In 2007, a group of boy scouts constructed an elegant spiral path from the back door of the the children’s reading room. A few years later, the library approached me to design a children’s garden around this spiral.
What makes a garden a “children’s” garden? Without doubt, engaging all the senses is high on the list. Such a garden might include whimsical plants with unusual shapes, or plants with interesting smells, color, or textures. It should certainly attract the little creatures, such as birds, bees and butterflies, that bring the garden alive and that so delight the little people.
Plant materials should be suited to their location and not require large inputs of water or chemicals to maintain. Nor, in most cases, should they require the use of herbicides or pesticides. I include these last items because it seems to me that our overuse of resources and toxins today leaves a debt of damage that will be paid by none other than these same little people.
The Topsham Public Library Children’s Garden was designed with all of the above features in mind. It is a rainbow garden, roughly mimicking the sequence of colors in the rainbow. The garden starts at one end of the spiral with reds and pinks, moves through the warmer colors of yellow and orange, continues into the green section (with many white-flowering plants), and ends with cool blues and purples.
Here, I must point out that my children felt adamantly that I should put the purple coneflowers in the pink section. I have to admit that they are rather pink, but I contended that anything called a “purple coneflower” has to be with the purples, regardless of its color, and that’s where they wound up.
The garden is filled with plants of different textures, smells, and shapes. The flowering panicles of the prairie dropseed grass smell like vanilla. Leaf forms range from the soft and fuzzy leaves of lamb’s ear to the spiky smooth leaves of the yucca. Bright blue spheres of globe thistle dot the top of the garden in mid summer, while gayfeather sends out long shoots of flowers resembling fireworks.
You would be hard-pressed to visit the garden without seeing butterflies and bees busy at work. One plant, commonly known as butterfly weed, is among the only food sources used by monarch butterfly caterpillars. In fall, goldfinches devour the dried seed-heads of coneflowers and black-eyed susans.
The plants in this garden are, with very few exceptions, highly drought tolerant and tough – necessary features for this hot, dry, windy site with poor, sandy soil. During a typical summer, the garden receives no supplemental water, with the exception of newly established plants. While this benign neglect works for most of the plants here, some of the less rugged species will not look as spectacular as they otherwise might with extra water. We think this is a reasonable trade-off for a garden that uses less of the precious resources around us.
Over the years, this garden has battled a variety of pests. Most noteworthy was a fearsome attack of Asiatic garden beetles in the garden’s second year, which severely damaged almost half the planting. Faced with the possible ruin of the garden it was tempting to spray a pesticide. Instead, we replaced a number of plants with ones the beetles were less attracted to, and we waited to see what the next year would hold. The following year there was virtually no beetle damage. One horticulturalist I spoke with at the time suggested that the dramatic increase in beetle damage in the second year might have resulted from beneficial conditions for beetle larvae created by all the watering we did in the first year when we were establishing new plants. In subsequent years there has been minimal watering… and minimal beetle damage.
We continue to work and learn in this garden, and I am always gratified to see that when children come out of of the library, more often than not, they run to the garden, pad around the spiral path, and pet the fuzzy lamb’s ear leaves.
Please come visit us next spring; we always welcome volunteer involvement!