By J.K. Devine
Photos courtesy ABG Gainesville
Nearly five years ago, Lessie Smithgall described the ground-breaking ceremony of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, A Smithgall Woodland Legacy, as “a dream come true.”
The ceremony in April 2013 marked the beginning of Phase I of the newest botanical garden in Georgia. This summer, the Gainesville garden will break ground on its newest section — the children’s garden.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Mildred Fockele, executive director of Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville. “It will be full of places for creative and interactive play.”
The children’s garden will resemble a land filled with dragons, fairies and woodland creatures to inspire imagination in children. Featured areas will be a meadow for the woodland creatures, a fairy garden for the sprites and a treehouse structure. The 2-acre garden also will include a boulder climbing wall, a chase maze and a fort.
“The garden will be located on the highest point of the garden where kids can be king of the hill,” Fockele said.
With the different areas to build along with a small education pavilion, the Gainesville garden director expects construction to take nine months. She said the plan is to open it to children in the summer of 2019.
“The children’s garden is great for children to get outside and use their imaginations and play in a fun and safe environment,” Fockele said, adding it gets kids away from video games and iPads. “And it is a great way to build future members of the garden and future environmental citizens.”
The botanical garden, however, is already making strides to galvanize children’s interest in the great outdoors. The garden has within it a model train garden, allowing children to play with toy trains from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, according to its website (http://atlantabg.org/learn/kids-programs#gainesville). It also hosts story time on Wednesday and weekend activities for parents and children.
“We currently have discovery stations that are drop-in activities that children can do with their parents,” Fockele said, explaining the stations are manned by garden volunteers.
This summer, the botanical garden is offering a half-day summer camp for children ages 4 to 6 on July 19-20.
“We are slowly adding programs for children,” Fockele said.
Kids are not the only ones reaping benefits from the great outdoor world at the botanical garden. Several educational classes, workshops and seminars are available for adults. Events scheduled for March include a plant propagation class, a tulips workshop (painting class) and a container gardening class, according to the garden’s website.
“We try to tailor classes we have requests for,” Fockele said, indicating the Gainesville garden uses Atlanta Botanical Garden in downtown Atlanta as a reservoir of potential classes. “It’s nice to have that history and experience to fall back on.”
The surroundings of the Gainesville botanical garden includes rare, unusual and hard-to-find woodland perennials, as well as many for the sunny border. Woody shrubs and trees including big leaf magnolia, oakleaf hydrangeas and the evergreen dogwood. Along with the perennials, the garden offers a variety of unusual annuals such as elephant ears, coleus, abutilon, acalypha and begonias, to name a few.
Most of these plants were propagated and grown in the garden’s greenhouses in Gainesville. The greenhouses are part of the garden’s objective for native plant conservation and international plant collection.
“So many plants are threatened and in peril on a regional, national and international level, the more we can work with other conservation organizations to save them the better off we will be,” Fockele said.
While the greenhouses are part of the behind-the-scenes operations, Fockele said the plan is to have guided tours of the conservation areas and greenhouses in the future.
Highlighting the beautiful plants in the area as well as exposing and educating the public about them is a major facet of the Gainesville garden, though not the only one. The botanical garden has grown into a major venue for the surrounding area.
In the summer, the garden hosts a series of concerts in its 2,000-seat amphitheater.
“It’s a beautiful setting to enjoy a concert,” Fockele said. “The acoustics are great. Almost all of our concerts are sell-outs.”
The visitor’s center with its larger rooms also provide the perfect plan for business meetings and retreats. Weddings and receptions have also been held on the garden’s grounds.
With all of its offerings, Fockele said the garden fills a cultural void in Gainesville while allowing the Atlanta Botanical Garden to expand its presence in the region.
“Gainesville and Hall County has a great cultural community from the Elachee Nature Science Center, the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids to The Arts Council,” she said. “A botanical garden was the one cultural attraction this area did not have.”
So when Smithgall and her husband Charles donated their 168-acre property north of Gainesville as a gift to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Fockele could see the potential. The Gainesville venue, which developed about 5 acres of gardens and three trails, has grown into its own with more planned for the future.
“It is great place of great serenity and beauty,” Fockele said.
For more information, visit atlantabg.org/visit/gainesville.