The petunias poked up from the ground, pale flowers next to some brighter blooms. They were far from the only fresh growth on a breezy August day at the recently renamed Tulsa Botanic Garden.
"We have put about 1,500 plants in the ground this year," said F. Todd Lasseigne, the garden's president and chief executive officer.
Still, islands of colorful growth only sporadically dot the landscape at the approximately 170-acre garden site, about eight miles northwest of downtown Tulsa -- the last mile or two on a gravel road.
With plans first unveiled in 2006, it's not been a quick journey for those seeking to transform acres of landscape into a full botanic garden.
But a sharper, more focused vision seems to have taken root over the last two years. Along with a new master plan unveiled in December, the focus is on raising funds and settling on the specifics for three gardens set to debut within the next three years.
"We're going to have a critical mass to really take this to the step where people say, 'Wow, they're really doing some amazing things,'" Lasseigne said.
All together, these three soon-to-be cultivated areas will total seven acres, with the first project, a children's discovery garden, set to be ready by spring or fall of 2015.
Next up are two gardens planned to open the following year. One has the working title of the Lotus Pool, set to make use of a small man-made lake at the site.
The other is known as the Floral Terraces. "A three-acre flower garden is going to be pretty amazing, and a lot of people will just be astounded," Lasseigne said. A rendering of the terrace design hangs in the garden's temporary visitor center. Sloped earth rises, with bands of color in the shape of shade trees and flowering plants.
Putting numbers to just that one feature, "I think it's safe to say over 100,000 bulbs, and at least over 1,000 flowering shrubs and hundreds of trees, a couple of hundred at least," said Lasseigne.
Ultimately, plans call for lush and cultivated areas of about 70 acres, with the remaining acreage to be kept in a more rustic state and used for hiking trails.
The project first got off the ground through a land donation from a group of businesspeople, including Gentner Drummond and Tom Atherton (both of whom keep close ties to what is now a non-profit organization, with Atherton on the garden's board of directors).
F. TODD LASSEIGNE
Lasseigne, the organization's first full-time chief executive officer, arrived in Oklahoma in 2011, leaving a similar post in North Carolina.
With close-cropped facial hair and longish locks, Lasseigne looks like he would be at home on the campus of a small liberal arts college; the photo on his LinkedIn business networking profile shows him standing in front of a shelf full of books.
The vision of the garden backers impressed him enough to make the move, he said. The December unveiling showcased some ideas that have been discussed since 2006, along with others that call for the site to be a true gathering place for families and the community. The long-range plan calls for a chapel -- for weddings -- and conservatory complex.
"That master plan is a bold dream for Tulsa," said Lasseigne, frequently gesturing to point out where this feature or that will wind up in the grand scheme of things.
Along with the new plants, the seeds are also being sown for the site to be a welcoming place for events. Lori Hutson, who also began working for the garden in 2011, oversees community programs and communications outreach, with those efforts just beginning to attract more than just the avid plant and garden enthusiasts.
On Aug. 11, the site held its first nighttime event, joining with the Broken Arrow Astronomers Club to provide a place for people to gather and watch the Perseid meteor shower.
"We had a lot of fun bringing out all our scopes," said Rick Walker, one of the founders of the club, itself a new organization looking to bring more people to astronomy. The event, with an attendance of more than 120 people, brought plenty of "garden people" out for the viewing, Walker said.
"We had people who never had an opportunity to look through a telescope before," said Walker, describing how he approached Hutson with the idea and found the new leadership eager to host such an event. He said he hoped to have future astronomy outings at the site.
Lasseigne described it as a "great old time," noting that the site also hosted a May fundraiser featuring live music, which could be a staple for the garden once a planned amphitheatre is built.
The immediate focus, however, is on developing the three full-scale gardens.
"Design development is about half a year, and that's a pretty intensive process," Lasseigne said, seated next to Hutson at a fold-up table in the site's temporary visitors center. "The funnest part of it actually is going to be when we actually sit down and do plant selection. I mean that's what people like Lori and I live for, right? We were trained in horticulture, and we love that."
To hear Lasseigne describe it, plant selection involves a mix of good taste and knowledge about how to make things grow, as well as the idea of representing the natural environment.
"It has to be nice, it has to be, in some ways, something no one else has seen before, at least in this region," Lasseigne said. To get things to grow and flourish, however, involves the science of soil selection.
"It may mean we use the native soils maybe mixed with some organic matter. In other cases, if we're trying to grow things that are a little more finicky, like tulips or whatever it may be, that we actually bring in an artificial soil that we engineer," Lasseigne said, explaining that heat-expanded clay or sand might be components of such a mixture.
Engineering artistry will also be needed to sculpt the layers into the existing slope of the land, as well as design pathways that Lasseigne said will likely make use of sandstone that's found in the region.
Along with such expertise, Lasseigne said the garden makes use of information technology to better allow for a richer learning experience.
"Think of us as a living museum," Lasseigne said, with the garden already keeping a database of plant life -- and it's diverse and exotic. Visitors now can see plants from Ecuador and elsewhere that raise eyebrows with strange spines or odd fruit.
"We're going to have a digital interface. We're not building a 1980s garden," Lasseigne said, adding, "we're going to let your cell phones interact with our databases."
That's a part of crafting the total user experience -- particularly key for the children's discovery garden.
Lasseigne noted that the concept of a children's garden only dates back about 20 years in the United States. But some things clearly differentiate such gardens from designs tailored for adults.
"Children don't learn the way that adults learn, right," Lasseigne said. "They don't go read interpretive signs and a lot of other things. They learn through playing or experiential learning, if you want to call it that."
To that end, Lasseigne described lots of flourishes designed to attract a child's attention.
A stream feature will be a place to gaze at tadpoles, but the headwaters will literally be just that -- a sculpted head for a character known as the Spring Giant.
"You can walk into him and he drips 'saliva' onto you," Lasseigne said, describing it as "just a little gross-out factor, where kids get excited."
Kids, and, with the educational opportunities that that garden promises to deliver, also educators.
To get the buses to come on a regular basis, the garden learning "has to meet curriculum standards," he said.
Cindi Hemm has met with garden leaders to discuss ideas for the children's space. The longtime Tulsa Public Schools educator -- including several years as principal of Eugene Field Elementary School -- now works as an educational consultant.
"It's a beautiful location. I think kids do need to go away from the city," Hemm said, noting that it's much bigger than the Linnaeus Teaching Garden at Woodward Park in midtown, while also much closer than the Woolaroc wildlife preserve in Bartlesville.
"I really just feel like it's going to be really something that Tulsa as a whole will embrace," Hemm said.
To be sure, the garden, formerly known as the Oklahoma Centennial Botanical Garden, is embracing Tulsa.
"Tulsa's a great city. And we're in Tulsa, we're in the city fence line," Lasseigne said, using a term referenced in the city's comprehensive plan. Technically, a fence line is "a ribbon of incorporated land" and "a form of reserve for future growth," according to PlaniTulsa.
Economic development officials for years have touted the potential of the site, with numbers like 300,000 yearly visitors and more than $100 million in economic impact locally.
For Lasseigne's part, he spoke confidently that the garden is truly set to bloom, noting feasibility studies done earlier showing ample community support.
"Credibility and due diligence is very important, especially for a young organization like us, and we feel very confident that we can meet our financial goals with the campaign, and we feel the timeline we've laid out is realistic," he said.
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