Escape to a lush, green setting with more than 330 acres of woodlands, wetlands, formal gardens, prairies, oak preserves and over six miles of hiking trails. Think you have to travel far to enjoy nature? Think again. Taltree Arboretum & Gardens is located right in Northwest Indiana, just 15 minutes from U.S. 30 and I-65.
Experience the wonder of the outdoors from the moment you enter the front gate. A thick canopy of trees creates a shady spot and gives way to the brightly colored Welcome Garden. From here, watch as nature erupts around you in brilliant hues and offers breathtaking views of wildlife thriving in their natural habitat. Spend the day here and it’s likely you’ll spot bluebirds, herons, pheasants, owls, goldfinches, cardinals, woodcocks and other bird species.
Taltree was founded in 1997 by Damien and Rita Gabis, whose mission it was to preserve green space and native species to offset the increase in urbanization. They saw Taltree as a place where people could learn about the native landscape, horticulture and environment in a relaxing and inspirational setting. The founders still live on the grounds and their estate features an ornate Japanese garden.
Taltree’s mission is to support and inspire environmental conservation, stewardship, restoration, education and sustainability. It is a nonprofit organization, rather than a nature preserve or forest preserve, which are public entities managed by governmental bodies. According to marketing manager Lauri Keagle, “All proceeds support our mission and much of Taltree’s success is due to its many volunteers.”
Features and Education
Staying true to its mission, Taltree offers many attractions that promote environmental education for both children and adults.
Taltree is home to Oak Islands—the third most diverse collection in the U.S.—and includes oak trees from around the world. Taltree’s majestic Signature Bur Oak, depicted in its logo, is several hundred years old. Arborist Craig Gress cares for the trees on the property and likes to educate people. “I love it here. It’s a setting where people, especially little kids, can enjoy and react,” he says. “I grew up living in a wooded area and took it for granted until I came here.”
Visit the restored savanna wetland and you’ll see a pair of trumpeter swans, an endangered species for which Taltree has assumed responsibility and works to protect. The staff at Taltree hopes the swans will mate this season, and if they do and produce a flock, the Trumpeter Swan Society will take the babies and introduce them to a migratory group to help build the population. The trumpeter swans’ wings are clipped so they will not fly away and there is an island within the wetland to keep coyotes away from the swans’ nest. The wetland includes a pavilion and an outdoor classroom with seating, which also would be ideal for services held by faith-based groups.
Several types of gardens line the property. The ArcelorMittal Adventure Garden includes vegetables from A to Z. A group of farm animals live nearby, including Nigerian dwarf goats, featuring a set of twin babies named “Oreo” and “Shadow.” There is a Giant Chinchilla rabbit, aptly named “Big Bun,” as well as a variety of chickens and turkeys. Beyond the animals’ residence there are oversized outdoor musical instruments that kids can actually play.
Horticulturist George Reid is planting a Victory Garden, “to teach people about farm-to-table and so that they can learn about the World War I Victory Gardens that fed the home front while other resources were sent overseas to the troops,” he says. “Today, people want practical gardens, especially vegetables.” Reid is planting typical Victory garden vegetables and will categorize them into three groups—Roots, Shoots and Fruits—to educate people about plant structure.
As a response to today’s trend, there is also a Fairy Garden, which features fairy houses. The Native Plant Garden attracts a variety of butterflies, including monarchs, from April to October. The Audrey M. & Leonard J. Hitz Family Rose Garden is landscaped in the shape of a Scrabble board and the venue also has a “corpse” plant that blossoms once a year and produces a strong, pungent odor.
The Taltree Railway Depot and Garden includes more than a mile of track and a miniature working railroad. There is a replica of the Abraham Lincoln funeral train that passed through Michigan City in 1865 and small, realistic figurines, which are handcrafted and hand-painted by volunteers.
Dave Simkowski, Railway Garden manager and volunteer-turned-employee Dan Bridy, take great pride in maintaining the Railway Garden and attending to every detail. “The best thing about working here is seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” Bridy says.
Programs and Events
Taltree offers memberships so that families can take advantage of programs year-round. “We offer educational classes and more than 50 events throughout the year for patrons of all ages,” Keagle says. “Our new management team has a great deal of experience in the Region and our membership is now three times as high as last year.”
There are programs for kids and adults that incorporate fitness and nature, classes, youth education field trips, hikes and Camp Quercus, Taltree’s summer camp for youth ages 6 to 11.
Thursday night concerts under the stars are held at the Joseph E. Meyer Memorial Pavilion at Heron Pond, from June through September, featuring an array of bands. “There’s a natural pairing between nature and art,” Keagle says. “It’s a beautiful background and amazing music.”
Taltree is ideal for weddings and facilities rentals and also sponsors events like the Father’s Day Cookoff, the princess-themed Cinderella Ball, and the upcoming Picnic en Blanc on June 24 from 5 to 9 p.m. Loosely based on the Paris-originated event Dîner en Blanc, this annual gala—where attendees dress in all white—is an elegant picnic dinner that includes live music, a silent auction and cash bar.
“Nature is the number one transformative attraction,” says Keagle. “It’s magical.”