Omaha’s Outdoor Oasis

Omaha’s Outdoor Oasis
One Magazine (September 2007)
By Wendy Townley

One might expect the executive director of Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s Botanical Center, to have an ornately designed home garden, with multiple varieties of colorful flowers and plants, with trees (both young and old) reaching toward the heavens.

And in this case, it’s partly true.

Spencer Crews’ garden isn’t at his home in midtown Omaha, however. The garden sits at a 100-acre site nestled near Interstate 80 and parts of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods that, in the past 11 years, has grown to annually attract 100,000 visitors – a feat he could never accomplish with a professionally designed garden at home.

“I don’t have a garden at my house,” Crews says sheepishly, but with a grin. “Probably because I’m relatively particular about the way I like things, and so I understand that my time does not really allow me to do what I need to do in my own garden to please myself. I have a nice, green lawn and large trees. But no garden.”

The guests and members who visit Lauritzen Gardens shouldn’t worry about Crews’ home, however. His passion, dedication and devotion to the garden and Mother Nature is evident at every turn of the area’s winding paths and grassy, rolling hills. It’s in the flowers and the bushes and the trees and the grasses.

Prick Crews’ finger, and you just might see green. The outdoors is in his blood. His earliest outdoor memories are of working in neighbors’ yards, cutting grass and clearing away brush, in his hometown of St. Louis, Mo.

His fondest outdoor memories are working on his grandmother’s farm in southern Illinois.

After high school, Crews began his secondary education (Mother Nature can only teach so much outside the classroom) at the Professional Gardener Training Program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., in 1974.

Next came Iowa State University, where, in 1980, he earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. (A master’s degree in public administration came from the University of Missouri-Kansas in 1995.)

After graduation, Crews spent much of his career working in both the designing and creating of public spaces, and private spaces for clients. He even taught horticulture courses at East Central College in Union, Mo.

When asked if he could identify a different career field to pursue other than horticulture, Crews comes up short.

“There would not be anything else I would do,” he says.

Much of the reason horticulture has become such a part of Crews’ life is because of the profession’s results: beautiful, outdoor places for everyone to enjoy.

“Whether they’re nature-created places, such as a beautiful national park, or whether it be a beautiful space that has been man-created, such as a beautifully designed landscape. I personally get inspired, and I think a lot of people get inspired in different ways. You know when you go to some place that is beautiful – nature or manmade – that there’s something special about it,” Crews explains. “And I think everybody has a different level of appreciation for that.”

Count how many times Crews uses the adjective “beautiful” to describe the outdoors. Countless, if you consider how often he’s promoting the garden to members, visitors, donors of potential contributors.

He describes his work ethic as “all consuming.” But for Crews, the all-consuming work ethic is simply a byproduct of a profession he truly loves.

“I’m very blessed in that respect,” he adds.

Donita Logeman has spent an hour with Crews every Tuesday morning for the past two years, surveying the garden as a visitor would. As Lauritzen’s director of horticulture, Logeman’s top priority is ensuring the garden is the best it can be. Much of the passion Logeman has for her work is a direct result of Crews’ leadership.

“He’s here all the time,” she explains. “He’s very hands-on and very particular about the garden. Spencer is a perfectionist, and he makes us that way, too.”

Logeman added that Crews’ influence is evident throughout the garden, especially witnessing the transformation the land has made in more than 10 years’ time.

But Crews’ work doesn’t end on the grounds of the garden. It extends into the community.

During his 11 years with the garden, Crews has increased funding from $100,000 to $20 million.

He understands that securing and maintaining funding is one of the biggest challenges he faces while working in the nonprofit sector. But having upwards of 25 acres of space currently developed – with more on the way in years to come – helps his pitch. So does making the ask to what he describes as an extremely generous community.

“In those early years, it was rough,” he says. “There was nothing (to show potential donors). That was the biggest challenge. But that has to be totally offset with the fact that we all know that Omaha is just the most incredibly generous community, at all levels of support.”

Crews points to the city’s spirit of giving, which extends beyond checkbooks.

“That spirit of giving, I think, translates into the way people act in our community, which is why I think it’s such a wonderful community to be a part of,” he says. “It’s a giving community. And not just the money.”

A member of the city’s giving community is Hani Kenefick, who has sat on the board of the garden and was involved when talks of building a garden began in the 1980s. She recalls liking Crews when she first met him after he arrived in Omaha more than 10 years ago.

“He’s done a really good job here,” Kenefick says. “And people like him. He’s very serious about his work and he’s very particular about doing things right. But it has paid off. He has something to really be proud of.”

The 100 acres on which the garden sits was previously a dumping ground. Envisioning a gorgeous garden could’ve been tough work to the untrained eye. But Crews was up for the challenge.

Tackling Nebraska’s weather, however, was a different story.

When moving to Omaha in 1996, after working for seven years as horticulture manager of Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Mo., local meteorologists used phrases such as “life-threatening conditions” to describe the current winter weather.

While Crews understands the beauty of winter weather, he can’t tolerate it for an extended period of time. He often travels to Florida after the first of the year, in an effort to soak up sun and remind himself that green exists elsewhere during the winter months.

“Winters are worse in Nebraska,” he says. “I try my best to make it a point, about mid-winter, to get someplace green, preferably Florida. I just really need my fix of green. And there’s nothing like getting off the plane and just seeing green and blue sky. Even though it’s beautiful here in the winter in its own sort of stark way, it’s really nice to see green in January.”

Inspiration often drives Crews’ work and passion for Mother Nature’s finest handiwork. But he’s continually rewarded through the act of constant creation. Every flower, tree and plant that’s given life, for Crews, is work that will outlive future generations.

“With this line of work, I’m helping to create something that is going to far outlast my life span or many other people’s life spans. To think of building something that has such a level of permanence,” he adds. “How nice it is to think that you can plant a garden that incorporates some of these plants, and to think that those plants are going to outlive you, they may outlive your children.”

The notion, he says, is extremely gratifying.

“There are a lot of things that last a long, long time,” he says. “I feel honored to be involved in something that is going to last that long. It’s humbling, truly. To plant a plant, and the older you get, the more you understand it. It really is strange to put something in the ground, and then sort of nurture it and begin to see it grow. And then you realize you’re going to be gone and it’s not. It’s kind of interesting. I like that, a lot.”

These days Crews is busy planning not only for the garden’s immediate future, but its long-term future, as well. A Japanese park is the next major project that will become reality within the next three to five years. The park, which in 10 years’ time will come to include a Japanese garden, will occupy six acres, the largest single area at Lauritzen Gardens. (In fact, Crews recently returned from a two-week visit to Shizuoka, Japan, Omaha’s sister city, to learn more about Japanese gardens.)

A indoor conservatory is also in the works at the garden, transforming Lauritzen Gardens to a 12-month facility.

All of these projects, and the many more that will surface in the coming years, require tremendous amounts of patience. Such patience is necessary in a line of work whose success is determined by the natural surroundings.

Crews says he’s grateful for the lessons of patience Mother Nature has taught him.

“I keep going back to the Bur Oak,” he says.

The Bur Oak is a tree that’s predominant in the gardens. Crews says the species of tree has much to teach us and himself.

“There’s so many messages in a Bur Oak. A plant that can live here, in this climate,” he says. “You look at those plants out there (during the winter) and you realize that they’re alive, and all the animals are out there and they’re alive, too. It has taken them all a long time to grow. Anything worthwhile is worth waiting for. That, I think, is the biggest lesson. And one I’m definitely still learning.”