Although the vision for Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha's Botanical Center, began more than two decades ago, this beautiful and peaceful urban oasis is still new to many Omaha area residents.
In 1982, following two years of preliminary planning, Helena Street, former Omaha World-Herald Garden Parade columnist, hosted a meeting of five individuals to start planning a botanical garden in Omaha. A site of natural woods and rolling terraces on a bluff just west of the Missouri River was selected as the garden's location. Construction began in 1995 on the rose garden and other early gardens soon followed, including a shade hosta garden, herb garden, children's garden and spring flowering walk.
Since opening, new garden areas have been added each year. The garden also features a parking garden and arrival garden with annual and perennial flowers. The festival garden, with colorful annual plantings and open lawn expanses, is the site of several annual events; the Victorian garden combines characteristics of both English and Victorian gardens; the Song of the Lark Meadow is reminiscent of Nebraska's prairies and is filled with wildflowers and the four-acre arboretum and bird sanctuary contains seven regional plant communities and demonstrates how to attract and identify Midwestern birds. In 2003, the woodland trail, which winds through a native hardwood community and features hilltop overlooks, and the Garden in the Glen, a calming and peaceful space with a stream, pools and small waterfalls, were dedicated. A rose garden staircase and woodland waterfall were 2004 additions. The Sunpu Castle Gate and Mt. Fuji replica were constructed on the site of the future Japanese garden in 2005, and the tree peony garden and English perennial border were installed in 2006. In 2007, the model railroad garden opened in July with an expansion opening in June of 2008. The Garden of Memories opened in 2009.
Lauritzen Gardens exists as the result of a unique public-private partnership. The garden has held a long-term property management agreement with the city of Omaha since 1993. In 1998, a 30-acre site with prime visibility and easier vehicular access from Interstate 80 was purchased on the south end of the current property. This new addition increased the garden's total acreage to 100 acres, and paved the way for the visitor and education center. Construction for the 32,000-square-foot center began in 2000. A year-round facility, it opened to the public in October of 2001 and features a floral display hall with seasonal flower shows, a unique gift shop, café, a horticulture resource library, banquet and meeting spaces and classrooms.
To keep this beautiful and thriving organization running, the garden is privately funded, and relies on capital campaign contributions, event sponsorships, admissions, memberships and facility rental income. Lauritzen Gardens was so named following a generous contribution from the Lauritzen family, a family that has played a significant role in Omaha's history and development.
The garden's creation came about due to the contributions of donors, board members, volunteers and staff. Spencer Crews, executive director of Lauritzen Gardens since 1996, drives that development. Crews has more than 30 years of experience, specializing in landscape architecture, horticulture and botanical garden management. He was involved with garden construction, maintenance, floral display and design, administrative management and fundraising at Powell Gardens near Kansas City, Mo. He has also worked at Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Mo. With the opening of the visitor and education center in October 2001, the number of staff members increased from five to 35 employees.
Today, after years of planning and tireless dedication by many, a 100-acre site featuring many outdoor garden areas thrives near downtown Omaha. Still young yet growing quickly, public interest in the garden has been tremendous. The garden hosted more than 220,000 visitors in 2016 and currently has more than 12,000 member households and 250 regular volunteers.