Imagining a Garden

Writer: 
June 1, 2006
Blank canvas: children survey the undeveloped site of the future discovery garden; below, garden visions drawn by Madeline Partner, 8, and Chris Rice, 12

Blank canvas: children survey the undeveloped site of the future discovery garden. Brian Cabeza

On a late winter day, seventeen children, ranging in age from toddler to almost-teen, trek along a path of fresh pine needles, parents in tow. The ground is squishy underfoot, wet from a recent rain storm, and large trees rise on either side. The path is marked by fluorescent orange and pink landscaping flags. The weather is warm enough to make winter coats unnecessary. Some of the children grab each others' hands and march at a fast pace. Others hang back, glancing up at their parents.

Just ahead, Katie Vogel, dressed in a purple vest, hiking boots, and a safari hat, motions them to move off the trail and across a patch of ground covered by dead leaves. At the lip of a three-foot-wide drainage ditch, she pauses. "We're going to go across this kind of scary ravine," she tells them. "We all have to be up for an adventure here."

drawing by Chris Rice
Chris Rice
Drawing by Madeline Partner

Madeline Partner. Garden visions drawn by Madeline Partner, 8, and Chris Rice, 12

The children leave no doubt that they are. In groups of two and three, they take turns leaping over the crevice, giggling and flailing their arms as they land. A few of the boys jump back to try again.

They are, quite literally, leaping onto the site of the future Charlotte Brody Children's Discovery Garden, a hop, skip, and a jump from the Doris Duke Center in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Immediately to the east, but obscured from view by a wooden fence and a row of Southern magnolias, is the gardens' parking lot.

The Duke Gardens host 4,000 children a year through programs with the Durham Public Schools alone. Though the center, completed in 2001, provides classroom and work space, the gardens have never had outdoor features designed specifically for their youngest patrons. With that in mind, last year, gardens staff members hooked up with Robin C. Moore, a landscape-architecture professor at North Carolina State University and director of N.C. State's Natural Learning Initiative, a leading designer of educational, nature-based children's spaces.

One of the keys to designing a successful space, Moore has found, is meeting with each of the main constituencies and soliciting meaningful feedback. In the case of the discovery garden, he and his planning team, which includes landscape architects, an educational psychologist, and a designer, have already met with local teachers, volunteers, and members of the gardens staff. Now, they've moved on to the group they consider most important: the children who will use the garden.

As the children land on the opposite side of the drainage ditch, they encounter a sign in magic marker that instructs them to "Imagine a tree house here." They pause. "What would you want a tree house to look like?" asks Vogel, one of two gardens volunteers leading today's tour. "Where would you want it in this space?"

The children tilt their heads way back as they survey the tallest trees. "Right up there," says Nina Schwing, eight, pointing to a V in the trunk of one tree. Leif Kelley, five, dashes over to the sign, which features a colorful, childlike rendering of a house perched in the crotch of a tree. "Just like that," he says. "I think we should have a rope ladder hanging down."

"How about a hammock?" Vogel asks, trying to get their creative juices flowing. "And should it be for kids only, or adults, too?" Maddy Kartcheske, eight, says she thinks it should be kids only.

"And I think the hammock should be adults only," one parent jokes.

As the children dream and think aloud, Moore's team follows along, taking photographs and careful notes. The group moves on, passing between trees and along an expanse of tall grasses. Vogel asks them to "imagine" various other elements: a water feature--"When I was young," one of the adults says, "we spent hours racing magnolia leaves on a stream"--bird and animal houses, and a working garden where children can sow and harvest.

"Are you guys willing to weed?" Vogel asks. "I don't like weeding," Zach Kartcheske says. "That's going to take a lot of time." Leif raises his hand, shifting his weight impatiently until Vogel looks at him. "I have garden gloves," he says.

Back in the classroom area of the Doris Duke Center, the children sit at small tables, busily sketching their concepts for the discovery garden using crayons and colored pencils. But the finished products will be more than just refrigerator masterpieces. Each will be collected and carefully analyzed by the Natural Learning Initiative team as it continues to put together plans for the actual garden.

At one table, Jonathan Huetter, eight, has quickly sketched a tree using colored pencils. Now he's drawing a brown rectangle over the middle of the trunk, the beginnings of a tree house. "How do you like this?" he asks an observer, looking back over his shoulder.

He says he comes to the gardens fairly often with his brother, Josh, and his mom. "My favorite thing is feeding the ducks," he says, as he traces the individual boards of the tree house in heavy brown lines.

"Josh fell on a turtle once," Jonathan confides, looking across the table at his older brother, twelve, who along with a friend, Chris Rice, is busy drawing zip wires between two trees. Chris has drawn an owl peeking out from behind a ladder that leads up the zip-wire platform.

At another table, landscape architect Julie Sherk, a member of Moore's team, takes careful notes as Liv Kelley, eight, adds various creative features to her drawing: an animal garden, a kiddy pool, a snail race, a craft area, several species of trees, and a beautiful tiered fountain. The team is careful to have the children label each element of their ideal gardens in clear, block print.

After all of the kids have had a chance to set down some ideas, Annie Nashold, associate director of children's education for the Duke Gardens, invites them up to present their ideas to the group.

Leif points at a brown scribble on his drawing, taped to the wall, then turns. "This guy is him," he almost yells, and runs to tap Chris on the shoulder.

"Good," Nashold says. "So you've got some friends here."

Michael Kelley, Leif's dad, turns to the other parents apologetically. "This guy's been up since 6:30 this morning," he says. They nod.

Josh shows off the zip wire that he has drawn. "How high up off the ground is it?" Nashold asks him. Ten feet, he tells her

"Ten feet is probably as high as this ceiling," she says, looking up. He follows her eyes. "Maybe seven feet," he says.

One of the most detailed drawings belongs to nine-year-old Rosa Bestmann. Hers features a "rainbow waterslide" leading into a goldfish pond with a fishing dock, a tree house, a plant-your-flower patch, and a make-your-own-fairy-house area. "Fairies can live in it. It's like this big," says Rosa, outlining an eight-inch square with her hands. "But you can make it bigger. I make them."