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A Blooming Adventure

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Since it opened to the public a little more than a decade ago, Powell Gardens has blossomed into Kansas City's and western Missouri's premier showplace for plants and gardening. It attracts about 135,000 visitors each year, and thanks to its partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Powell Gardens has become a leader in teaching adults and children about nature, gardening and land stewardship.

Here, you can explore the wonders of the botanical world. You can marvel at the amazing variety of more than 2,000 plant species. It's a place where you can find enough gardening ideas to fill volumes.

George E. Powell Sr., the man largely responsible for the botanical garden, was raised in north-central Missouri near the town of Linneus. With his keen eye for business, he didn't take long to become successful as a Kansas City banker. Powell, his son, George E. Powell Jr. and a group of investors bought a faltering trucking firm which they built into what is now Yellow Freight System Inc., one of the nation's largest trucking operations.

Such success allowed the family to buy the Powell Gardens acreage in 1948. The land was a pasture for dairy cows and a place where the family could retreat into the solitude of nature. Later, it was the site of a Boy Scout camp and a field station with ties to the University of Missouri. With the formation of the non-profit Powell Gardens Inc. in 1988, the area became a full-fledged public botanical garden.

"If you think about it, a botanical garden was a major cultural component that Kansas City didn't have," said Eric Tschanz, president and executive director at Powell Gardens. "You've got the ballet, the symphony, the zoo and a great art museum, but we didn't have a botanical garden."

One of the guiding principles of Powell Gardens has been to maintain a Midwestern flavor. That has meant blending plants native to this region with botanical immigrants.

"We have these nice rolling hills and the vistas and views, and we want to use them to the best advantage," Tschanz said. "What we're trying to accomplish is to have the hand of horticulture and the hand of Mother Nature so intertwined that you can't tell where they stop or start."

The arrangement of the gardens and buildings is unassuming and understated. The wildflower meadow, perennial garden and other sections flow naturally with the lay of the land. The buildings seem to blend into their settings. The harmony was not accidental.

Since the Garden first opened, expansions and improvements have taken place according to a master plan developed by early designers. Among other things, the plan called for a perennial garden, wildflower meadow, pavilion and a $6 million visitor education center, which opened in 1997. The Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel, built in 1996 to honor George Powell Sr.'s older daughter, who died in 1992, is a notable divergence from the master plan.

Powell Gardens boasts some 835 acres, but cultivated gardens cover only a small portion of the grounds. Much of the land is in timber or open fields. This rolling landscape was once part of the tallgrass prairie and savanna that carpeted Johnson County.

The three main structures on the grounds-pavilion, education center and chapel-were all designed by architects Fay Jones and Maurice Jennings. Jones said the chapel was meant to "look as though man and nature planned the structure in mutual agreement." The same could be said of all their work here.

Spencer Crews also deserves credit for the appearance of Powell Gardens. Crews, who grew up in St. Louis, served as horticulture manager until 1996 before departing to direct the new Omaha Botanical Garden. His contributions include the rock and waterfall garden and the adjacent wildflower meadow. These two sections re-create a forest and a prairie, two of Missouri's dominant presettlement terrestrial ecosystems.

The trail winding through the rock and waterfall garden passes through a botanical wonderland. Among the 200 plant varieties are natives, such as oaks and blackhaw viburnum, and non-native plants, such as Chinese allspice and showy bottlebrush buckeye shrub.

If you look east across the lake, your eyes are drawn to the wildflower meadow. This restored stretch of prairie is a reminder of Missouri's once vast grasslands. It's easy to imagine bison grazing in the draws. Indian grass, rattlesnake master and other prairie plants also have been restored to the landscape.

Alan Branhagen, the current director of horticulture, is adamant about putting the right plants in the right places. That means selecting trees and flowers that will do well in local conditions.

"You have a lot of heat and drought stress here," Branhagen said. "You have those blast furnace winds coming out of Kansas in the summer."

Branhagen compiled a list of all woody plants that are native to Missouri and Kansas. He ended up with more than 500.

"It's a goal of mine to eventually show all of those on the grounds," he said. Included are some of what he calls the most underappreciated varieties, such as chinkapin and Shumard oaks, blackhaw viburnum and two wild roses-prairie rose (also known as Illinois rose) and low prairie rose (also called Arkansas rose).

More and more gardeners are turning to plants that require minimal care. The reason is evident at Powell Gardens.

"There's less mowing, less watering, less fertilization and, hopefully, with the diversity of trees, fewer pest problems and less pesticide use," Branhagen explained.

Powell Gardens encourages the thousands of gardeners and others who visit each year and take part in classes to try natural gardening.

"People aren't just peony gardening anymore," Tschanz said. "People have a different understanding of gardening. No longer is your goal to have the greenest lawn, but maybe your goal is to have a more natural looking landscape."

Protecting habitat and long-term ecosystem health are primary considerations throughout the Garden. Visitors learn which plants are best for providing food or habitat for wildlife. For example, including phlox in your garden provides nectar for butterflies and other insects.

The use of fertilizers and pesticides is discouraged to reduce chemical-laden runoff into groundwater and streams.

Land stewardship is central to Powell Gardens' education program. Each year, about 12,000 people participate in adult and youth classes and tours, said Sheila Aaron, director of education. Adults can learn about topics from ornamental grasses and tree pruning to creating gardens that entice birds.

Field trips and tours give children a chance to dig their fingers into the soil or build a birdhouse or feeder.

"The younger you can start the better," Aaron said. "Just walking barefoot on the grass and touching things is important."

Special programs draw huge crowds. More than 15,000 people turned out for the fourth butterfly festival held last summer.

The Conservation Department and Powell Gardens have formed a partnership to improve conservation education. The Conservation Department funded a $1 million education wing in the new visitors' center and has committed $4 million toward the cost of the $9.6 million Discovery Center. It is being built along what was once Brush Creek near the Country Club Plaza shopping district.

The Discovery Center, part of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's Legacy Park, will give the Conservation Department and Powell Gardens a major presence in the central city.

Scheduled to open in the summer of 2001, the Discovery Center will feature workshop areas where visitors can learn about various facets of nature. Outside, they will find gardens, natural areas and a lake.

Even with the new buildings and flower exhibits at Powell Gardens, Tschanz and his staff are not finished. Their master plan calls for an island garden, scheduled to open this spring, that will host aquatic or streamside plants, including native lotus, buttonbush and cardinal flower. Also on the drawing board is a demonstration vegetable garden. Other possibilities include a romantic garden and a children's garden.

There's still plenty of space at Powell Gardens for imaginations to run free. And, as anyone who's ever coaxed a seed from the earth knows, a gardener's work is never really done

Visiting Powell Gardens

Powell Gardens is about 30 miles east of Kansas City. Watch for the sign on the north side of U.S. 50 just east of highways W and Z. The gardens are open to the public from 9 a.m. April through October and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March. There is a small admission charge. Call (816) 697-2600 or visit their website, www.powellgardens.org, for more information

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