GARDENING: CAN THEY DIG IT?

Michael Leapman reports on a New York botanical initiative that uses the Disney touch to turn children on to gardening of weeding
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The Independent Culture
WHEN A child asks: "What are we doing today?" and you propose a trip to a botanic garden, you cannot expect a gleeful response. We've all seen unhappy families trudging through Kew and elsewhere: persevering parents feigning ecstasy over magnolias and rhododendrons, while their kids fidget and look around for signs of ice-cream.

Children crave instant gratification - video games, pop music, action movies - so how on earth can you get them interested in the gentle pleasures of the garden? In particular, how can you grab the attention of inner- city youngsters, who may have no garden at home to call their own?

Some imaginative ways of tackling the dilemma are being tested in New York. If you find this surprising, there are two salient facts about that teeming, vibrant city that you may not know: it boasts two splendid and well-patronised botanic gardens; and New Yorkers take pride in knowing how to show their children a good time.

The smaller of the city's two gardens is Brooklyn Botanic. As long ago as 1914 it opened its first children's plot, where an acre is set aside for supervised groups to grow flowers, vegetables and herbs. It has always been popular, but the number of children who can enjoy it is clearly restricted. In 1996 Brooklyn took an important step further by opening its Discovery Garden, designed to spark an interest in gardening and wildlife among children who may never before have been exposed to it. It has been an immense success.

"A lot of people use it and we've seen a great increase in family visits," says Lori Duggan Gold, the garden's Director of Public Affairs. "We've found that kids want a space where they can run around and handle plants and climb, so that their parents feel more comfortable and don't have to keep saying: 'Don't touch! Don't touch!'

"It's a way to acquaint the children with plants casually, so that they aren't intimidated by them. They come mainly to play. The idea is to make them use all of their senses to get them interes- ted in a garden in any form, and to make the connection with the environment. We hope the interest will carry over when they become adults."

An important aspect of the Discovery Garden's design is that every part is in full view all the time. This means that parents can allow the very youngest of their brood to explore on their own. Even the small meadow planted with long grass, where children can romp and hide from each other, can be monitored by an adult near the entrance.

There is a nature trail, where the young visitors touch and smell herbs and scented flowers; boxes of twigs and cones for toddlers to play with; a bamboo forest trail; and a log for sitting and listening to stories. Notices point out that everything is made of wood and other natural products, in the hope of weaning the next generation of gardeners away from environmentally unfriendly plastic.

Brooklyn Botanic's third attraction for youngsters is an indoor garden, a standby for when it rains. Aimed at six to 13-year-olds, especially school groups, it places a greater emphasis on instruction than the Discovery Garden, and the ecological message is underlined even more rigorously.

The New York Botanic Garden, in the Bronx, is much larger than its Brooklyn counterpart but is planning something along the same principles. The Everett Children's Adventure Garden, due to open in May, will cover a full eight acres, including a trail through an area of wild wetland.

Catherine Eberbach, manager of the garden's exhibit programmes, lent me a hard hat and took me on a tour of the site under construction.

"In creating the design, we've really been trying to communicate two things," she explained. "One, that plants are alive, and two that they, the kids, can do science."

The teaching of science in schools has long been blighted by the perception among pupils that the subject is irretrievably boring. Part of the purpose of the new garden is to alter that image and to show that it can be fun.

"The way to engage kids is through adventure and play. So we're going to have a giant model of a geranium that they can build and take apart and find out what the various parts of a plant are. And by the pond they can use plant parts to build a giant birds' nest. All that's a whole lot more interesting than just having someone tell you about it.

"Once they realise that science is highly interactive, that it's about asking questions and finding out about stuff that they're really interested in, then it's something quite magical. Too often plants and gardens are introduced to children at an adult level. You and I can sit through a lecture about zinnias because we're already interested in them, but that's not the way to engage kids."

When they get into the Adventure Garden, children will first be confronted with three mazes: a boulder maze, where they will pick their way through rocks with fossils embedded in them; a grass maze for toddlers; and the more conventional Beth's Maze, moved from elsewhere in the botanic garden, where it is already a popular feature.

Next stop is the Sun, Dirt and Water Gallery, where visitors can muck in and get grubby while learning how plants make food and use water and sunlight. Alongside is the Plant Discovery Center, the focus of the new garden, where children will be able to perform experiments on the structure of plants and their survival mechanisms, using microscopes to examine flowers, leaves and seeds.

Just outside, Discovery Plaza will be adorned with enormous models of caterpillars, ladybirds and frogs made from a variety of growing material contained in wire frames. This leads down to the meadow, where children can act the part of bees in pollinating giant flowers; then to the pond, where they will see how the plants, insects and water birds form a mutually supportive community.

There will be exhibits on how plants are formed from their various components and an opportunity for visitors to invent new species. Finally comes the wild wetland trail, where everything they've discovered can be seen in a realistic environment.

Like Brooklyn, the New York Botanic Garden already has space set aside for children to do their own spot of gardening. When they arrive, usually in school or community groups, they can choose whether they want to dig, plant or harvest. Volunteers - often youngsters who were first introduced to gardening here - direct them to the right plots.

During my autumn visit, dozens of children were discussing excitedly what bulbs to put where for a dazzling spring show. Learning to work in teams is an important part of the experience.

Some plots are tended by members of one of the city's ethnic groups, where they cultivate as their families did in their original homes - Puerto Rico, Thailand, India etc. The difference is not just in the flowers and vegetables they grow but how they grow them, in ridges and furrows that look very unlike the traditional north-American garden.

As we watched, Eberbach summed up what the New York Botanic Garden will be able to offer children: "In the Adventure Garden they'll be using exhibits and experiences to understand how plants work. On the Wetlands Trail they can explore the plants they've learnt about. And here they're actually growing the plants and creating a garden. It's three very different ways to experience plants, and that's at the heart of the project."

Purists may be appalled at the idea of applying Disneyland techniques to the hallowed world of horticulture. But with more and more competing claims on children's attention, how else are you going to catch them when they are young and impressionable? And how long, I wonder, before the collapsible, build- it-yourself geranium and the arboreal caterpillars reach Kew? !

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