Spreading across 100 acres, Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s Botanical Center, has blossomed from its modest opening in 1995. Those entering Omaha, Neb., via Interstate 80 are greeted by a view of the expansive gardens on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Much of the garden’s appeal is due to the behind-the-scenes work of the horticultural staff in its mission of “maintaining the garden to the highest standards consistent with environmental stewardship.”

With the only closings on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, maintenance must take place when visitors are on-site. Morning meetings with Director of Horticulture Donita Logeman provide the opportunity to fine-tune long-range plans and weekly schedules to meet the ever-changing needs.

As a young and rapidly growing facility, improvements have been ongoing, with new gardens added each year. Each step requires the expertise of the horticultural staff in both planning and execution.

Key features include the 32,000-square-foot visitor and education center, which opened in the fall of 2001 with space for an indoor plant display and a great hall for special events. The Garden in the Glen, with its soothing water features, and a winding woodland trail were 2003 additions. In 2005, Kenefick Park took its place above Interstate 80 to feature two Union Pacific engines. In 2006, the model railroad garden was added with an intricate system of tracks and scale-size buildings and landscape features.

Photos by Steve Trusty.
A gardener hand-weeds the flowerbed in front of the visitor and education center.
The visitor and education center as seen from the back edge of the walkway leading to it.

Logeman says, “The existing site contained several wooded areas beyond those within the woodland trail, so we have a broad mix of very large, established trees along with the newer plantings. We’ve added hundreds of trees and more than 1,300 shrubs over the years. We’ve also established over 105,000 square feet of annual and perennial beds, along with numerous other features.”

The gardens themselves are clearly the main attraction, with all activities revolving around and within them. “The ongoing maintenance is extremely important, because we’re always on display,” says Logeman. “We strive to consistently keep it at a level that would please a major donor with the goal that every visitor has a great experience here.”

To accomplish that, the horticultural staff of 23, including five interns, is organized within groups under the direction of eight senior gardeners, each in charge of specific areas.

Logeman says, “We work with standard IPM procedures for most aspects of maintenance within the gardens, doing minimal control applications, and then keeping to those products with cautionary labels. We have developed a schedule of preventive applications for insect and disease control on the roses and the turf in our highest-visibility lawn areas. We’re also on a preventive program to guard against cedar-quince rust and insect invasions of our hackberry and silver maple trees. We’ve found this approach actually reduces our control product use overall.”

 “We have a great group of volunteer engineers for the model railroad garden,” says Logeman. “We always have a gardener in that area, too. There’s a lot of detail work on the plants, and they help field the many questions visitors have about the setup and design. If there is a derailment, it’s easier to get the trains back up and running with two people.”

The senior gardeners develop weekly and daily plans for their areas, with specific staff assignments based on what needs to happen where. Having worked as a senior gardener for two years before moving to her current position three and a half years ago, Logeman understands the importance of keeping everyone in the communication loop.

The model railroad garden includes small replicas of well-known Omaha buildings, with the plantings selected to match the scale of the display.
A backpack blower is used to clean up the debris immediately after the trimming process.

She says, “We keep our staff up to date with our marketing department, so they know what goes out in the publications and on the Web site, and what events are taking place and coming up. If we’re going to need to shift personnel to an area for pre-event preparation, or to complete a specific project, I want our staff to know about it as far in advance as possible.

“From spring through fall I plan to be out working in the garden two to three days each week, and I drive around the garden with upper-management personnel every Tuesday. The extra sets of eyes are a great benefit. Sometimes you put blinders on because you’re seeing the same things day after day. I take notes of the things that they notice. Sometimes they were already on my radar screen, and sometimes they weren’t. They may see an area from a different perspective as part of the big picture.”

The horticultural staff welcomes the challenges the always-changing aspects of the garden provide. Logeman earned her degree in forestry from Iowa State University and worked for a major retail garden center and nursery for four years before joining Lauritzen Gardens. She did some research work at ISU and has assisted in the tissue culture lab at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. She encourages cross-training throughout the horticultural staff and rotates the interns’ assignments, having them each work with a different senior gardener each week so they gain experience throughout the garden. They also work one of the weekend days so they can see how the garden runs differently with the special events and higher number of visitors. She says, “We don’t try to do projects and we curtail maintenance for minimal disturbance on the weekends. We’ll only mow then if it’s absolutely necessary to catch up due to weather conditions.

