Before Diana Failla planted a flower in the rooftop gardens at the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel near Midtown Crossing, she visited the eighth-floor deck for several weeks and just observed.
She wanted to see where the sun hit the pergola and what conditions were like in the wind. She saw where to place various herbs and delicate flowers so they would enjoy a touch of shade starting at noon.
“Chasing the sun and catching the wind,” Failla said. “You need to get a feel for where you are when designing a space, a garden.”
She’s a master gardener and International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. She is also the executive director of the Urban Bird and Nature Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to sustaining the urban forest and landscape in the city. And she’s the president of the Midtown Neighborhood Alliance and Omaha Council of Garden Clubs.
The two gardens Failla designed have turned into popular spots at weddings and parties. Jay Lund, one of the hotel owners, said there are weddings in the adjacent rooftop ballroom almost every weekend.
“The hotel historically had rooftop gardens, and we wanted to try and recreate some of that,” he said. “We also thought planting herbs that could be used in the culinary program would be a great way to add greenery on the terraces.”
Thirty-six pots and window boxes dot the north terrace garden, filled with things like duranta and ficus trees, a butterfly bush to attract butterflies and trellised roses. Vinca, petunias and geraniums do well in the heat and add pops of color.
In the center sits a star magnolia tree in a custom cedar tree planter made by Sebastian Munoz.
In the smaller south garden, perennials such as Crimson Kisses Weigela, Rose Marvel Salvia and Annabelle hydrangeas take the stage.
“The terraces required all plants to be sun thriving and the ficus and duranta trees both love humidity and heat,” Failla said. “All the other plants love sunshine, too.”
Ten raised beds supply more than 16 varieties of herbs such as basil, cilantro, oregano, thyme and several types of hot peppers for the Cottonwood kitchens.
Failla said that was important to both her and Lund.
“We harvest every three to four days,” she said. “It’s just amazing what the herbs have done. They just love the heat.”
The nature alliance, which is housed at the Weitz Community Engagement Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, focuses on partnerships and collaboration. As an educator, Failla engaged biology and environmental science students from UNO, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Bellevue University to assist with the garden and earn credit hours.
Failla manages the gardens, and sometimes waters twice a day when the heat is extreme. It’s 30 to 50 degrees hotter on the rooftop than a garden at ground level.
She also harvests for the kitchen, prunes, stakes, fertilizes and sprays for pest control. Believe it or not, she said, Japanese beetles are a problem even on a rooftop.
She’s also planning for a magical winter garden.
Failla, who is writing a book on the historic gardens of Omaha, said she doesn’t mind the daily visits to keep the garden thriving. Sustainability is key to the nonprofit’s mission.
As a former Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission member, preserving the integrity of the hotel and gardens is important, too.
Working at the hotel is almost a tradition in her family. Her father, Joseph, and brother, David Failla, were Italian artisans who worked on the hotel’s woodwork and marble in the 1960s.
“I used to watch and help him work as a child. He taught me a lot,” Failla said. “It’s cool to feel my father, as history repeats itself, at the hotel.”