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Gainesville botanical garden a month from debut as its benefactor turns 104 today
Smithgalls' dream set to become reality with May 2 opening
Volunteer Chris Michael waters plants March 25 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden's Gainesville location.

Garden debut

What: Atlanta Botanical Garden, Gainesville opening weekend

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 2-3

Where: Sweet Bay Drive, off Cleveland Highway, Gainesville

How much: $8 general admission

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Small vibrant purple flowers cascade down the hillside near a rocky stream.

Mildred Pinnell Fockele, vice president of horticulture and director of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Gainesville, gestured toward the water and flowering hillside.

“You see something on paper and you can visualize it, but when it actually happens like it was supposed to it’s great,” Fockele said, smiling up at the landscape.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden, Gainesville will officially open to the public at 11 a.m. May 2. The opening festivities will continue throughout the weekend and include activities for families and live entertainment.

The garden, located off of Cleveland Highway on Sweet Bay Drive, began in 2001 when Lessie Smithgall and her late husband Charles Smithgall, founders of the Times and local philanthropists, donated 168 acres within the Gainesville city limits to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Lessie Smithgall, who celebrates her 104th birthday today, said last week she’s excited to see her husband’s dream finally come to fruition.

She praised the efforts of several individuals, including donors Doug and Kay Ivester, for whom the amphitheater is named, and Jack Burd, retired president of Brenau University who has led the garden’s fundraising efforts.

The opening ceremony marks the completion of the first phase of the garden. Donors provided $21 million for the project.

“The opening of this garden marks a dream come true for so many – from our donors and supporters to our staff and the Smithgall family,” garden President and CEO Mary Pat Matheson said.

The purple “River of Phlox” is just one point among many of visual interest in the garden. The garden includes more than 1,272 different types of plant varieties, including more than 300 hydrangeas, 150 magnolias and 32 different maple species.

Fockele explained the botanical garden’s collection of plant varieties is what sets it apart from a public park or a nature center.

The garden has four seasonal collections: magnolias in the spring, hydrangeas in the summer, maple trees in the fall and witch hazel in the winter.

The garden also features a visitor center, 2,000-seat amphitheater, model train garden, 5 acres of gardens, two half-mile trails and many acres of woodlands. Plans for future development of the garden include a children’s garden and an education center.

Smithgall said she’s looking forward to the opening of the gardens.

“I’m really thrilled about it,” Smithgall said. “It’s a good thing. It was my husband’s dream.”

Smithgall said it was her husband’s wish to provide a quiet, woodland space for people to enjoy because he spent much of his youth in nature.

“He grew up in woodlands himself,” Smithgall said. “I think he wanted other people to have that as well.”


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