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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

November 4, 2005

She grows the gardens, from a desk

by Dan Kuester

Reiman Gardens is experiencing a growth spurt. Individual membership has blossomed from around 600 to more than 6,400. Household memberships climbed from 300 to around 2,800. Attendance rose from 50,000 to 120,000 annually.

A quick look at the numbers tells the kind of job Teresa McLaughlin is doing as the director of Reiman Gardens.

What the numbers don't tell is how McLaughlin has taken a small budget and a committed staff and made the gardens grow in ways that would turn any administrator green.

Teresea McLaughlin

Teresa McLaughlin has served as director of Reiman Gardens since July 2001. Photo by Bob Elbert.

McLaughlin was hired in 1999 as a fund-raiser and to set up business enterprises at the gardens. In July 2001, she became director.

What she has accomplished, in addition to the membership and attendance numbers, is impressive. There have been new buildings (the conservatory, Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing, Hughes Auditorium and on-site greenhouses) and new services (a gift shop and Hazel's Kitchen coffee shop).

All this success has come for the gardens despite inherent hurdles:

  • The gardens must raise more than $1 million each year to supplement funding from the university.
  • The gardens' busiest months are in the summer, when many ISU students, faculty and staff leave town.
  • Many Ames residents understand Reiman Gardens is university-owned, while many Iowa Staters believe it to be a city park.

Through it all, McLaughlin said she focuses on the job and getting people in the door. The way to attract customers and get them to return is "giving people value for the money and providing a seamless customer journey when they are here."

"There aren't many gardens of this size, in a town this size, with the facilities we have," said McLaughlin, clearly proud of what she and her staff are building. "Plus, we have a butterfly indoor flight facility that's one of about 40 in the country. We have people coming in here who say, 'We've been to lots of other butterfly houses, but this is the best.'"

While she has led the gardens staff though many improvements, she knows that her expertise lies in administration. She believes that the creative process of designing the spaces needs to be insulated from business and political concerns.

"I rarely make suggestions about the horticulture or entomology," she said. "I don't veto the creative staff's ideas, because I think that's the worst thing you can do to a creative person."

1.5 special events a day

Considering the workload, the creative staff needs to keep the ideas coming.

Reiman Gardens hosts five or six large-scale events, and about 150 additional events each year -- including educational programs and weekend and evening events.

The gardens (or a portion of them) also are rented out about 400 times each year for private events. That's more than one every day of the year. Those rentals include weddings, retirements, luncheons and other celebrations.

Each of those events, plus the conservatory floral display (which changes six to eight times annually) and the annual outdoor garden exhibits, are designed and built by 11 staff members, 40 students and 450 volunteers who provide more than $300,000 worth of service each year.

Many of those events are after hours and on weekends, so there is no such thing as a normal day at Reiman.

"Once, we had a groom show up for his wedding on his Harley," McLaughlin said. "He was zipping around the pathways kicking up dirt."

With a high-profile position like director of Reiman Gardens, McLaughlin could be more visible around campus and in town. But she tries to stay out of the spotlight.

Sometimes it's better to stay out of the way, she explained. "That way, it doesn't become one person's garden, but all of ours.

"This place [the gardens] needs to be visible, not the staff or me," she added.

Coming home

The workload is varied, but the well-traveled McLaughlin is happy to be in the gardens and in Iowa where she grew up.

A native of Iowa City and graduate of Iowa State with a major in environmental studies and journalism, McLaughlin left for the East Coast after graduation. She worked in the Washington, D.C., area for non-profit organizations and political campaigns until returning to her hometown after seven years in the nation's capital.

Back in Iowa City, she worked as a fund-raiser for Iowa City Regina High School, the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium and United Way of Johnson County.

After a few years, she left again, this time for southwest Indiana. In less than two years, she returned, this time to Ames, perhaps for good.

During her journeys, she picked up a master's degree and found time to raise two sons, now ages 11 and 10, and pursued her passion of writing, with a few published short stories to her credit. All while remaining, in her words, "a typical Iowa girl."

"I really like Ames," she said. "I can get to work in just a couple of minutes. The people are nice. It reminds me of how Iowa City used to be when I was growing up.

"I'm glad to be back at Iowa State. The quality of life is just incredible."


"There aren't many gardens of this size, in a town this size, with the facilities we have. Plus, we have a butterfly indoor flight facility that's one of about 40 in the country."

Teresea McLaughlin