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‘Disconnect and enjoy the world around you.’ OP Arboretum, Powell Gardens impress

Autumn is a great time to visit the Overland Park Arboretum to see the changing colors.
Autumn is a great time to visit the Overland Park Arboretum to see the changing colors. Courtesy photo

Actress Audrey Hepburn once said to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

The Kansas City area is fortunate to have two major gardens, ensuring a strong belief in a green tomorrow.

With around 600 acres in southern Johnson County, the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens opened in 1991 as a public space for the community. More than 400 acres are open to the public to explore and enjoy. The city of Overland Park operates the arboretum, which draws around 170,000 visitors annually.

“We have something for everyone who wants to be outdoors, with display gardens, hiking trails and prairie,” said Arboretum Supervisor Karen Kerkhoff, who holds two degrees in horticulture. “Along each trail we want to have three different specimens —

making a young, middle age and older example so visitors can see how they develop.”

Kerkhoff gives huge credit to the arboretum’s volunteers including the Friends of the Arboretum, a membership group that’s part of the Arts & Recreation Foundation of Overland Park. The Friends group provides financial support for the green space.

Up next for the 28-year-old arboretum is a new visitors’ center. The current 4,000-square-foot building was opened in 2000 as an educational complex.

“We’ve outgrown our space,” Kerkhoff said. She hopes groundbreaking on the new 20,000-square-foot building, now in the design and fundraising stage, will take place in early 2020. The two-story structure will include classrooms and conference rooms, a gift shop and café on the upper level.

“Downstairs will feature what we are calling the Great Room that can be used for events, corporate retreats and weddings,” Kerkhoff said. “The Great Room will open to a patio with beautiful views of our space.”

That space includes more than 2,000 species of plants, many of them labeled thanks to the efforts of the arboretum’s 16-member staff and scores of volunteers who also help plant, weed and water. The arboretum is open every day but Christmas.

The arboretum includes several designated gardens throughout the property, offering visitors a specialized slice of nature. The Legacy showcases plants that would have been seen on traditional homesteads, while the Erickson Water Garden encompasses plants that flourish in that habitat. A Train Garden, complete with railroad caboose and a miniature train, runs through the area and out into the arboretum using seven different tracks.

“We have been involved with a prairie construction project with native prairie grasses that have been seeded and native plants as well,” Kerkhoff said.

In addition to the display of trees, plants and shrubs in their natural habitats, the International Sculpture Garden features works on permanent display.

Kerkhoff said a vital component of the arboretum is the programming it offers to the public.

“We have an excellent education committee that comes up with creative offerings including art classes and geo-mapping,” she said. “We heavily program over the summer and spring break and when we think the audience will be there.”

Special events are part of the mix, too. September featured Whirlwind Art in Motion featuring kinetic sculptures through gardens.

This month the arboretum hosted Botanical Brewfest featuring 80 varieties of beer, food and entertainment. Up next will be the 20th Annual Luminary Walk, with 3,000 candles spread through out the arboretum.

The arboretum admission is $3 for those 13 and up and just $1 for those age 6 to 12. Some special events require an additional fee. Tours are available by trained volunteer docents.

Powell Gardens: Kansas City’s botanical wonder

Across the state line and 30 miles east of Kansas City, Powell Gardens blossoms with 225,000 plants in seasonal displays across 970 acres. The gardens, located in Kingsville, Missouri, have been around for many years. They were originally acquired by businessman George E. Powell Sr. in 1948. Since 1988, the gardens have been under the supervision of the non-profit Powell Gardens Inc.

“We are about ‘place’ and ‘plants’,” said Tabitha Schmidt, Powell Gardens’ president and CEO. “We embrace the Midwest spirit of place as an integral cultural destination for the region, and we educate and instill an appreciation for plants in our lives.

“We want hundreds of thousands of people of all ages to come to the Powell Gardens to enjoy the beauty and therapy nature provides while learning about and loving the variety of flora and fauna in this region.”

Powell Gardens shifts to a reduced schedule in the autumn, as all hands are on deck preparing for the Festival of Lights, which opens the day after Thanksgiving and continues through the first Sunday in January,

“We started this experience two years ago. We light a nearly a one-mile path and highlight the botanical aspects of the Gardens,” Schmidt said. “When you get through the Heartland Harvest Garden you can warm up under heaters, sit by a fire and grab a drink.” Santa comes on Saturdays in December on Saturdays. “It is simply amazing,” she said.

Staff size, ranging from 35 to 70, is based on the seasons. Like the Overland Park Arboretum, Powell Gardens relies heavily on its more than 250 volunteers to lend a hand.

For most of the year, the gardens hum with activities throughout seven themed gardens that include nature trails, various pavilions and unique architecture. Renowned American architect E. Fay Jones, a disciple of the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright, designed three structures on the site. Water is also on display via the Marlese Lowe Gourley Island Garden featuring a 12-acre lake and aquatic plants.

Educational initiatives and major events drive activities at the gardens. Recently, Powell Gardens celebrated its 25th anniversary of Booms & Blooms – the final event. Schmidt said that change is part of organization’s effort to refocus its energy on creating experiences that will embrace the changing of the seasons.

“Bloom Fest will launch in the spring and each of these festivals will include events and educational components for a variety of audiences,” Schmidt said. “This shift will allow us to be less weather dependent.”

This year’s launch of a Chef-in-Residence program proved popular for Powell Gardens, with four local chefs and distillers partnering to present dinners, demonstrations and programs. A restructured field trip program for elementary grades is also meeting with success.

Powell Gardens is developing a comprehensive interpretive strategy. As part of the process, the organization will use a cloud-based database that will allow anyone in the world to see the collection. Its mapping feature will allow the public to search for a particular plant and find its exact location in the gardens.

Hours vary with the season. The property is closed for daily admission from Jan. 7 through Feb. 28, 2020. While the gardens rejuvenate during this time period, classes, events and member-only Saturdays are offered. General admission prices range from $4 to $10 with an additional charge for festivals.

Kerkhoff and Schmidt invite the public to take a moment and get back to nature, even in the autumn.

“Come enjoy the beauty and therapy nature provides while learning about and loving the variety of flora and fauna in this region,” Schmidt said.

“It is an excellent way to disconnect and enjoy the world around you,” Kerkhoff said.