The country’s fourth largest city is now home to a world-class botanical garden
Houston has it all: professional sports, a space center and incredible museums. And now The Bayou City can add a botanical garden to its crown.
“It’s been a dream for decades,” says Houston Botanic Garden spokesman Justin Lacey. “Past president of the Garden Club of America, Nancy Thomas, really drove the idea that we had to do this. The highlight of my 2020 was seeing her there at our ribbon cutting.”
Finding the space for a botanical garden in an already crowded city doesn’t happen easily, and Thomas was adamant it needed to be within the city limits. Then finally, in 2010, her nonprofit organization discovered an underutilized municipal golf course and approached the city.
The city agreed that if there were enough interest, they would help make it happen. In 2015, the nonprofit entered a long-term lease with the city. In 2017, the garden met its first fundraising milestone, $20 million, and gained possession of the site in 2018.
“It’s a prime spot near Hobby Airport, just eight miles from downtown and on 132 acres,” says Lacey. “The location southeast of town allows us to bring our living museum to an area often overlooked in the placement of cultural amenities.”
Houston Botanic Garden hired Horticulture Manager Brent Moon in February of 2019 from the Houston Parks Department shortly before construction of the $35 million phase 1 project.
“For the first year, we stopped mowing,” says Moon. “We wanted to see what the natural succession of native plants might be once the site wasn’t being maintained as a golf course.”
Phase 1 Opened in 2020
Phase 1 of the 132-acre master plan includes horticultural displays, natural ecosystems and walking trails mainly centered on a natural island. The former golf course was on two pieces of land with Sims Bayou running through it and around it.
The first phase was designed by West 8, an international firm with locations in The Netherlands, Belgium and New York. West 8 worked alongside many local partners to transform the property into an oasis of learning, discovery and horticultural beauty.
The gardens opened in September of 2020 and have been a bright spot for Houstonians during the pandemic. In attendance was Nancy Johnson, now in her 90s, able to see her long-time dream a reality.
Attractions at Houston Botanic Garden include a Global Collection Garden, Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden, Culinary Garden, Stormwater Wetlands, Coastal Prairie, Pine Grove, Community Garden and Woodland Glade.
Diverse Plant Selection
Houston’s subtropical climate allows for a variety of plants to thrive. The Global Collection Garden is a highlight, with tropical, subtropical and arid plants from every continent but Antarctica.
“In a time of COVID when global travel isn’t on your radar, you can travel the plant world on our site,” says Lacey. “We have an African Savanna, Mexican Highlands, a North African Mediterranean Oasis … It really is an incredible experience.”
Lacey also says the Global Collection Garden is an important statement on inclusivity since Houston is such a multicultural city.
Moon says about 85-90 percent of the plants are tried-and-true, proven to do well in Houston. The rest are experimental. He says they’re already working with plant collectors to bring new and interesting species to the gardens.
“Whether you’re an expert horticulturist or a novice, you’ll be blown away by the design,” he says. “Some of my favorites plants here are the unique Cycas and bananas. It’s fun to educate people on the many edible varieties—hundreds of cultivars—not just the grocery-store variety.”
Moon oversees a staff of five along with a part-time plant recorder and three horticulture interns from local colleges. They outsource mowing and larger-scale tree work.
Moon says for him professionally, a highlight has been seeing the golf course repurposed as a botanic garden.
“Golf courses are just a monoculture of grass, and now we have such diversity in plants and animal life,” says Moon. “We are really committed to sustainable and environmentally responsible practices, from using organic fertilizers to protecting our bayou that runs into Galveston Bay and onto the Gulf.”
Houston Botanic Garden Design and Construction Team
- West 8: Prime Consultant, Masterplan Vision & Landscape Architect.
- Clark Condon Associates Inc. – Landscape Architects, Planting & Soil Design
- Overland Partners – Architects – Welcome Pavilion
- Walter P. Moore Engineers – Civil, Structural and Bridge Engineering
- I.A. Naman + Associates Inc. – Electrical Engineering
- Sweeney & Associates Inc. – Irrigation Design
- Dykema Architects Inc. – Architects – Lagoon Pavilion
- Greenscape Pump Services Inc. – Water Feature Engineering
- Olsson and Associates – Soil Design Consultation
- Minor Design – Signage and Wayfinding
- Berg-Oliver Associates, Inc. – Environmental Services & Land Use Consultation
- Harvey-Cleary Builders – General Contractor
- Landscape Art Inc. – Landscape Sub-Contractor
- B&D Contractors Inc. – Landscape Sub-Contractor
- Site Masters Play Code
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension – Stormwater Wetlands
- Wildlife Habitat Federation – Coastal Prairie