Chris Rosenblum | Changes springing up at Penn State’s arboretum

April 5, 2014 


A depiction of Fossil Ridge is part of the planned Children’s Garden at Penn State’s arboretum. The project is expected to be completed by the end of June.

PENN STATE — Illustration provided

Among gardeners, there’s a growing feeling of happiness these days.

Spring has arrived, though in its gloomy, mercurial side until it warms to the role. Despite the cheerless weather, nascent flowers poke up from dank soil stripped of soggy leaves. Buds swell on bare branches swaying and rattling in the wind.

Released from a hard winter’s tyranny, gardeners dig into beds, each full of promise, carrying out a timeless ritual of renewal.

Over at the Arboretum at Penn State, staff members also are bustling around.

They’re busy pruning, planting, mulching and otherwise sprucing up the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, a 35-acre repository of 17,000 plants, with the clock ticking away.

When sunshine and leaves arrive, so will the visitors.

Though the arboretum is open all year, the tranquil paths and rooms will fill in the coming weeks during receptions or over the Penn State graduation weekend.

This spring, though, the arboretum has another pressing challenge.

If all goes well, it will sprout an addition.

Started in 2012, the Children’s Garden could be completed and open to the public by early summer.

Construction resumed after the winter lull about two weeks ago, and is scheduled to finish by mid-June. Then comes more work.

“That’s just sort of the skeleton of it,” Kim Steiner, arboretum director, said of the construction. “We still have to put the flesh on the bone, so to speak, with the plants.”

Steiner’s staff now is choosing the specimens to be planted, another check list before State College’s horticultural gem can shine once again.

“I expect we’ll be working in there through June, but I also think we’ll be open (in the Children’s Garden) at least occasionally for visitors during that time,” Steiner said.

He and his staff have been anticipating the unveiling for a while.

The garden originally was expected to be done by last spring, but glitches during the bidding stage delayed the project, pushing it back a year.

That’s all water under the botanic garden’s fountain now. Early tours of the Children’s Garden given to donors and volunteers have garnered glowing reviews, Steiner said.

“Everybody on the staff is really excited about this project,” he said. “It’s amazing to see what they’ve built in there. It’s been a really fascinating project.”

Never mind the garden’s targeted age range of 3 to 12. Exploring a cave with stalactites and bronze sculptured bats could make anyone feel young at heart.

The subterranean Grotto also will feature water pouring from an elevated “sinkhole,” teaching about the local limestone formations. Above ground, the outdoor classroom continues.

In the garden’s Central Valley, a child-scale prairie replication will include an American Indian encampment and a contemporary agrarian setting to teach about land use. The life cycle of plants will be on display in a glass house and throughout garden plots.

At Fossil Ridge, sunken gardens and circular spaces will feature fossil sculptures and a kid-friendly climbing wall. Mushroom Hollow, built with the guidance of Penn State forestry and mycology experts, intends to re-create the woodland environments of local mountain ridges, complete with toadstool-like sculptures beneath a selection of native trees.

Worm World, beside the Grotto, speaks for itself.

Fantasy as well as science abounds. Among the whimsical “Alice in Wonderland” touches will be an artificial Discovery Tree and an 8-foot spicebush caterpillar sculpture for sitting.

“It’s a space where a parent or grandparent can bring a child and really let the child loose for exploration,” Steiner said. “It’s not a playground, but I think children will love it.”

When completed, the garden also will sport an amphitheater. Linda Duerr, the children’s education programs coordinator, joins the arboretum staff from Penn State’s Child Care Center at Hort Woods. She’ll have two dozen volunteers and two interns this summer and fall for the inaugural program series.

But the Children’s Garden isn’t the only upcoming attraction.

The Rose and Fragrance Garden, saddled with drainage problems and plants adapting poorly to conditions, was gutted in 2012 and rebuilt last year. Now it’s set to make a return.

“Hopefully, this year we’ll have that garden back up 100 percent,” Steiner said.

Some day, perhaps under a drowsy summer sun, visitors there will encounter glorious blooms.

Nothing, however, will be as beautiful as seeing a wonderland help children blossom.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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