Wildflower Center starts construction on new garden

A new 4.5-acre garden with several child-friendly features being built at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will nearly double the size of the center's gardens when it is complete in June 2014, according to center Executive Director Susan Rieff.

"We've just started construction about a week ago," she said, standing in the meadow where construction workers have been clearing away cacti and juniper to make room for the Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin Family Garden's exhibits.

Rieff said one focus of the garden will be encouraging children's curiosity and helping them learn more about the world around them through hands-on learning rather than video screens.

"This is the garden of yes for kids," she said. "We want them to enjoy and explore things on their own. But it's also going to be a platform for more structured educational curriculum. And we will have classes and work with schools and ... teachers to provide a more formal education outlet here, too."

Features will include a play lawn with native grass, a pavilion that might host the center's Nature Nights events as well as birthday parties, a small cave children can climb inside, an exhibit with oversized birds' nests children can play in, a three-foot-high hedge maze with sculptures depicting animals in different life stages, a stream, and local plant life, Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya said.

"The Wildflower Center is all about Texas native plants and promoting Texas natural heritage, and so all of this is in line with that idea," she said.

Visitors to the center will also be able to interact by pouring water over porous honeycomb limestone displays and watching how the water travels through them, she said.

"This will be a great opportunity [for children] to learn about the Edwards Aquifer and water protection," she said, explaining that while structured educational activities will take place in the new gardens, most exhibits are designed for hands-on discoveries. "It's such a different kind of experience when you find something on your own versus if somebody else shows it to you. It's more empowering, more exciting."

Rain gardens, or shallow basins within the area, will collect rainwater for plants. The center aims to retain as much water as possible on-site rather than emptying water into the nearby creek, she said.

The new garden will be named for lead donors Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, and her husband Ian Turpin. Overall, donors have contributed $4.4 million so far to the project, and the wildflower center has worked with landscape architect W. Gary Smith and architecture firm TBG Partners to design the landscape.

Rieff said the center will continue to raise money to hire staff and develop curriculum.

One unique aspect of the new gardens is that many of its features and the entirety of the path will comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing visitors in wheelchairs as well as parents with strollers to view the full garden, DeLong-Amaya noted.

The garden is a pilot project of the national Sustainable Sites Initiative, an effort to establish voluntary national guidelines and performance benchmarks for sustainable land design, construction and maintenance.

Along the perimeter of the new garden site, the center is clearing away much of the plant life to make room for exhibits, but DeLong-Amaya noted the juniper and mesquite being removed will be recycled to make mulch or compost.

During construction, the center has preserved several older oak trees on the property and will build the garden features around them, Senior Director and Botanist Damon Waitt said.

"We'll be very careful," he said. "Nothing leaves this site. We're keeping all the topsoil, and the cedar that we remove is being ground up into mulch that we'll use on the site."

More information is available at the Family Garden website.