Spending the day surrounded by beautiful plants? Designing floral shows? It sounds like many people's dream job, and Luthy Botanical Garden Manager Lauren Howell readily admits it's hers.

Born in Elmhurst and raised in sunny California, Howell knew early on that plants were the only career for her. "I went to college at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. I started out in landscape architecture but switched to ornamental horticulture after my freshman year. This switch was much to my advisor's chagrin, as it's very hard to get into the landscape architecture program, and he couldn't believe anyone would ask to leave. But it was the right choice, and I've never regretted it. Horticulture is this great combination of art and science-and maybe a little magic-that I just love. And horticulture people tend to be great people, so it's been a marvelous field to be in."

She received a master's degree from Purdue University and then moved to Peoria with her family. "I stayed home for a while with my daughter and then started working at GreenView Companies part time. I was fortunate enough to be able to turn that part-time job into a full-time career and became the wholesale department manager. I developed a real passion for selling and loved making connections throughout the local green industry. One of those connections led me to apply for the manager position at Luthy Botanical Garden. I was hired by the Peoria Park District in July 1996 and have been having a great time ever since," she said.

Howell's job involves every aspect of Luthy. "I oversee all of the day-to-day operations of the Garden, which include the grounds and facility maintenance-mowing, watering, planting, weeding-of the garden areas, greenhouses, and the conservatory. This has become a lot more fun over the years as we've updated and improved so many areas of Luthy. I also participate in the planning and set up of our floral shows-Lily, Chrysanthemum, and Poinsettia. I have three full-time horticulturists who directly lead and perform these jobs and several part-time horticulturists and seasonal gardeners who work alongside them. I also added the position of collections specialist several years ago. The collections specialist is in charge of recording the history and records of all the plants in our collection. This hadn't been done in many years, so it's been a huge undertaking. We're working toward a computerized inventory that will raise the bar on our professionalism as a botanical garden. I'm lucky to have a diverse and talented group of people keeping the Garden and Conservatory looking so good and growing so well."

She also directs the operations of the Trellis Gift Shop, supervises the volunteer and education coordinator, develops and monitors the Garden budget, helps develop long-range plans for the Garden, and does landscape consulting.

Her favorite part of the job has always been trying to get more people out to the Garden. "When I interviewed for this position, I told Dale Goodner, my supervisor, that I envisioned myself as something of a 'horticulture evangelist.' I love spreading the word about plants and gardens-not just in the sense of what you can grow in your own backyard, but in the sense of what these green spaces can do for our community and for each person. The goal of diversifying and expanding our audience is what our special events are all about, and special events have become an increasingly large part of what I do in my job and in what the Garden has to offer the public. Telling people about the benefits of being a Garden Member, sharing the classes and programs we offer, and even performing maintenance is all about providing an exceptional product to our visitors so they come back often and consider getting more involved with what we do," Howell said.

Her horticulture evangelism can be traced back to her family's influence. "Gardening genes run through my mom's side of the family," she said. "My grandfather was always a big gardener, and I loved playing in their backyard and sitting under their huge spruce trees when we visited. It was like being in a living fort. My mom created our whole landscape in California; she has a knack for that kind of thing even though she never had any training in it. So I grew up with an appreciation of the plants in our yard and how they went together."

With all of her activities, the time Howell spends designing at Luthy is limited, but she just can't remove herself from the process she loves. Instead, she said it's a group effort. "We're all constantly looking out for good ideas at other facilities, gardens, conferences, trade magazines, books, etc. Sometimes a customer or volunteer provides a great idea we jump on. I think our goal is to showcase the latest ideas and plants available, while, at the same time, using things we believe will be good performers. We really want to show our visitors how they might use these plants in their own landscapes."

The biggest misperception Howell runs into regarding Luthy is the fact that it even exists. "I would love never again to hear the question, 'Peoria has a botanical garden?' I think, perhaps, that's partly because people who aren't gardeners or aren't interested in landscaping assume there's nothing there they'd be interested in. But I would love to communicate to people that we're something everyone can enjoy. I'll never be a musician, but I love listening to music; the same thing applies to us. Just come and enjoy the Garden, have lunch here, let the kids see the children's garden, or even get married here. Many people know about the Conservatory because our floral shows have been going on since 1897, but they have no idea we have five acres of great garden areas to explore."

She expects such awareness will happen. "Events like Rhapsody in Bloom, Jinglin' Jazz, and Rhythm in the Rainforest have started to make more people aware of the Garden. We're booking weddings two years out now, and we're starting to be booked for private parties, dinners, speaking engagements, and the like. These types of programs also tend to generate more revenue for the Garden, so I think it's safe to say the Garden itself will continue to improve. We would love to have more 'hardscaping'-things like arbors and statuary-and that's starting to happen as we have the funds to implement it."

The public has a chance to visit Luthy Botanical Garden for the first time-or the hundredth-with several upcoming events, she said. "The Lily Show is on display until April 3; this year's theme is 'Springtime in Paris.' We have the Spring Plant Sale April 23 and 24, with Garden Members Only day on April 22. Our members get first pick of the selection, and they receive a discount on all of their purchases. We're planning to offer not only a great selection of perennials, but also a wide variety of tropical plants, hanging baskets, herbs, and unique annuals. The Peoria Orchid Society presents an orchid display in the Conservatory May 8. It's a great thing to bring Mom to for Mother's Day. In June, we'll have a new event in place of Old Fashioned Sunday called 'Musaic,' which will be a collaboration of the recreation staff at the pavillion, the zoo, and the Garden. And our biggest event of all happens June 25 and 26-Rhapsody in Bloom: A Celebration of the Arts. We're thrilled to present our third year of this juried art show featuring local artists, jazz and blues musicians, other performing arts, and culinary delights."

Howell lends her horticultural expertise to projects outside of the Garden as well. "It's always such an honor for me when someone asks for my help on a project or wants to collaborate with us. I suppose the best example is our Children's Garden here at Luthy that was designed, installed, and continues to be developed through our partnership with the Center for Prevention of Abuse. I've also helped Allied Agencies with a plan for their courtyard, which features plants to attract birds and butterflies and provides a focal point in a building that serves children in many different ways. I've helped many of the other Park facilities with design ideas for their landscapes. I designed the bed at Prospect and Knoxville that won an Orchid Award a few years ago. I worked with HISRA to develop some raised bed gardens for clients who are physically and mentally challenged. Gardening and plants are such great therapy," she said.

She currently chairs Peoria City Beautiful's I-74 beautification committee. "The committee before me did such a great job helping select and direct the hardscaping elements involved with the project, and I've had the honor of helping guide the design of the landscape. It'll be nothing like any highway landscaping anyone has seen around here before."

Howell said what keeps her motivated in her career and volunteer efforts is her staunch belief that plants make all of our lives better. "After 9/11, I was really questioning why my job was important to anyone. As I was pondering these things, I started getting newsletters from botanical gardens across the country whose directors were asking themselves the same question. But do you know what was happening at all of these gardens-and Luthy too? People were coming out in higher numbers than ever. People needed to reconnect with the earth and everything in creation; they needed a respite from everything going on, and they found it in gardens. This is the part that's really exciting to me. It's why I think Luthy Botanical Garden is essential to the Peoria area." AA!