Can a free public garden become a sustainable self-supporting venture in Ridgefield’s green and pricey hills? Joe Keller hopes so, and he’s got a plan.

Keller is the master gardener, quirky mind, work-in-the-dirt hands, and guiding spirit behind the Garden of Ideas. A 13-acre retreat of gardens, sculpture and walking paths beside Lake Mamanasco at 653 North Salem Road, the Garden of Ideas is open to the public, for free, seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“We have just thousands and thousands of varieties of plants, both native and exotic,” said Keller.

“There’s a bridge across the marsh. We have a labyrinth on the other side of the marsh. We have chickens, probably a couple dozen sculptures placed throughout the garden. There’s a lily pond, vegetable garden, greenhouse…”

Keller has launched a campaign to raise $1 million, which he believes can make a self-sustaining operation of the Garden — which, arguably, has been his life’s work.

“Do or Die!!!” says an appeal on the Garden’s website, gardenofideas.com.

“We’ve reached a terminal point here in the Garden of Ideas in the summer of 2018, 32 years after I first put a shovel in the ground … Unfortunately, we can no longer properly maintain ourselves as a garden open to the public on our meager annual budget.”

The Garden of Ideas is one of Ridgefield’s assets, valuable as both a retreat for locals and an attraction bringing people to town. It co-sponsors programs with the Discovery Center, has hosted library reading programs, and had a 4-H club for a few years.

Keller figures it gets about 4,000 visitors a year, some newcomers, some returning regulars.

“I’ve got people coming in the Garden now who are bringing their kids — and I knew them when they were kids,” Keller said.

Roots

The Garden of Ideas started on the small residential property where Keller grew up, learning gardening — and the love of it — from his mother, Terry Keller. She was the “Gardening Guides” columnist in The Press years ago — a role he took on for some time himself. She headed the Ballard Greenhouse in Ridgefield, went on to lead the Green Guerrillas gardening program in Manhattan, and later started the Bronx Green-Up program at the New York Botanical Garden.

“She had a landscaping business that, as high schoolers, my younger brother and I worked for — some friends of mine worked for her, too. So, I grew up around it, I enjoyed it,” Keller said.

After college he started his own landscaping business, and today, Keller and his wife, Ilsa Svendsen, earn their living landscaping — their business, Svendsen & Keller, has clients around Fairfield County and nearby New York state.

Over the decades, the Garden of Ideas has grown to include four properties along North Salem Road — Joe, Iisa and their son live in one house, his mom Terry lives in another, and two are rentals.

The simple version of Keller’s plan is to have the Friends of the Garden of Ideas — a seven-year-old 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with a board that Keller heads — raise $1 million through contributions and use the money the two buy the rental properties from the family. The Garden of Ideas — as opposed to the Kellers — would own the two properties, and receive the $40,000 or $50,000 a year in rental income.

That would be enough to make the garden self-sustaining, he figures. It currently gets by on less.

He and Ilsa would have the proceeds from one sale, and his mother would have the proceeds from the other — they’d have gotten their money back out, and could invest in something with more reliable returns than a free public garden.

“We’re land rich and cash poor,” Keller said. “The Garden is struggling, on a non-profit basis. My mom is 86. We have a boy who’s about to start high school, so we’re looking at college. Taxes just keep going up and up.”

The capital campaign and buy-out seem a way to keep it all going.

The Garden of Ideas would be operating on a sound financial basis, set up to continue indefinitely into the future, supported by its new rental income from the two properties.

Public benefit

“We need to raise $1,000,000 for this cause,” Keller says on the Garden’s website. “Our family is pledging $50,000. We need 1,600 people to pledge $200 a year for three years for the rest.

“1600 people, pledging $200 a year, for three years, lets this place live forever … or at least until the sun burns out.

“Your pledge grants the Garden of Ideas permanence.“ (Pledges can be emailed to gardenpledge@outlook.com.)

Keller sees a public benefit in the Garden — and his plan to save it.

“Currently, the Garden is a 13-acre parcel, it’s open to the public 365 days a year, no charge.,” he told The Press. “If we can’t raise sufficient funds to make us self-sustaining, we likely can’t continue, and so those 13 acres would be lost to the public as open space, and public use.

“My initial thought was: Well, if this is perceived as a public good, then it needs public support to keep going,” he said.

He points to support the initiative has gotten in its first month — from mid-August to mid-September — as evidence that many Ridgefielders agree about the Garden’s value.

“So far we have 140 pledges and we’re up to $142,000,” he said.

Among the pledgers are some local business owners, who Keller believes support the Garden both as a concept — for itself —  and as a Ridgefield attraction.

“A lot of business people in town have pledged, knowing people come to town specifically to go to the Garden of Ideas, and end up going to the restaurants, or shopping in their stores,” he said.

Consider the Garden’s guest sign-in books.

“We have guests from all over the country, every state you could imagine in the country, every town in Connecticut, foreign visitors as well,” he said. “Anyone who has foreign visitors coming to town, they bring them by the Garden of Ideas.”

That the Garden is a regional attraction is evident, Keller says, in the bump in visitors’ numbers evident after it appears periodically as a Connecticut attraction in the “Only in Your State” website, or from being named The Best Public Garden in Connecticut by Yankee Magazine this year.

As a free attraction, Keller said, the Garden of Ideas has been scraping along on donations, grants and money from selling flowers and vegetables — the annual budget ranges from $10,000 to maybe $20,000 a year.

“You’re relying on money from donors. We’ve gotten some small grants from local organizations — the Thrift Shop, the Lewis Fund, the Rotary Club,” he said.

“And then we have a donation box...

“In spring, I start from seed flowering plants and vegetables, and we sell those. We also have a small farm stand — we have a small vegetable-growing operation, that brings in some revenue,” Keller said. “The margins on growing vegetables are pretty slim.”

The Garden survived on about $12,000 last year, he said, and needs more.

“Considering the crowds we’ve been getting the last two or three years, to do it justice we need to get the number closer to $20,000 or $25,000 — that’s hard to do that as a non-profit. Then we could maintain the Garden at a suitable quality.”

Permanence

The other aspect is sustainability — something approaching permanence.

“In 10 years, when I’m done, we hire a director,” he said. “With four residences on the property, probably housing could be carved out for a director. A non-profit owning the land would open up many, many possibilities — as opposed to the land being kept in private hands and having to beg for money each year...

“That’s one of my goals, once we’re on firm financial footing: to cultivate someone to take over,” he said. “There are a lot of young people out there interested in farming and horticulture.”