By Roberta Codemo

Joel Horwedel readily admits that former executive director Jim Matheis left some big shoes to fill when he retired from Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center. “He’s been really great,” said Horwedel, who was hired as Matheis’ replacement in the spring of 2013. “He lets me pick his brain.”

Born and raised in Petersburg, Horwedel spent a lot of time at the garden when he was young. He and his wife moved back to this area in 2008. When this position became open, he threw his name in the hat and everything worked out.

“It’s an opportunity to lead a conservation nature center,” said Horwedel, whose love of nature came early. “This is a great place,” he said. “I don’t want to be remembered as the guy that let the integrity of the garden down.”

The garden hosts 6,000 schoolkids and between 12,000 and 15,000 visitors annually.

“It takes a lot of work to keep the garden looking like it does,” said Horwedel. He oversees the 110-acre site with the help of two full-time staff, two part-time gardeners and seasonal employees. The garden features a Nature Center, six miles of interconnected trails and the Ostermeier Prairie Center. He would like to take a 10-acre agricultural field out of production and turn it into a prairie heavy with forbs.

It costs money. Current projected income and expenses are $242,000 and $377,000, respectively. The two major fundraisers are the annual Indian Summer Festival and Pancake Sausage Breakfast, which bring in $45,000; and the Foundation Board sends out its annual letter around Thanksgiving to members and previous donors that brings in between $70,000 and $80,000. “We have great supporters,” said Horwedel.

Five years ago, to commemorate the garden’s 75th anniversary, a group of individuals established the Acorn Legacy Campaign to grow the garden’s endowment fund. More than $1 million has been pledged and the garden has received more than half a million already. The interest from the endowment offsets the budget difference. Once the endowment fund has been built up, Horwedel wants to create a rainy day fund that the garden can pull from in case of emergencies.

The garden does not receive public taxpayer dollars. “It would be nice to get to a level where we’re not so dependent on constant fundraising,” said Horwedel.

The garden was one of Jens Jensen’s last public projects. “There are so many neat things about the garden,” said Horwedel, who ranks Jensen among the top five landscape architectural designers. “It’s the equivalent of the Dana-Thomas House.” For this reason, it’s important to manage it so it remains true to his vision.

“It’s important to take care of what we have,” said Horwedel, who has a wish list of projects he would like to pursue, including constructing a larger nature center to accommodate more campers in the summer ecology program. The big push is to eradicate invasive plant species. There are five main invasive plant species in the garden, with the biggest being bush honeysuckle. Invasive plant species reduce plant diversity, which is a unique part of the garden.

Horwedel is also working to increase membership and would love to see more families join. There are approximately 700 members and 150 active volunteers. “A community this size can do better,” he said. There is currently a push to get the word out to the public. He doesn’t know how often he has heard people say “I had no idea this place was out here.” He wants to partner with downtown Lincoln sites and develop a series of family-oriented evening educational programs with Henson Robinson Zoo to get the garden’s name out there.

Horwedel believes that places like Lincoln Memorial Garden can provide an antidote to people’s tendency to get wrapped up in their own lives. “I love it when people come out and experience nature,” said Horwedel. He feels it’s important to connect with nature. “I have a soft spot for it,” he said.

Roberta Codemo is a full-time freelance writer. She can be reached at