Ozark Outdoors

A Green Dream Flowers in the Parks

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By George Freeman
Note: This article appeared in the October, 2010 inaugural issue and covers the opening of the Springfield-Greene County Botanical Center, October 11-17, 2010.

Ten years ago, it may have been in the realm of fantasy to some. But then it became a dream, and then a plan. At times the fund-raising seemed like too tall a mountain to overcome when the economy tumbled over a cliff.

And then, in the most unlikely of times, it happened. Every piece of the funding package fell into place as construction companies scrambled for business and costs edged downward in the slow economy. Ceremonial spades wielded by elected officials and elated benefactors broke ground on a chilly fall day on a vacant hillside; the green lawn turned into a carbuncle of red clay and chert where not much was happening in plain sight except that the dirt pile grew larger. Before construction could begin, a dozen 400-foot wells had to be dug to accommodate the geothermal heating and cooling design, a key component of the LEED-certified “green” building. At every turn, weather layered o delays that put the project six weeks behind schedule through an especially nasty Ozarks winter.

Then came a wet spring. But as surely as blooming daffodils and crocus pop up on the first warm day, a building began to emerge.

Where there was once only a modest rise overlooking a vista, the magnificent 12,700 square foot Springfield/Greene County Botanical Center blends into the hillside.

At 4 p.m. Monday, a formal dedication will kick-off a week of visiting national speakers along with week long events, nearly all of them free to the public.

Already, the cture is full of promise to help Ozarkers rewrite the rules about what is possible throughout the two adjoining parks, one named for a founding father, Nathanael Greene, and the other for a modestly magnanimous family fulfilling the dreams of Major and Marthe Close to create a public garden.

And so the worst of times became the best of times. That is, a locally funded job-producing “stimulus package” of a kind sent thrills through gardeners and visitors who perhaps did not quite grasp the vision back in 2006.

Now they do.

Gardening is big business

This not just another pretty building, just at the parks are not just a peaceful place to walk. Gardening is a huge part of the economic engine that powers the Ozarks as the leading job producing region of the entire Midwest.

A group of visitors experiences the new Botanical Center for the first time.

A group of visitors experiences the new Botanical Center for the first time.

Parks are an investment in the local economy as an industrial. The obvious dividend is in the quality of our lives, but it’s much more.

In 2009, $62 billion was spent nationwide on lawn and garden products. A few years ago, a national marketing study found that Springfield ranked third nationally in per capita spending on lawn and garden products, behind only Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash.

Gardening is our most popular pastime. It is neither football or NASCAR, nor is is even close.

As Baby Boomers slow down a bit from a lifetime of working to have it all, they are realizing that gardening pays dividends.
It increases property values substantially; it puts fresh produce on the table; it can even create a sanctuary to escape the 24/7 cycle of annoying information in an annoying electronic fish wrapper that doesn’t really matter. Moreover, you can still garden with bad knees and a sore back – or at least enjoy a walk in our garden parks.

Generations are concerned about the safety of our food supply, which has caused the Greater Springfield Farmers’ Market to have a record year – even as other markets are spring up in places wherever people gather.

Hundreds of small businesses depend on gardening one way or another. You will read about several of them in these pages.

Parks are a part of our history and culture in the Ozarks

The first public parks in Springfield are still familiar names today: Sequiota, Doling and Phelps Grove parks date back to 1913. Back then they were some distance outside of Springfield. Now county residents are benefiting from park developments such as Lost Hill Valley Water Mill Equestrian Center and Rutledge-Wilson Park.

Some of the grandest destinations in the Ozarks are local and state parks, some so far off the beaten path that there is no path, best reached by canoe and kayak.
Along with the parks are countless activities for adults and children alike. Day Camp at Ritter Springs Park; the Japanese Fall Festival at the maturing Mizumoto Stroll Garden in Nathanael Greene Park; the pumpkin patch and Corn Maze, along with more passive places where you can simply sit.

Green building makes the difference

Locally, more than 30 subcontractors worked on the botanical center project. H Designs of Springfield took on the project at cost. The general contractor, R.E Smith Construction, overcame record rainfall spanning much of the year to meet its deadlines. Lower-than-expected bids on the project allowed for a garden-inspired playground developed by PlayCore Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn., which chose Springfield as a demonstration site as well as the new Hickory Hills School. This and other “partnerships” are a direct dividend that grew out of the national leadership of Parks Director Jodie Adams (see related story on Page XX), who just completed a term as president of the National Recreation and Park Association.

The botanical center’s LEED-certified design is a major consideration in the long-term operating costs of a building that will be open for public use seven days a week (8 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays).

Brent Stevens, the lead architect at H Designs, is hopeful that the building can achieve Gold certification.
“We know we have silver and we’re only seven points from achieving gold,” says Stevens. Another H Designs project, the new addition to The Discovery Center, has already achieved a Gold rating.

Only a few years, ago, building green was a more expensive way to go than it is today. As more building materials and concepts become common, costs per square foot are coming down.

One example: the rooftop plaza features concrete tiles set on adjustable pedestals.

