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Visitors get sneak peek at Smithgall Garden, set for fall opening
Ray Sutton of Williamsburg Ky., makes notes Saturday as he visits the Smithgall Woodland Garden with the Magnolia Society International. The group was visiting Athens during its annual meeting this weekend.

If there was a college basketball tournament going Saturday, visitors to the Gainesville’s Smithgall Woodland Garden weren’t concerned with missing the games.

The first group to tour the garden off of Cleveland Highway, set for a fall opening, were from the Magnolia Society International. The viewing was a stop in the three-day conference the society holds annually.

The 105 horticulture enthusiasts gave a resounding thumbs-up to the future foliage. As visitors expressed awe over the countless magnolia trees in perfect bloom, they revealed a unique and earnest zeal for all things floral.

“Smell these. They smell like Elizabeth,” one visitor remarked to another, unclear if referring to a person or a plant. Hundreds of quirky people, places and other proper pronouns were etched into tags on the trees.

“Did you see the Purple Prince?” he asked.

“Yes, that was a nice one.”

Horticulture professor Mark Weathington left basketball-crazed Raleigh, N.C., to indulge in both the enjoyment of seeing the blooming blossoms and to swap industry tips. Other horticulture experts came from near and far , including Aaron Schettler, grounds manager at Raleigh’s Meredith College, and hobbyists and experts from as far away as California, Connecticut and Poland.

On a balmy day with perfect spring temperatures, and with no cold snap to wreak havoc on the blooms, the magnolias were a treasure for the group, members remarked, and said the garden would be also be a true gift for the Gainesville public.

“Folks down here should really be excited for this,” Dick Jaynes said.

Mildred Fockele, horticulture director for Smithgall Woodland Garden, said that the nursery tour was a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into the garden. She said the public garden will feature the same plants, but they won’t be moved and planted until construction is completed.

The garden, which began construction in April last year, will also feature a visitors center, 2,000-seat amphitheater in addition to the about 5 acres of display gardens.

The 168-acre site is in some ways an extension of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and will help nurture additions to its space-strapped downtown location. But it will foremost be an attraction for Gainesville residents, Fockele said.

“There’s been a lot of consideration put into the planning of the gardens — a mix of unusual plants with the more common ones —\h and it’s really offers something distinct from just a regular public park, and it’s something that Gainesville doesn’t have yet,” she said.

Despite minor setbacks due to heavy rains over the summer, the site is expected to open sometime between mid-September and mid-October, Fockele said.

Gainesville resident Lessie Smithgall and her late husband, Charles Smithgall, founders of The Times, donated the property in 2002. The first phase of development cost about $21 million.

Future plans call for an interactive children’s garden and student education programs.

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