Beyond the Display Garden: Growing Sustainability, Connection and Experiences in Nature


As the world recovers from the pandemic and the Belmont, NC area continues to develop and grow, there is a new level of appreciation for the natural world, enjoyment of open spaces and opportunities to experience and learn about nature. There is no better time to consider how the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden can better serve the Charlotte region and the planet. This Master Plan expands the garden’s mission beyond the existing formal gardens to envision an exceptional outdoor experience instilling a love of nature and beauty, appealing to a diverse audience, and building resiliency in a changing climate.

Key to the process was refinement of the garden’s operating model to ensure financial sustainability through new revenue streams, increased funding from donors, and significant membership and attendance increases. The master plan goes beyond programming and site design to address immediate capital needs to maintain the garden’s current assets and staffing while also outlining a business plan to increase annual revenues by $1 Million.


Historically, Daniel Stowe Botanic Gardens (DSBG) served the science of botany and were largely focused on the collection and curation of a living library of plants observed by strolling through a collection of formal gardens. Today, DSBG maintains that purpose while defining a new paradigm – one that is considering wider audiences, creating experiences beyond formal gardens alone, considering their place within the larger ecosystem and context, and connecting people with nature in new ways.

The master plan process went beyond programming and site design to consider context and longevity: (a) the relationship between the garden property and the larger open space and conservation priorities, (b) ensure resiliency in the face of climate change, (c) serve a diverse and growing community, (d) position as a key community asset and market to a broader audience, (e) fill the gap in the regional tourism market, (f) attract youth and young adult audiences, (g) increase revenue and address staffing needs, (h) build partnerships and donors, (i) identify political support for implementation.

The Garden is situated outside of Belmont, North Carolina – a region facing rapid population growth. What used to be a property surrounded by woodland is now a 230-acre island of woodland and open space surrounded by miles of suburban style development. Like many botanic gardens, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden is largely focused on formal display gardens. Yet the gardens are set within a larger property that was originally envisioned for conservation, providing opportunity to continue that vision, while utilizing the full property to achieve a new mission. The property contains three miles of trails, including the future alignment of the Carolina Thread Trail – a vision to build a regional network of connected greenways, trails and blueways that reaches fifteen counties, two states and 2.9 million people. This opportunity uniquely positions the Garden to serve as a regional trailhead – allowing the property to become a community asset accessible to all, while leveraging this new relationship to grow garden admissions and expand programming on the property.

A Holistic Approach to Master Planning

The master planning process began with a suitability evaluation which considers steep slopes on site, hydrology patterns or other environmentally sensitive areas, soils suitability, and any additional site constraints or considerations such as utilities or easements. The planning process then explored a series of land-use plan alternatives which aimed to fit the established desired program onto the site and right-size elements based on achieving the outlined goals of the plan.

Following this analysis, a series of listening sessions were hosted by the design team with board members, donors, volunteers, staff and partners to understand how the Gardens can better serve the community in the coming decades. Sessions explored an evolution of the Gardens’ mission and vision and focused on current challenges and opportunities for strengthening and leveraging what is already successful at the Gardens, like events and festivals, to ideas for a diversified experience through new capital projects and renovations of existing assets.

The input documented throughout this exploration phase was translated into a series of goals, strategies and metrics focused on substantially growing visitation and membership, increasing revenue streams and enriching the Garden experience. Most importantly, the engagement with the garden community resulted in the evolution of the Garden’s mission – from “create an inspiring, unforgettable garden experience that instills a love of nature and its beauty” The vision became “be a cherished regional and welcoming local asset, expanding our vision to: create stunning gardens and other inspiring and exceptional outdoor experiences that instill a love of nature, beauty, and celebrate our connection to the water; appeal to a broad audience that is diverse, youth and family-oriented; and build resiliency to a changing climate.”

The site plan continued a process of refinement based on a working preferred concept illustrating proposed facilities, garden spaces, service elements and expanded nature-based program. This process was highly coordinated with the revenue projections and analysis to determine the optimal master plan program, which was refined based on steering committee feedback, suitability and feasibility. The preferred program was then applied to a final master plan which illustrates a ten-year vision, supported by a recommended phasing and work plan to support implementation.

A New Garden Paradigm

The first phase of implementation is comprised of strategies to add value to the existing garden program and to establish DSBG as a trailhead for the Carolina Thread Trail. The trail presents an opportunity for the garden to interface with this public amenity by providing new membership options focused on direct access to the Carolina Thread Trail, the addition of new trails on the garden property and opportunities for refreshments.

The next phase will continue to expand trails on the property, as well as focus on the establishment of an outfitter building to create a new relationship with the bordering Lake Wylie. A low-cost first phase expansion of the children’s garden will utilize on-site materials to create a natural play space. This phase will also launch a new summer event focused on an immersive light experience hosted in the adjacent woodland.

As the garden becomes a regional trailhead, the next phase further expands programming within the formal garden areas creating an additional children’s play space through partnerships with the Charlotte region design community to create a collection of site specific, one-of-a-kind play structures. A permanent butterfly pavilion paired with a large pollinator meadow of native plantings will further the educational programming at the garden. In addition, a chapel will be constructed in the woodland, providing a contemplative space that can also host events. To meet the needs of visitors and reinforce the operating capacity to host events, a restaurant will be constructed within the core garden.

The following phase will continue to grow the connection between performing arts and nature through the creation of an outdoor amphitheater which will host a summer concert series. This phase will also launch the Camp Stowe Nature Center which will provide a relationship with and exposure to the natural ecosystems on the property through educational programs and summer camp program for school-age children. The garden will then be positioned as a signature art destination through the creation of a large sculpture park carefully weaving through the open meadows and woodlands on the property. Future additions to the children’s garden will integrate elements like universal accessibility, fantasy play, elements of discovery and exploration and exploration and the incorporation of tree houses. As the children’s garden expansion is completed, a new arrival experience will be provided through an elevated canopy walk through the woodland. Finally, as wedding rentals continue to demand on-site overnight stay options, the garden will explore the creation of a glamping destination comprised of a range of accommodation typologies including artfully crafted hanging tents. Within all phases of implementation, the master plan provides recommendations for staffing levels, fundraising and operations.

A path forward

The master plan offers a guiding vision for Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden over the next 10 years and beyond, aiming to celebrate and rebrand the entire property as a regional trailhead, ultimately defining a framework where the garden is positioned within a community destination. This vision expands outdoor programming and enhances site amenities to create an unforgettable experience in nature. The garden is envisioned to celebrate this connection to nature, promote stewardship and conservation of the entire 200 acres of woodland. The future garden will expand cultural programming and integrate the arts, offering cross-generational experiences to engage and welcome a diverse audience.

Documents and Media

Planning Docs (if applicable):