remembered.
‘The beginning’ in Longview
“I got (to Chandor Gardens) and I thought to myself, ‘We’re not finished. We’re just beginning,’” he said, “and so a lot things people didn’t see. Aging infrastructure was the main problem at Chandor Gardens. The bridge was rotted out, the pergolas and all of that, so with blood — literally — sweat, lots of it, and tears on more occasions than I would like to admit, we rebuilt that garden.”
It took more than 50,000 hours of manpower partly through community service labor to rebuild pergolas, bridges and other infrastructure of the garden, along with maintaining good horticulture, he said.
He said he believes the Longview Arboretum could have a similar story and called the relationship between foundation board members and city administrators “beautiful.”
“It’s like they have built a wonderful house, and my job is to take that house and make it a home,” Chamblee said. “While this Phase 1 and Phase 2 are being completed, it’s an amazing thing, and it’s beautiful, but I see it as the beginning, not like an ending.”
He furthered explained how he differentiates a house and a home, saying that a house is the infrastructure or shelter including plumbing and other utilities and necessities.
A home, meanwhile, meets a person’s emotional or spiritual needs.
“You walk into a house, and if there’s pictures on the wall, that tells a story. If there’s little trophies on the wall, that tells a story. The choice of carpets, and sometimes there’s fancy furniture, and then there’s an old piece of furniture sitting over there that looks like it doesn’t match. But what does that tell you without saying a word? That’s an ancestral piece. That’s part of their history. That was their grandmother’s favorite chair, and so it’s the things that touch the heart,” he explained.
Chamblee’s goal is to provide “an ultimate living space,” complete with secret or pocket gardens that are either as tiny as a closet or up to 5 acres or more.
With help from local employer Komatsu, Chamblee is considering an Oriental garden that highlights the Japanese style of gardening, which he called “deceptively simple” because it looks easy but is difficult to create in balance and harmony.
“It’s an interesting thing. There’s kind of the classic European style of beauty — things are very symmetrical, linear (and) usually everything is balanced because of the symmetry and all of that,” Chamblee said. “In Oriental, there are standards of beauty. Things usually are not symmetrical. … It’s balanced, but it’s asymmetrical, and there are different interpretations of what is beautiful, and so I love that. I want bring that to this garden, because it’s almost like people. We all look a little different. Some of us look at lot different. … So I want to highlight different garden styles in here and demonstrate that.”
Chamblee said the arboretum is always looking for volunteers.
Regular hours for the arboretum will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.
Jimmy Daniell Isaac covers the city of Longview and Gregg County. Follow him on Twitter: @jimmyisaaclives.