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Desert Discovery Trail


by Elaine McGinn, Director of Planning and Exhibits

As the Desert Botanical Garden completes its 2006- 2011 strategic plan, it continues to look forward to the next twenty years and what it will take to remain a relevant and vibrant resource for the conservation and display of desert plants. Focusing on the characteristics that distinguish us from other botanical gardens, we intend to capitalize on our unique desert environment to stimulate sustained interest in and curiosity about desert plants and their habitats.

In keeping with our innovative spirit and commitment to education and discovery, we are committed to planning for the future through strategic decisions, investment, and development of exhibits and programs. Our most recent endeavor to achieve these goals is the recently completed master plan for the Desert Discovery Trail (DDT), the core trail of the Garden.

The master planning process began in earnest in October 2010, when we received an Organizational Enhancement Award from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust as part of my Piper Fellowship. This award supported the strategic challenge of building compelling, innovative exhibits that broaden community connections to the Garden. It funded the timely hiring of a landscape designer to collaborate with our exhibit development team in evaluating and improving the design aesthetic of the Desert Discovery Trail.

Prior to receiving the award from Piper, a strategic planning task force, which included Garden staff, board, and volunteers, had been meeting to develop the foundation for the master planning process. That task force established clear objectives for what we wanted to achieve with the DDT Master Plan, including an approach to master planning that would honor our past while establishing a high standard for our future. The overarching goal of the master plan was to develop an evolving outline for the DDT’s future. The team felt strongly that planning and design must respect the Desert Botanical Garden’s existing atmosphere, cultural heritage, identity, and ecological health. Not only would we plan for the addition of new galleries along the core trail, but we would also increase learning opportunities, accentuate landscape features, and enhance circulation and visitor amenities.

In February of 2011, we hired studioOutside to collaborate with the Garden in developing the DDT Master Plan. The selection of studioOutside was based on their extensive expertise in public garden design, their holistic approach to gardens, programming and visitor experience, their horticultural knowledge, and their inclusive and communication-based planning process. The lead designer, Tres Fromme, is recognized nationally for his work in public gardens including Longwood Gardens, Atlanta Botanical Garden, and the United States Botanical Garden.

With studioOutside at the table to further facilitate the planning process, the team participated in a series of design charettes (intense, short-term workshops to generate creative ideas) to assess the current displays along the DDT and to identify, prioritize, and focus future exhibits and galleries into organized themes that supported the Desert Botanical Garden experience. Critical to the planning was careful analysis of visitor wayfinding, interpretation, vistas and view points, circulation, tribute gardens, and pull-offs for tours and destinations.

By July, the DDT Master Plan had begun to evolve into a dynamic framework that identified key areas for future planning and design. Each area builds upon the Garden’s identity, message, and collections to showcase a full palette of desert plants from around the world in an engaging and aesthetic manner. Below are brief summaries of some of the key areas highlighted in the diagram above:

Desert Vestibule

This new gallery draws visitors from the Ottosen Entry Garden southward into the Desert Discovery Trail. The planting design is bold, in contrast with the relative lushness of Ottosen. The tiered planters have a canyon like effect that will be illuminated at night with an enchanting glow.

Desert Portal

Deserts of the World

This area is an expansion and enhancement of the existing naturalistic plantings. Plantings add to the existing collections and emphasize the diversity and beauty of desert vegetation. Interpretive themes possibly include the story of the world’s deserts, their conservation, and how people are able to live with and steward desert ecosystems.

Stardust Foundation Plaza

Enhancements to this Plaza located between the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent
Galleries have the potential to create a true visitor destination. The addition of canopy trees will provide the Plaza with welcome shade and improved visitor amenities will include a soothing water feature, improved lighting, Wi-Fi, and a sound system.

Eastern Plaza

This Plaza is a 40’ diameter gathering space linking the DDT’s northeastern and southeastern segments with the Berlin Agave Yucca Forest and the Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail. Visitor amenities include shaded seating provided by a trellis structure and drinking fountains and interpretation.

Heritage Gallery

The site of the collection’s oldest plantings honors the vision and legacy of those who made the Desert Botanical Garden the world-renowned institution it is today. Three new features north of the Webster Center comprise this Gallery–the Founders Garden, the Stewards Wall, and the Cardón Plaza. This is an ideal place to share the story about the Garden’s past, present, and future.

Painted Desert Paseo

The Paseo’s primary purpose is linking the DDT with the Harriet K. Maxwell Wildflower Loop Trail. It will be the not-to-miss spring horticultural celebration, filled with wildflowers. The DDT Master Plan is an evolving outline that has progressed from imagining possibilities to creating concepts that build upon, connect, and enhance existing elements into a holistic experience. The plan includes renovations to infrastructure, the addition of new plants and hardscape, improved lighting, shade, and drinking fountains, interpretation, and spaces for gatherings for tours and events. It takes into account previous planning initiatives and the relationship to future Garden expansion as expressed in the 20-Year Physical Master Plan, which was published in 2008. It also allows the Garden to evaluate sequencing of possible projects as part of its ongoing, strategic planning processes. It will take many years to complete the plan and realizing its completion will require flexibility and further planning.

The cost for completing all areas in the DDT Master Plan is a little over $10 million. For the Strategic Plan 2012–2017, the Board of Trustees has approved $3.5 million for renovations to the DDT. I am delighted to share that the first project from the Master Plan to be implemented will be the Desert Portal; made possible by a generous donation from Jan and Tom Lewis. The outcome of the DDT master planning process met our goals and expectations by emphasizing the trail’s role as the core of the Garden visitor’s experience. Thank you to The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, studioOutside and all the stakeholders who have participated in this exciting and creative group process. Your expertise, perspectives, and ideas generated a compelling vision for a future that celebrates the Desert Botanical Garden’s legacy of outstanding exhibition, education, research, and conservation.


The Garden is pleased to announce that Jan and Tom Lewis have committed a one million dollar lead gift to fund the Desert Portal project. This gift was conceived by Mr. Lewis as a surprise for his wife to honor and recognize her love, involvement in, and appreciation for the mission and the beauty of the Garden.

The Desert Portal will be the central hub of the Desert Discovery Trail (DDT) and will be a key location for orienting people to the entire core trail experience. It will offer shaded seating beneath a dramatic trellis structure and a new gathering space for tours and intimate gatherings. As described in the master plan, “Tiered planters define the Desert Portal’s northwest and northeast quadrants, creating an amphitheater-like backdrop and directing views west to Papago Butte, southeast into the arroyo, and to the Garden Butte. Plantings focus on the stunning range of desert plants from around the world and illuminate their most striking aesthetic characteristics.”

Some of the planters will contain permanent plantings representative of the Garden’s collections, while others will feature rotating displays of rare and endangered species or seasonal displays of color. Interpretative signs will orient visitors to the DDT and prepare them to optimize their time in the Garden. Design development for the Jan and Tom Lewis Desert Portal will be ongoing through 2012, and construction will begin in the summer of 2014.

Mrs. Lewis has been a very active Garden Board Member (2004-2011). In addition to participating on the Strategic Planning Committee and Children's and Family Garden Task Force, she has held numerous leadership positions for the Executive, Patrons Circle, Chihuly Desert Towers, and Tending the Garden Campaign committees, among other commitments. Mr. Lewis is the Owner and CEO of T.W. Lewis Company, a long-time local homebuilding firm known for its quality and customer service. Through the T.W. Lewis Foundation, Jan and Tom have provided more than 100 college scholarships to local students and support a wide variety of organizations that improve the quality of life in the Valley.

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Ottosen Entry Garden

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