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Children’s garden coming to Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Gainesville location
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The children’s garden at the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Gainesville campus could open by summer 2019. It will be located on the highest point in the garden. - photo by Scott Rogers

A children’s garden could be open next summer at the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Gainesville campus.

Mildred Fockele, vice president of horticulture for the botanical garden and director of its Gainesville location, said the hope is to break ground this July and have the children’s garden open about a year later.

Tunnels made of shrubs, a balance beam baby dragon and a labyrinth that will look like a fern are among the items planned for the $2.5 million project, which marks the garden’s second of three phases. The Gainesville garden, a Smithgall Woodland Legacy, opened May 2, 2015, after Charles and Lessie Smithgall, founders of The Times and local philanthropists, donated 168 acres in the Gainesville city limits to the Atlanta Botanical Garden in 2001.

“My husband Charlie would have loved this, as our children loved being outdoors, camping and hiking,” Lessie Smithgall, 107, said in a statement to The Times. Charles Smithgall died in 2002. “A children’s garden would not only give them an education about plants and trees — growing, caring for and preserving them — but also just to have fun, all within the city of Gainesville.”

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Areas for treehouse climbing and boulder climbing are also planned.

The Gainesville children’s garden is taking a page from the location in Atlanta by putting in a “build-a-fort” station where kids can use lightweight balsa wood to build houses or forts. Fockele said it’s a good way to help them use their imaginations.

A water play area and a “fairy forest” will be in the children’s garden, and the garden’s current model train will be moved to the children’s area.

Fockele said she is excited about the intersection of fun and learning in one spot.

“Kids will love it. The great thing is they can come back again and again. Gardens change, and the programs will change,” she said. “You can explore, or you can come and learn.”

Fockele said the garden is developing programming for the children’s garden, much of which will be held under a covered pavilion.

With a spot adjacent to the visitor center at the Gainesville garden, putting it at the highest point of the property with a great view, Fockele said, “it’s like kids get to be the king of the hill.”

The Gainesville garden, located at 1911 Sweetbay Drive, has the built-in advantage of learning what has worked at the Atlanta garden, which launched one of the first children’s botanical gardens in the country in 1999. That’s where the botanical garden staff noticed that children came, their parents became members and then they grew up to become members. Fockele is hoping for much of the same in Gainesville.

“That’s our future generation of children who will become young adults and interested in the environment and plants and conservation,” Fockele said. “It’s a great way to get kids to look at the world in a little bit different way.”

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