RELAX, FEEL SAFE, HAVE FUN, AND LEARN: Nature’s Garden Can be a Public Garden!

By: Jim Swasey, horticulturist

This past summer I was vacationing at our family’s camp on a lake in rural New Hampshire. While I was there and experiencing nature all around me, I was struck by the many similarities between natural and public gardens.
One of my most relaxing times at camp is early morning as the sun is rising over the water, drinking a cup of coffee, watching the fish jump below the wall where I am sitting, experiencing a great blue heron waiting on the wall for a fish breakfast, watching a ruby-throated hummingbird hover around the eastern white pine branch tips, and listening to a loon off in the distance. When the wind is blowing I love to hear the rustling of leaves, water slapping the wall, and experiencing an occasional wave overtopping the wall and ‘washing’ my feet. I think that water is a wonderful element to motivate relaxation, and perhaps that is why so many public gardens are built around water, natural or man-made features. Two public gardens, that quickly come to mind, and feature water are the Coastal Maine Botanic Garden and Longwood Gardens. The Coastal Maine Botanic Garden in East Boothbay has trails through the woods and up and down the hills along the coastal water’s edge. Longwood in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania has several constructed water features like the Main Fountain Garden, the Italian Water Garden and the water feature on the edge of the Meadow Garden. In both public gardens one can retreat, relax, listen, and experience fish, birds, insects, and much more. Pierre du Pont, Longwood’s founder, seemed to understand the value of water and designed Longwood so that the visitor could frequently see water and was never out of its sound.
Another thing that I enjoy at camp is when family is around and the kids fish from the wall, play hide-and-seek behind the trees, wrestle in a hammock, run around getting physical exercise, and create fairy houses with huts, cones, leaves and flowers.

I think that designers of public gardens have learned that families are a valuable audience and have done things to encourage their visitation. Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania has built a tree house for children, the Chicago Botanical Garden has extensive educational programs for children and science teachers, Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, built along the river’s edge, encourages local minority families to visit, learn/experience nature, feel at home in the garden, and play on the grounds.
Enjoying the evening hours at camp is also relaxing (except for the mosquitos and little black flies) as a full moon rises over the horizon and the stillness is interrupted with the sounds of frogs, crickets, and cicadas, and the sight of blinking fireflies. Public facilities like the Delaware Nature Center invites visitors to come and watch the fireflies and search for tree frogs. I know that other public sites have similar programs.
For me, public gardens have been an important part of my life. I have always enjoyed visiting them and am happy that my profession allowed me to do it on a regular basis. I have enjoyed seeing what mother nature offers within spaces that facilitate relaxing, learning and having fun! Mother Nature, whether altered by human hands or left untouched, always amazes me! ‘She’ seems to constantly attempt to ‘change’ what the human hands create and bring it back to her more natural state.

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