Community garden

31 May


When Spencer Crews arrived in Omaha, Neb., to oversee what would become Lauritzen Gardens botanical center, he found 70 acres of vacant fields and the rudimentary beginnings of a rose garden.

But Spencer had a passion for what that land could become.

That was 17 years ago, and the 1980 landscape architecture grad was the gardens’ first executive director. A St. Louis native, Spencer had worked as chair of the Department of Horticulture at East Central College in Union, Mo., and as manager of horticulture for Powell Gardens near Kansas City.

At the fledgling Omaha garden, Spencer led the transition of the botanical center from a small, volunteer-based project to a multifaceted, revenue-generating, event-driven facility. The process took many years, first to fundraise and then to implement. But throughout the process, the key was listening to community leaders.

“We collaborated with the community to build something they wanted,” he said.

With a $30 million investment in infrastructure and the addition of 30 more acres, the gardens took off. Spencer and fellow Iowa State landscape architecture grad Chad Grimm (’89) shared a vision and an aesthetic that would create a botanical garden with a deep sense of place.

“We wanted to capture our part of the country,” Spencer said.

Indeed, the Song of the Lark Meadow is reminiscent of Nebraska’s wildflower-filled prairies. The arboretum and bird sanctuary feature regional plant communities, native grasses, and Midwestern bird species. A model railroad garden has direct ties to Omaha’s railroad history. A woodland trail winds through a native hardwood community.

Lauritzen Gardens continues to expand, with a multi-million-dollar, 20,000-square-foot conservatory currently under construction.

Spencer is clearly delighted by the community’s support of the gardens, and he is especially gratified when he sees children visiting with their parents and grandparents.

“It’s an intergenerational experience,” he says of the gardens. “Influencing and exposing your kids to nature at a young age is so important. It’s a memorable experience that stays with them their whole life.”

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