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Our Views: Planting a new seed
Smithgall botanical garden a fresh destination for natural beauty, community pride
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The purple “River of Phlox” flows down the hillside alongside the rocky stream, a centerpiece in the woodland oasis that is the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Gainesville — A Smithgall Woodland Legacy.

The new garden is lush with more than 1,200 different types of plants, including more than 300 hydrangeas, 150 magnolias and 32 different maple species amidst towering hardwoods.

And now the public can enjoy the natural bounty that is on display at Gainesville’s and Georgia’s newest gem. It opened Saturday to an enthusiastic crowd that included the garden’s beloved benefactor, Lessie Smithgall.

The long-cultivated project was the dream of community pillars and The Times founders Charles and Lessie Smithgall, who seeded it with their donation of 168 acres of their Southern woodland homestead in 2001. Over the next decade plus, the plans took root and $21 million was raised by enthusiastic supporters.

A greenhouse and nursery were built in 2004, and for the past decade, volunteers have been working to propagate and grow plants for the garden, removing invasive species and focusing on land and native plant conservation. And that was all before the official groundbreaking in 2013.

Now the garden has made its public debut. The Cleveland Highway garden will showcase four seasonal collections: magnolias this spring, hydrangeas in the summer, maple trees in the fall and witch hazel in the winter.

We love how garden director and horticulturalist Mildred Fockele speaks of the allure of such a botanical destination.

“Gardening is one of the slowest of the performing arts,” she said, glancing around at what she helped create. “It’s like a jewel box with something to discover around every curve.”

The garden also features a 5,000-square-foot visitor center with a gift shop and outdoor lanai complete with fireplace, a 2,000-seat amphitheater, a model-train garden, 5 acres of gardens, two half-mile trails and many rolling acres of woodlands. Future plans include a children’s garden and an education center.

While a botanical garden creates an inviting outdoor environment, what distinguishes it from a nature center or parks, which we also are blessed with here in Hall County, is its commitment to five purposes: display, enjoyment, conservation, research and education.

While we enthusiastically applaud the Smithgalls’ generosity and vision that have spanned much of the past century, this is something about which everyone in our community and region should be excited and proud.

It is a destination that will draw visitors to our community and a haven that will offer a peaceful respite for local residents and families. It’s a place to reflect, to relax, to connect with nature and each other and to enjoy a variety of activities ranging from musical concerts to artistic exhibits.

This is not the type of venue and venture that just could happen anywhere. It takes the philanthropic heart and foresight of people like the Smithgalls in a community with the commitment and can-do spirit to match their generosity as well as the environmental and scientific expertise of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. This project is another shining testament to what our community values and to what we have the ability to create through collaboration and partnerships. And we have the Smithgall woodland garden to show for it now after 14 years in the making.

Mrs. Smithgall, who turned 104 a month ago, says she’s “really thrilled about it. It’s a good thing. It was my husband’s dream.”

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

“He wanted people to be able to hike and walk and enjoy the woodlands as he did as a boy,” she recounted to us in the days leading up to the garden’s opening.

That’s why, even though the Gainesville garden’s official name and renown are now tied to the prestigious Atlanta Botanical Garden, it is and will likely always be referred to by locals as the “Smithgall woodland garden.”

Your hometown newspaper The Times, founded in 1947, itself is one of the most enduring of the Smithgall legacies and we feel the garden will most certainly be another lasting one as well. So venture out Cleveland Highway and turn onto Sweetbay Drive (named after the Smithgalls’ daughter, Bay) and enjoy the lush treasures of our own botanical garden.

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