In interviews, Anderson, board members, neighbors and others - to a person - suggest that the arboretum needs a higher profile, a more welcoming entrance, and better signs to broaden its appeal beyond the 10,000 visitors a year it now attracts.
First up: the neighbors. Many of them don't know what's behind the arboretum's stone walls or, if they do know, have never ventured in or necessarily felt welcome.
"We have to do a better job in the local community . . . so that our neighbors can take full advantage of this gem right in the middle of Germantown. We want them to feel more comfortable," says Robert J. Butera, Awbury board chairman.
Anderson and others say Awbury needs to recruit more members and volunteers, and boost programming for schoolchildren and adults. And, building on what was put in place by Gerald Kaufman, Anderson's predecessor, there needs to be greater collaboration with other public gardens and nonprofits, such as Historic Germantown and Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp.
The arboretum's lovely landscape needs attention, too. Still, this remains a serene and beautiful place with rich history.
Awbury started out in the mid-19th century as the summer home of the Cope and Haines families, prosperous Quakers who gave most of their property in trust to the City Parks Association in 1916. It was to be used for education and "the quiet enjoyment of nature."
The old family homes, which are just outside the arboretum proper or surrounded by it, remain privately owned. Only the Francis Cope House, where the offices are located, is actually in the arboretum.
J. Morris Evans, 89, a Cope descendant and retired businessman from Gwynedd, grew up in one of those old homes. He remembers a profusion of cousins named Emlen, Cope, Evans and Scattergood, and many happy hours spent sledding, ice-skating, picnicking, and birding on the Awbury grounds.
"It was just a wonderful place to grow up," says Evans, known as "Morrie."
The arboretum, part of a designated historic district since 2001, continues to delight walkers, landscape architects, birders and gardeners, but Anderson seeks new audiences, too.
A key player in this effort is what Awbury used to call its "Northwest Tract," 16 acres across Washington Lane from the arboretum. Farmed till the early 20th century, the land eventually lay fallow, which proved a magnet for illegal dumping and other unsavory activities.
In 2007, Weavers Way Co-op in Mount Airy hired a full-time farmer and quadrupled, to a full acre, the amount of land it had been leasing from Awbury since 2000. Today, the farm covers three acres, supplying fresh vegetables and fruit to its stores and local farmers markets.
Anderson has renamed the tract Awbury Agricultural Village, a catchy "Ag Village" for short. Besides Weavers Way, it includes a large community garden, a children's garden, education and training programs, and growing ventures run by the Penn State Cooperative Extension, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and others.
Anderson sees major potential here. "Ag Village is going to be a big part of our future," she says.
Board members cite Anderson's own experience with sustainable land use as a factor in her hiring. Before Awbury, Anderson worked at Duke Farms Foundation in central New Jersey and the Northeast Organic Farm Association of New Jersey.
And back in the mid-1990s, as the modern organic movement was poised to pop, she spent two growing seasons at an organic farm in Pennington, N.J. Anderson managed its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and did some work in the fields, an experience that forever changed the way she thinks of manual labor.
"I learned that 'unskilled labor' isn't" unskilled, she says. "This was a transforming experience for me. You really saw community-building around food and horticulture."
Now there's an idea, one that's rapidly engaging the public consciousness and could have important funding implications for Awbury.
"Under Karen's leadership, we are now able to seriously think about making the highest and best use of the land that fits new themes in the city, like greening and urban agriculture and home farming and all those sorts of things," says Graham S. Finney, Awbury board member.
Although Anderson's paternal grandfather was a dairy farmer in Mississippi, and she always loved to garden, her childhood was more tumbleweed than stay-at-home. Her father's naval career took the family to Florida, Rhode Island, California, Virginia, New Jersey and Michigan (twice).
"When I was a kid and young adult, I would've said I didn't like that way of life," she says, but she now realizes its value.
"It means I have this need for changes every couple of years, but when you're older, you learn to channel it in productive ways," says Anderson, who has a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a master's degree in library science from Catholic University.
One change being tossed about at Awbury is to host weddings and concerts again. Such events were discontinued, says board member Mark R. Sellers, who lives on the property, because they simply were too much for Awbury's tiny staff to manage.
But there were and are security issues involved in having large events, and in being such a public place. Although the grounds are officially open from dawn to dusk, there are no locked gates to prevent miscreants from coming in after hours – as they did in April, to steal $70,000 worth of landscape equipment, including a truck and a chipper.
Litter and graffiti are constant problems. So is what Anderson calls "spillover" from nearby Awbury Park, which is part of Fairmount Park. In May, according to police and neighbors, hundreds of teenagers converged on the park, three youths were shot and two others hit by cars.
"Those are real concerns, but we can't close and we don't really want to. We want people to feel easy to come and go and enjoy the arboretum," says Gay Johnson, a member of the Awbury Neighbors group, who is also an arboretum volunteer and former board member.
And many do enjoy it.
They roll up the drive and park behind the house, as if visiting a friend, before setting off to explore the naturalistic English landscape, Victorian house garden, Secret Garden and meadow, and, this being an arboretum, the glorious array of trees.
Awbury has so many - corkscrew willow and Swiss stone pine, Kentucky coffee and paper birch, and scores more natives and exotics, all in furtherance of the goal Anderson describes this way: "To connect the community to history and nature, using the arboretum as a classroom."
One recent morning, Donald Braswell, a restaurant cook on his day off, was cutting through the arboretum on his way to a nearby playground. He said he lived two blocks away but had never heard of Awbury Arboretum, and it was his first time on the property.
"It's peaceful in here. No garbage, no cars, no loudmouthed people," he observed. "A lot of people don't know what this place is."
Anderson suggests that he represents "the community" she needs to connect with, which prompts a visitor to repeat what so many others are saying about her: "You certainly have your work cut out for you."
Anderson smiles. "Yes," she says, "but can you think of better work than this?"
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Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.