A Spot to Stop and Smell the Flowers

Horticulturist Spencer Crews suggests that a visitor on a hurried trip through Powell Gardens should go first to the small pavilion on a hillside that overlooks the wildflower meadow and the lake.

"You can experience the tall grasses, the flowers, and the openness of the land," he says. "This says 'Midwest' to me, and also offers a sense of the future of the gardens."

But Eric Tschanz, executive director of Powell Gardens, says to all visitors, "What's your hurry?" Stop and smell the perennials here. Walk through tall grasses. Connect with the landscape.

Rising from an 835-acre site some 35 miles east of Kansas City, Powell Gardens is in the initial phase of a 40-year master plan that beckons visitors to slow down and linger in a botanical oasis unlike any other in the Midwest.

"We are very strong on this idea of regionalism," Mr. Tschanz says. "We are presenting Midwest landscape and horticulture through research, beautiful display, and education. We are not a park, not a place to bring your dog and a frisbee."

Visitors of all kinds

Instead, Powell Gardens is for visitors of all ages who love tranquil beauty or want to know more about the nuts and bolts of gardening and the plants of the Midwest. Landscape architects and professionals seeking ideas or doing research, or homeowners wanting to improve the landscape and gardens around their own homes, are increasingly using the garden as a resource.

This year Powell Gardens expects to attract more than 100,000 visitors. In the future, the master plan for the gardens includes trams to help visitors move long distances around the central core of 100 acres.

Started by the Powell Family Foundation in 1988, the ambitious nonprofit botanical gardens include a 12-acre lake and the largest perennial garden in the Midwest with some 5,000 plants arranged thematically.

The gardens include a 2-1/2 acre rock and waterfall garden, a new lake-side chapel of redwood and glass designed by renowned architect Fay Jones, a vegetable display garden, a home demonstration garden, and a wildflower meadow.

Late this fall, a $6 million visitors' center - also designed by Fay Jones - will open with fanfare. The stunning rock and wood structure includes a conservatory, an education wing with a classroom and lab for 35 children, a lecture hall seating 150 people, a garden cafe, a gift shop and bookstore, much space for exhibits, and parking for tour buses.

Another 40-acre area is being restored to pristine prairie conditions.

Classes and musical events are part of the program offerings all year. On the Fourth of July, for example, a marching band and other groups were scheduled for a musical celebration.

While generous funding by the Powell Foundation has launched the gardens and will help sustain it for years to come, funding from other sources needs to be found. "We know we have to expand the base to develop Powell Gardens to its full potential and a secure future," Tschanz says.

The Missouri Department of Conservation donated $1 million to help fund the education wing of the new visitors' center.

"When the Department of Conservation was created in l937," says Anita Gorman, the department's chairwoman, "8 out of 10 people in Kansas were living on a farm or in a small town where they constantly rubbed shoulders with nature. Now the figure is down to fewer than 4 out of 10. So, Powell Gardens creates a win-win situation for everybody now because it protects and savors the natural environment."

The gardens' admission fees of $3 for adults, $2.50 for seniors and $1 for children add up to less than 10 percent of the operating budget of $1.2 million. A volunteer arm, the Friends of Powell Gardens, has already grown to about 2,000 members.

"The fact that Powell Gardens has funding and is building a new center makes them unusual among newer gardens," says Kate Bronislawski, coordinator of the Resource Center at the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta in Wayne, Pa. "Funding can be a continual struggle for some gardens."

Most successful botanical gardens find a way to be true to their mission and still collaborate with other cultural institutions around them. "An example of this for us," says Tschanz, "is the Kansas City Ballet dancing here in summer. The ballet realizes that they can bring out a crowd here that usually doesn't go downtown to see them dance, and for us the dancing may attract people who don't usually come to a botanical garden."

The new nondenominational chapel, dedicated to Marjorie Powell Allen in late April and built in a beautiful setting on the edge of the lake, is now open for weddings and services. "We have had 15 weddings so far," says Tschanz, "and four are booked for next year, and one in 1998."

It was some 50 years ago that George Powell Sr., the chairman of Yellow Freight Systems Inc., bought the rolling acreage of farm fields and second-growth trees for a dairy farm and as a kind of weekend getaway. Many years later the Powell Family Foundation decided that the Kansas City area needed a botanical garden.

An ideal locale

"The University of Missouri came to us and said Kansas City was the biggest city in the US without a botanical garden, so we felt there was a need for one," says George Powell Jr., chairman of the board of directors of Powell Gardens. "We were also told by experts that site was most appropriate for a botanical garden."

At the turn of the century, it was common for botanical gardens in the US to copy European ones such as the Royal Botanical Garden in England. Local plants, flowers, and trees were often ignored. But with increased concern for local environmental issues, the emphasis for new botanical gardens has changed. "Now the gardens almost always serve the local community and region," Ms. Bronislawski says.

The next horticultural project for the gardens can be seen through the big glass window of the chapel.

"In line with the axis of the chapel is an island in the lake," says Mr. Crews, the gardens' horticultural manager. "We want to landscape it so that it has an ever-changing color palette through the growing season. A visitor will be able to see the color and reflections from just about any pew in the chapel."

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