WENATCHEE Ohme Gardens is turning over a new leaf after a year spent closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The garden has a new 1,200-square-foot building at the entrance that includes office space and a gift shop for visitors, said Jason Browning, Ohme Gardens director. A walkway using the garden’s original stones has been put in and updated signs will be added to the garden.

The garden’s staff took advantage of the 2020 closure to make the improvements and will open for the 2021 season on April 15.

Browning has been in charge of Ohme Gardens for more than two years and has been working to bring the garden into the 21st century.

“The gardens lacked, and still do a little bit, a direction,” Browning said. “They’ve been operated like a tourist attraction. But one of the things I’d like the commissioners to do is to make this more of a community-dwelling place.”

Ohme Gardens is a major tourist draw for Chelan County, with 80% of its visitors coming from outside the county. It attracts about 16,000 people annually, which is a decrease from the over 30,000 that visited each year in the 1970s to 1980s.

In the 1990s, the state took over ownership of Ohme Gardens with the agreement that Chelan County would operate it, he said. Chelan County only agreed to operate it if it didn’t cost the county anything, and the state managed the garden on a shoestring budget.

In 2008, the county took over operation of the garden fully. The county uses its general fund to support operations, Browning said. The county provided the garden with $100,000 in funding in both 2019 and 2020, according to the Chelan County budget.

Herman Ohme, who started in the garden in 1932, envisioned the garden as an alpine meadow and realized that trees would need to be periodically removed in order to keep the appearance, Browning said. One of the garden’s main attractions is its views of Mission Ridge, the Columbia River and the Enchantments.

The state failed to keep up with that vision, though, and the trees grew taller than previously planned, blocking views, he said.

“It sort of needs to be a juxtaposition against the rest of the shrub steppe out there — sagebrush desert to this oasis here,” Browning said.

Browning has been working to restore the original vision for the gardens. In the last 18 months he’s removed 50 trees that were sick and dying.

“So, this place is like a big giant rock with 18 inches of soil on it,” he said. “So, that’s not meant to have 150-foot cedar trees on it.”

Browning wants to transform the garden so more community events can occur, he said. The garden is purchasing a stage that it can place on its main lawn. He eventually would like it to be free for residents of Chelan and Douglas counties to visit the garden.

Plans are to bring back the movie nights that the gardens hosted in 2019, Browning said.

As for weddings, the garden is booked already for the season, he said. The park’s rates are competitive and they are flexible with what guests want to do, which is why people like using the space.

“You can bring up Domino’s here; we don’t care,” Browning said. “It allows people to have a really beautiful venue without being nickeled and dimed to death.”