“Keeping with our focus on making sure every visitor has a positive experience here, we train our staff to interact with the visitors and encourage them to do so. We’ve found that as the garden continues to draw more visitors, the impact of talking to people has become a bigger part of our workday.”

The volunteer program is extensive, with more than 400 participating, though not all in horticulture-related tasks. There’s no specific training required for the horticulture volunteers, as they’ll work with experienced staff gardeners. Logeman says, “If the volunteer wants to work in a specific area, that’s where we’ll put them. If not, we’ll assign them where we most need them. While we’re flexible with timing, many of the volunteers enjoy working together, so we set up schedules with specific days and hours for the rose garden volunteer groups, the shade garden groups, etc.”

The turf in this Festival Garden, adjacent to the visitor and education center patio, rates Level 1 maintenance and is mowed twice a week.
The plant-lined pathway guides visitors up the stairs to Kenefick Park.
This winding walkway leads to the Festival Garden and the patio at the back of the visitor and education center.

Prioritizing

With so much area on view, prioritizing is a key part of the maintenance program. There are three levels of turf maintenance. Level 1 includes the areas around the visitor and education center and the major gardens. This is primarily bluegrass or bluegrass/tall fescue turf, about half with inground irrigation and the remainder irrigated with portable sprinklers. These areas are fertilized three times a year with a complete, slow-release organic fertilizer and twice a year with a 4-0-10 product with 10 percent iron. They’re treated with a preemergence weed control, with fungicide and grub control added for the highest-visibility sites. Other pest control follows standard IPM procedures. These areas are mowed twice a week.

The large turf areas further removed from the main garden walkways are classified as Level 2. They’re primarily buffalograss or a mix of fescues, perennial ryegrasses and bluegrasses. They receive two applications of the complete fertilizer, one of 4-0-10 with iron, plus preemergence for weed control. They’re irrigated with portable sprinklers as needed and mowed once a week.

Level 3 turf areas are the big, open fields that will be gardens at some point in the future. They’re a variety of grasses with a few weeds mixed in. These nonirrigated areas are minimally fertilized and occasionally spot-treated for broadleaf weed control. They are mowed using a John Deere belly-mount mower as frequently as necessary to keep the growth in check and prevent a “shaggy” appearance.

Logeman says, “Because mowing is such an obvious maintenance issue, we have a set five-day mowing schedule for Levels 1 and 2. The tasks are detailed in order from early morning through afternoon, with assigned areas for the 48-inch Scag walk-behind mower and the 72-inch front-mount Kubota ride-on mower. String trimmer assignments and sidewalk edging are part of the schedule as well. If rain prevents mowing for a day, the assigned tasks begin where they left off.”

Logeman maintains computerized records with a complete breakdown by garden area of all the fertilizer, chemical needs and IPM schedules for all the plant categories. She coordinates the equipment and tools required for staff and volunteers. Her master plan and budget projections are based on past records and predicted needs. Yet, despite all the planning and preparation, Mother Nature can, and does, intervene.

Director of Horticulture Donita Logeman pitches in to deadhead annuals outside the visitor and education center, making sure everything is picture-perfect for the wedding to be held on the adjoining patio that night.

On the afternoon of June 27, hurricane-force, straight-line winds, combined with hail and driving rain, swept through a wide swath of Omaha, including the gardens. More than a dozen large trees were uprooted from the already rain-drenched soil, massive tree branches were ripped and scattered, and foliage and flowers were shredded. The northwest side of the rose garden was stripped to bare stems, and many of those were battered by the hail.

Logeman says, “Thankfully, no one was hurt, and our buildings and greenhouses came through OK. But every garden area north of our Festival Garden was affected. Our staff was tremendous, and volunteers pitched in with the countless hours of cleanup efforts so we could keep the garden open. We had to purchase and replant 1,800 annuals. The pruning and other tree and shrub recovery work will continue well into next year. We’re just beginning to analyze the financial impact of the storm, but it will be a major hit to our budget. We’ve set up a Garden Restoration Fund and sent out an appeal for donations.”

Despite the storm, the horticultural staff has continued ongoing maintenance, along with preparation for special events, presenting a beautiful setting for the positive experience of each Lauritzen Gardens visitor. That leaves only those who know and love the garden to comprehend the depth of their efforts and commitment.

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.