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Des Moines’ Botanical Garden earns tourism award while working to become more accessible

Dome After Dark, 2022-23 season

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden — Fridays, Nov. 25 through March 31 (excluding Dec. 9), 6-10 p.m.


The Botanical Garden — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden received the 2022 Best Attraction award from Catch Des Moines last week, and plans to uphold that title by continuing to bring the community closer to nature.

The Des Moines Botanical Center first opened in 1979 after a decade-long fundraising campaign. Des Moines Water Works took over operation from the Parks and Recreation Department in 2004 and oversaw a $600,000 upgrade. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2013, underwent major renovations and established itself as the 12-acre public garden, cultural center and plant education hub it is today.

“I think a city like Des Moines needs a botanical garden like this for lots of reasons. Not only is it a tourist attraction, but it also was a place for people to explore that love of plants and kind of grow in the love of plants,” said Maggie Conner, the Garden’s director of marketing, in an interview with Little Village. “We provide that connection to nature.”

Since the racial-justice reckoning of 2020, Botanical Garden staff have worked to draw in a more diverse crowd.

Maggie Conner, director of marketing for the Botanical Garden. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

“We’ve really worked hard to make sure that people in our community know that they have a place here. And I think that part of that and us doing some different types of events, like a Dome After Dark type of event, has really put us on the map and opened our doors to a wider audience,” Conner said.

Dome After Dark is an after-hours light show that takes place inside the conservatory and the Gardeners Show House every Friday starting in late November through the end of March.

Conner said the after-dark experience is somewhat surreal. “Everything’s lit up down here [in the conservatory]. But the way that the conservatory panels reflect light, it’s like a starry night — it’s like a twinkly starry night. And it really does feel like you’re on a beach somewhere in the tropics. It’s weird because it’s dark, and you can’t see the sky.”

DAD wasn’t just created to show visitors a far-out sight. With normal operating hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the garden knew they had to expand their programming to make the space more accessible to everyone.

“I always advocate for that single mom who’s working multiple jobs. When is she supposed to bring her family to the garden? And if we don’t have those more diverse open hours, it’s hard for some people who have those day jobs to get their kids into the garden,” Conner said.

“Because of the success of our Dome After Dark event, we’ve talked about how we can open up the garden outside of those regular 10-to-5, Tuesday-through-Sunday hours.”

Dome After Dark events in the past have started at 6 in the evening and ended by 9 p.m. This year, the plan is to keep the party going until 10. (The first DAD of the season is set for Friday, Nov. 25.)

The Botanical Garden’s conservatory. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The Garden has also partnered with 26 local libraries to offer free admission via the Iowa Libraries Adventure Pass. The program gives passholders free admission with a valid photo ID and a library card to a number of local attractions, including the Science Center and Blank Park Zoo.

Up to four people may also get free admission to the Garden through the Museums for All program. All you have to do is present your SNAP, WIC or EBT card and a photo ID.

Efforts to expand their audience over the past two years have paid off, Conner said. The Botanical Garden has started seeing more non-member faces than members cross their threshold.

“Some of the changes that we’ve prioritized are making a difference. People are noticing them. We’ve got much more diversity in our everyday visits and our members and that’s something that we’re really proud of. And it’s really nice!” Conner celebrated.

“While of course, we still cherish our plant-loving botanist crowd, we also want the Botanical Garden to serve as sort of a foot in the door for people who have interest in plants who want to learn more.”

Conner not only credits their success to new programing, but also their location. The garden is close to downtown and East Village, popular areas for dining, work and socialization.

Top level of the Botanical Garden’s conservatory — Courtney Guein/Little Village

“Having this amount of property in a garden setting this close to a downtown is incredible for a community just knowing that you can be downtown for work and come over, pop over for lunch and take a tour,” Conner said.

Des Moines residents aren’t the only ones making the Garden a popular attraction.

“The Botanical Garden serves as that welcoming spot for people who come from out of town, too,” Conner added. “Not only is it an asset for those of us in Des Moines, but it also serves as that memory maker for people who are coming to visit.”

In the future, there are plans to have a mural guide you to the Gardener’s Show House to eliminate the common difficulty in finding its entrance. An artist hasn’t been confirmed just yet, but the plan is to have a mural done sometime in 2023.

They will be also be moving some of the bigger trees in the conservatory to the hallway outside of the Gardener’s Show House. Visitors will have to chance to see how small they are compared to the height of the great trees.

“I just think that Des Moines as a community is so vibrant, and we just want to be a place for people to come in and connect to nature and plants in whatever way they choose,” Conner added. Whether they’ve got a green thumb, or they’ve called themselves something other than a green thumb, everyone is welcome and that’s why we’re here. We want people to love plants as much as we can.”

Catch Des Moines, who presented the Best Attraction award to the Botanical Garden, is a partnership between the Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Des Moines Area Sports Commission. The accredited Destinations International organization aims to welcome visitors with great experiences while also pushing for economic success and a better quality of life for residents.

Hallway that separates the Botanical Gardens conservatory and Gardener’s Show Room — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The Botanical Garden hosts events throughout the year for the whole family to enjoy the fresh sights and smells of nature, hear good music or learn something new.

You can visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden Tuesday to Sunday anytime from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission fees range from free for children 3 and under to $10 for adults.


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