The Territorial Prison, which later became the Idaho State Penitentiary, was built in 1870 in East Boise. The compound was situated on 50 acres of land hosting a nursery and several farm fields that provided work and food for the prisoners. The section of land where the Idaho Botanical Garden is now located was once known as #2 Yard.
The prison was closed in 1973, and the land remained vacant for more than a decade. But, in 1984, a local botanist, Dr. Christopher Davidson, had a vision to create a public landscape that would draw visitors and promote education in gardening, horticulture, botany, and conservation. He brought together the first Board of Directors made up of 17 civic leaders and local professionals. They leased 33 acres of the old prison grounds from the State of Idaho and The Idaho Botanical Garden was brought into being! Seven thousand plants were placed in the first few years of its operation, 95% of which were donated. The first tree placed in the garden, a northern red oak, was planted by Jack Simplot and remains standing today in the Meditation Garden. Garden admission started at $1.00.
Over the years, the garden has expanded into 15 cultivated acres with a number of specific collections:
· Meditation Garden (original) - made up of mature trees planted in the 1930s and 1940s by minimum security prisoners at the Old Penitentiary
· Rose Garden (original) - heirloom and other old-style roses
· Herb Garden (original) - herbs used for medicines, cosmetics, decoration, and cooking
· Plaza Garden (1989) – includes the Heirloom Rose Garden, Iris Garden, and Butterfly-Hummingbird Garden
· Idaho Native Plant Garden (1990) - representative native plants from Idaho's desert and woodland environments, including sagebrush, syringa, dogwood, and fescue
· Peony Garden (1992) - 21 varieties of hybrid peonies
· Alpine Garden (1997) - rock garden with a diverse collection of alpine plants
· English Garden (1998) - a selection of English garden plants, designed by landscape architect John Brookes
· Labyrinth (2001) - 11 concentric rings with a center rosette modeled after the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France
· Lewis & Clark Native Plant Garden (2006) - plants collected by the explorers on their expedition between Great Falls, Montana, and The Dalles, Oregon
· Cactus Garden (2008) – a variety of cactus and succulents planted where the Penitentiary’s poultry barn once stood
· Children’s Adventure Garden (2008) - invites children to play in a nature setting and includes a tree house (added in 2013)
· Water Conservation Landscape (2010) – 1 acre garden of water conserving plants located along Old Penitentiary Rd on the way to the Garden entrance.
The Idaho Botanical Garden serves as a popular year-round venue for entertainment as well as for cultural and community events. Some of the most popular are:
· The Great Garden Escape - presenting live music and an incredible picnic environment every Thursday evening June through September
· Fall Harvest Festival - a celebration of the season that occurs on the first weekend of October
· Scarecrow Stroll – an exhibit of unique scarecrows peeping out from behind trees and shrubs throughout the gardens, lasting though the month of October
· Winter Garden Aglow – a dazzling display of 350,000 sparkling LED lights decorating the garden throughout the holiday season.
The land behind the garden is used for nature hikes and environmental education. And Outlaw Field, created in the 1930s for the inmates to play baseball and football, now operates as a popular concert venue.
The Idaho Botanical Gardens are maintained by a non-profit organization which does not receive governmental funding. Operating income is made up entirely of entrance fees, site rentals, and contributions from citizens, corporations, and foundations. Successful operation relies on supportive volunteers and the Garden members (currently numbering over 4,000) whose efforts provide our community with a complete garden experience. The Idaho Botanical Garden is located at 2355 Old Penitentiary Road. General admission is $7.00 for adults and $5.00 for seniors 65+ and children 5-12 years old. Event admissions may vary.