“The roof paver system is designed so that rain water filters down through the joints of the pavers and then flows into a roof drainage system,” says Stevens. “If you can imagine that a flat roof still needs to be sloped in order to drain water, that’s exactly what we have underneath the pavers. The system simply allows us to have a completely level walking surface for public use with no visual drainage caps. Thee pedestals are adjustable in height to make up the difference.”

Blending with the surroundings

The main entrance to the center is actually the rooftop of the building, overlooking a “Great Lawn” or vista that slopes gently down to Anne Drummond Lake. The view from this new vantage point provides a spectacular year-round view of the gardens.

Accessibility to handicapped

The building and gardens are entirely accessible to visitors who may need special attention, including an elevator from the rooftop level down to the lower level. Even a solar-powered tram with a 40-60 mile capacity includes wheel-chair accessibility. Plans for a “Sensory Garden” will include complete accessibility. It’s price tag (from private funds:$500,000).

Meeting and exhibition spaces

Meeting and exhibition spaces, wet classrooms, a gift shop, reference library and offices for the MU Extension Service, on-site parks personnel, Friends of the Garden and other organizations are included.

“The opportunities for special events in the Botanical Center really are spectacular,” says George Deatz, president of Friends of the Garden. “What remains is for us to work with other organizations who have an interest in offering events and activities.

Friends of the Garden was the key fund-raising group through the campaign to fund the center. Greene County voters approved $3 million toward the $4.3 million goal in 2006. As the money was raised, it was invested.

Deatz said the fund-raising must continue:

“Our next goal is to create an endowment to manage and maintain the gardens. People need to understand that the park staff don’t plant or maintain these gardens. Except for mowing and some hard scape maintenance, volunteers do the work. I think people would be amazed at how few people have developed this park. And frankly, we aren’t getting any younger. We need more volunteers who want to learn about gardening.”

Potential for partnerships is

Not to be overlooked is the potential for partnerships. One of the most important is the University of Missouri Extension Service, which will move its offices to the center from cramped space in the old courts building across from the Greene County Courthouse. Much of the extension services mission is built around providing expertise on gardening, harvest and utilizing all manner of plants.

Other educational institutions, such as Ozarks Technical College, which already has a nationally accredited landscaping and lawn management program, have shown an interest in cooperative programs.

Andrew Duncan, who majored in Lawn and Turf Management at OTC, interned with Friends of the Garden in the spring and is now a student at the University of Missouri. Hannah O’Dell, a senior design arts major at Drury University, produced a detailed map of the gardens as an intern, working on campus from a variety of earlier maps and an aerial photo.

More than a year ago, students are Evangel University developed a marketing plan for the gardens as a senior project, and then presented it to Friends of the Garden in formal presentations and in writing.

“We hope that more and more young people,” says Deatz, “particularly serious students of landscape design and horticulture, will come to us with ideas, proposals and requests for internships in areas we may not even have thought about yet.”

A ‘Botanical Boutique and Marketplace’

One of the challenges facing Katie Steinhoff, coordinator of the botanical center, has been to develop the “Botanical Boutique and Marketplace.”

“The gift shop will offer a variety of garden tools and accessories, books, items for children, decorative glass art from Springfield Hot Glass, logo merchandise as well as light refreshments and snacks.”

It is a work in progress. Eventually, the shop will have an online component featuring just-in-time merchandise, art with a garden theme and other items.

Reference Library

The reference library is likely to be housed in the Master Gardener Hot line office.

“We have have a donation of books from the Missouri Prairie Foundation and Department of Conservation, plus some books promised from other groups,” says Steinhoff. Other donors are expected to step up as well.

The hot line is actually an established free service provided by volunteer Master Gardeners of Greene County to answer questions from callers in Greene County and the Ozarks.

The chapter – and Master Naturalists as well – are recruiting members who take horticulture classes and then share their knowledge in a variety of ways. And there are other active chapters throughout the Ozark and Missouri. A major undertaking at Nathanael Greene Park is the “potager” garden, or kitchen garden, that demonstrates how a working garden can be attractive as well as functional.

The new Botanical Center will also offer dozens of classes to help teach kids and adults about sustainability and horticulture.

"We’ll be able to do inside classes, outside classes, hands-on workshops, things you can make and take home," said Botanical Center Director Katie Steinhoff.

The center will also have a fully equipped kitchen so people can not only learn how to grow their own vegetables but also discover new and healthier ways to cook them.

"There’s really a nutrition angle here that we need to help citizens know about healthy foods, how to prepare it," said Adams.

National attention and acclaim

The Botanical Center is one of 40 parks projects that were funded through a county wide quarter cent sales tax approved by voters in 2006.

"I think park professionals and progressive leaders in many communities have taken notice of what we’re building here," said Adams.

"We’ve developed some playground equipment here that is going to go worldwide as well as national," said Adams.

PlayCore, a national playground company, is working with the parks department to development equipment that promotes outdoor learning and playing. "Another attraction is a giant metamorphosis of a butterfly that Steinhoff had a hand is designing. It was installed just in time for the opening.

One of the experts speaking during a week of activities is Robin Moore, a professor from North Carolina, who will be talking about how nature and playing outdoors impacts early childhood development. She’s come to the right place.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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