The Waterfront Botanical Gardens come to life
By Laura Ross
Photos by Bisig Impact Group
At first glance, Louisville’s Waterfront Botanical Gardens sit in an unlikely spot. The urban botanical gardens are on 23 acres of land acquired from Metro Louisville at River Road and Frankfort Avenue. Once home to antebellum mansions, the site suffered disastrous floods from the nearby Ohio River and eventually was turned into a city dump. But, working with a multi-year vision and plan, the area has become an ecological haven and gem at the doors to the city.
Watching the gardens come to life is a personal odyssey for Waterfront Botanical Gardens President Kasey Maier, who has been integral to the planning and growth of the location since 2013. “After all the years of bringing the vision to life, we were thrilled to open in October 2019,” Maier explained. “We had over 70 events and 10,000 visitors in the first six months. It was really hopping. And then, the pandemic hit, and we had to close just six months from opening.”
But a surprise bequest of $5 million in the fall of 2019 from the estate of Ellen T. Leslie saved them. “We continued building the Ellen T. Leslie Botanical Classrooms in her memory last year, but her gift also allowed us to keep our staff going through the pandemic,” Maier added. “It would have broken my heart to furlough anyone. We kept everyone working and the good news was we kept planting gardens and expanding while everything was shut down.”
While some staff worked remotely, the horticultural staff remained on site, working daily to tend and expand the gardens. “A 23-acre botanical garden in another city will have over 100 staff, and we have 16 very dedicated staff in Louisville who make this work. Even with donations down and no events, we still ended the year fairly well. I’m confident this year will be much better,” said Maier.
As restrictions ease and vaccinations increase, Maier is thrilled to welcome visitors back to the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. Programs like tai chi, yoga, flower arranging, and youth and family events are returning full force, and Maier is seeing an uptick in weddings and corporate bookings. The gardens are free to explore from Wednesday through Sunday, with some programs requiring reservations and fees. All events are listed on the Waterfront Botanical Gardens’ website.
“We are keeping precautions, by limiting people in our building and requiring masks currently,” said Maier. “In the gardens, you can walk as you want outside. On recent beautiful weekends, we’ve had more than 1,000 people come through.”
All plants through the gardens are labeled, and an audio tour for visually impaired guests is available. An interactive map, both on site and on the website, holds a database that gives guests the ability to find specific plants, trees and more, with ease.
The popular “Music in the Garden” concert series is once again underway through October but is selling out quickly. The concerts feature local, diverse talents who perform sunset concerts in the botanical gardens. The $35 ticket includes food and drink, along with the concert.
The Waterfront Botanical Gardens’ partnership with Steve and Merry-Kay Poe at their Avish estate in east Louisville continues to grow. The property, once belonging to the late Owsley Brown Frazier, has many acres of gardens, greenhouses and more. Multiple camps and programs for gardeners, children and families are planned for the satellite site at the Avish through the coming year.
In addition to the Ellen T. Leslie Botanical Classrooms, three new water features were built in the past year. “There is a water wall, the Rounsavall family fountain and flower beds in our plaza and a waterfall down the hillside to a path leading to Beargrass Creek,” said Maier. “The botanical classrooms, which opened in May, hold a smart classroom, greenhouse and courtyard for holding horticultural workshops.”
“Children love the water features, and I love watching them play from my office window,” Maier said. It’s heartening for Maier to see guests return and enjoy nature. “My personal favorite tranquil spot is the Beargrass Creek pathway,” she said. “It’s a complex area, with trees, plants, flowers and water, all together. I love taking time to walk the pathway and watching everyone enjoy themselves. It’s magical. I hope many people join us this summer to discover it.”
Waterfront Botanical Gardens
1435 Frankfort Ave
Louisville, KY 40206