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New children's garden grows at Botanica

I’d never thought of it, but plants in a children’s garden have to stay small enough so that small people don’t disappear in them.

Sounds like the beginning of a scary fairy tale.

So here was one of landscape supervisor Pat McKernan’s tasks as he chose the plant palette: find shrubs that form a lush, effective maze without being in danger of growing too tall.

He knew he wanted boxwoods for the job, but he had to buy from Ohio to get the Green Mountain variety that would fit the size requirements.

Such are the magical things happening as the Downing Children’s

Garden takes shape, structurally and botanically, on the west side of the current 9.5 acres of gardens. The new garden will open July 2.

By breaking into the new area of the children’s garden, Botanica has almost doubled in size when you take into account the area that’s been enclosed by a chain-link fence, 8.15 acres.

You know that exaltation you feel when tearing out a section of lawn for a new garden bed? Pat has that feeling in the new garden, stretching out with new hydrangeas and viburnums, compact buddleia and hardy hibiscus. Monrovia, Greenleaf and Ball Seed Co. all are contributing new plant material that isn’t growing anyplace else yet.

“There’s a lot of stuff in a small area,” Pat says. Plants need to be big enough to screen, but not get taller than 5 feet along paths.

Among the new plants is a variegated red salvia that is supposed to get 4 feet tall, with a lot of yellow variegation in the foliage.

“I think it’s going to be a knockout when it gets up there and blooms,” Pat says.

Most of the trees and shrubs have been planted, but the irrigation system is still going in and steep hills are being shored up. Then the bulk of the perennials and annuals will be planted.

The garden will also be home to some farm crops — milo, corn, soybeans, wheat. Not always the most ornamental, so a new way of looking at things.

Getting everything into the ground has been a huge job. Only one gardener has been added to Botanica’s staff to accommodate the new garden, so lots of volunteers, including a group from Boeing last Saturday, are helping to get it done.

If you’ve visited Botanica recently you’ve probably seen parts of the gardens blocked off and changing shape as the blending of old and new takes place. The outside wall of the xeriscape garden has been removed, and that garden has been expanded out (though not planted yet) toward the children’s garden. Some cedars growing in the xeriscape garden will be removed, as it was getting too shady anyway. A redbud tree on the end of the adjacent pond will be removed to open up the view.

Those aren’t the only changes to the current gardens. The woodland path has been paved. That makes us nature freaks bristle, but “actually it gives it a neat appearance,” Pat says, pointing out that for many people, the garden ends where the pavement does, and so most visitors never went into that area.

Back in the new garden, orange tape marks the 156 trees that were kept from the wild Sim Park meadow that has been tamed. Much of it had been soapberry thickets, and poison ivy wound its way throughout. The poison ivy has been sprayed for the past three years, Pat says, which took it and some other growth, too. A dead 1½-inch stub alongside a tree trunk is evidence of how big the poison ivy had grown.

The soil has been improved with 900 cubic yards of compost from Singletree Stables — and it wasn’t enough, so more had to be purchased from Evergreen Recycle.

And, of course, weather always plays its part in the planting of a garden.

“It’s been so dry we haven’t even had a weed problem,” Pat said, chuckling. But then everything must be watered. And the 100-degree day last week burned up a few newly planted cedars.

It’s amazing how the look of the terrain has changed when you first see it, and it kind of throws you off-balance when you’ve been used to one outline of Botanica for 24 years.

But there are comforting signs that nature abides.

The tracks of a blonde fox and her six babies can be seen in the sandbox of the children’s garden.

“Every day they come through here checking out what the silly humans are up to,” Pat says.

And a robin has made a nest in a new tree lilac alongside the new garden’s treehouse, the activity in the Monster Woods not deterring the bird at all.

“It amazes me she sits there,” Pat says.