Nature & Heritage Gardens

We help nature centers, land trusts, preserves, and living museums remain relevant in the 21st century by carefully infusing diverse experiential layers into the fabric of visitor experience.  Discretionary leisure time is fast disappearing, so by “blurring the edges”, our designs bring added and often unexpected value. This may mean adding nature gardens and art to nature centers and animal collections to living museums. It almost always means establishing a trail hierarchy, intuitive way-finding cues, and authentic interpretive media.  


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The Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is located approximately one mile from the Atlantic Ocean on the Indian River Lagoon. The Lagoon is considered to be the most diverse estuary in North America, and ELC proudly stewards 64-acres of land surrounded on three sides by its waters. ELC’s location, its unwavering commitment to blending environmental education, science, and human and environmental health, and its ability to offer authentic and diverse nature experiences for all ages represent a few of its regional competitive advantages.  

Terra led the Master Planning Team, which includes PNF Architecture & Design and bARC Architecture; environmental consultant, David Cox Consulting; civil engineering firm, KMA Vero Beach; and strategic planning firm, EMD Consulting Group. The master plan aims to not only support ELC's mission and served target audiences in a distinctive and exemplary fashion, but also to improve their fiscal sustainability as a cultural institution. By building distinctiveness in every step, defining key iconic features, focusing on authentic experiences and high quality design, and providing exceptional visitor experiences while protecting its reputation as a haven for respite, ELC’s Master Plan honors mission, diversifies audience, and strengthens ELC’s bottom line.

Key new features include a three-story iconic Interpretive Center complete with a living and interactive mangrove exhibit, aquariums, a bromeliad water wall, and sunken maritime hammock garden; Water-wise Cascades display garden; Canopy Walk; Native Plant Gallery; FUN Zone (Families Unplugged in Nature); Butterflies Screen House and Pollinator Garden; and the Lagoon Loop, a ¼-mile elevated glass-bottomed walk over the Indian River Lagoon – perfect for manatee and dolphin viewing!

The ELC Board and Foundation Board have approved the draft master plan, and the Team is working with the Planning Committee in determining which components will be targeted for the first phase of development.

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Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) selected Terra from a national pool of candidates to prepare a Site and Interpretive Master Plan for Heritage Farm in 2013. Terra led the Design Team of interpretive planner Jenny Rigby of The Acorn Group and horticulturist and ecologist Alan Branhagen, and collaborated with Iowa State University students who had prepared the existing conditions and site analysis documents.

SSE’s primary interests were to educate the public about the science they perform, compel visitors to save their own seeds, and to develop sites in a manner that does not impact the sensitive ecosystems on their property.  Making seed preservation science “approachable” to visitors became a major focus of the Master Plan.

A Seed Preservation Center will house the preservation department, introduce “science-in-action” to the visiting public, and be an iconic symbol of SSE’s international brand. In addition to the 160-acre Heritage Farm, SSE maintains 800 acres of native oak-hickory forest, maple-basswood forest, tall grass prairie, and floodplain forests - “Twin Valleys” - in a federal conservation easement.  The native ecosystems of Twin Valleys are open to the public for outdoor recreation and are critical to Heritage Farm’s sustainable, closed loop agriculture by providing habitat for birds, bees, and beneficial insects. Terra and Alan Branhagen spent time on the site determining the best use in this area, relating to outdoor recreation, continued agriculture production, and ecological restoration.

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Prairie Garden Trust (PGT) is the brainchild of Henry and Lorna Domke, present stewards who have labored to artfully restore multiple habitats across their property. Terra Design Studios was invited to create a Master Plan to prepare the site to welcome public visitors. Expecting to see restored prairie, we quickly discovered that PGT is much, much more. In addition to over 100 acres of prairie, there are oak-hickory forests, savanna edges, and an amazing collection of dramatic geologic formations cloaked in an equally amazing array of mosses and lichens.

Terra spent days on the site with Henry and Lorna and met with other stakeholders to develop a Master Plan that gives shape to their vision. The plan carefully choreographs visitor arrival sequences and views, suggesting a new entrance drive and parking arrangements. Horticulturally-rich nature gardens near the visitor center offer preview vignettes of what lies ahead on Lorna’s Loop, a mile of winding trail that links signature ecosystems and focal points on the upper plateau. Designed “natural” thresholds cue visitors that the regime is changing; themed shade structures and interpretive moments offer comfort along the way while focusing attention on compelling aspects of the journey.  Miles of secondary trails are organized and named to guide visitors through PGT’s rigorous slopes and lowlands, leading them to such destinations as Hiller’s Creek, Blue Heron Rookery, and Toad Bottom Flats.



Surrounded by two acres of restored pre-settlement landscape, the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) Field Station is the headquarters for research scientists to study the Mississippi River watershed. The complexity of the environment at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers creates a unique platform for interaction between scientific research and public education. Terra Design Studios, along with AAIC, Formations Inc., and Sheppard Morgan & Schwaab, Inc., collaborated with NGRREC terrestrial ecologists and educators to design the interpretive gardens and outdoor visitor experiences that showcase the inter-connections between the flora and fauna of the watershed.

Re-creations of the oak-hickory forest, oak-barrens, floodplain, bluestem prairie, wet prairie, and regionally unique bluff prairie support education programs for audiences ranging from school groups to university interns. In order to amplify the interpretive experience for the drop-in visitor, Terra developed the “cue-duo”, a partnership between themed sculpture and well-crafted interpretive panels.  Each “cue-duo” carries its own message and sculptural flavor meant to capture the intrigue of a diverse audience, especially families. The Field Station’s facility and grounds highlight water conservation and reuse. Stormwater runoff from the green roof and pervious pavement roads is directed to a series of bioswales and ponds. Grey water is treated by two phyto-remediation wetlands and is recycled for industrial uses, like washing the center’s fleet of research vessels.

The Field Station is the result of a successful partnership of the University of Illinois, Lewis and Clark Community College, Illinois Natural History Survey, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.



Mead Botanical Garden is truly a wild and wonderful 50-acre slice of nature in the dense development of Winter Park’s homes, business and academic campuses. Mead’s ecological and cultural heritage stories are rich and varied. The Garden was founded in 1940 to honor T.L. Mead, a noted bromeliad and orchid propagator and butterfly expert. The site - a culmination of land donated by philanthropists, professors, childhood friends, a senator and the mayor, in honor of T.L. Mead - offers a wonderful balance of remnants of original garden elements, newly-restored wetland systems that treat surrounding City runoff, a pond and meandering creek that regularly attract herons and egrets, pine scrub, and a healthy gopher tortoise population.

Owned by the City and managed by a dedicated Board, the Garden hired Terra to take Mead from a beloved nature park to a fiscally-sustainable and flourishing blend of nature gardens and ecosystem restoration.  Along with strategic planners EMD Consulting Group, Terra led a two day workshop with key stakeholders to help formulate a vision for Mead’s next phase.  We have since been asked to lead a team of architects, civil engineers, and environmental scientists to prepare a full master site plan for the Garden, including a phasing strategy for concurrent improvements with fundraising efforts.

Phase One will likely include a Visitor Center, green parking lot, new nature gardens and a greenhouse ruin garden that focuses upon T.L. Mead’s legacy.