UNIVERSITY PARK — Thursday’s rain made the man-made limestone cave at the Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden at the Penn State Arboretum feel like a real, natural cavern.
Mist from the rain dampened the grotto as drops accumulated on its walls and dripped through crevasses overhead.
But it also made for a convenient hideout for construction workers, gardeners and Arboretum staff who were putting the finishing touches on the children’s garden before its grand opening Monday.
“We’re down the homestretch,” children’s educational programs coordinator Linda Duerr said.
Workers will finish planting some of the garden’s 200 trees and fine-tuning water features, said Shari Edelson, curator and director of horticulture.
It’s been a five-year process from the first idea through its opening and was created with a mission to help kids become more in touch with natural surroundings.
The vision was to have a family-friendly outdoor nature space that also worked as an educational outlet, Duerr said.
“Children have a natural curiosity,” she said. “We hope when they come here the garden’s reality to nature sparks questions. We want them to leave learning something new so they can go somewhere and identify a plant or flower or insect.”
Five years ago, Duerr approached arboretum Director Kim Steiner about bringing kids from the Child Care Center at Hort Woods on Penn State’s campus to the arboretum grounds. That sparked the idea to have a designated garden for children, Duerr said.
Steiner then suggested that Duerr be part of the children’s garden team, which met with architects from around the country. Colorado landscape designer Emanuel Didier was chosen to re-create the ridges, valleys, streams and vegetation of central Pennsylvania.
“He flew in from Colorado, which we already think is one of the more beautiful areas of the country,” Duerr said. “He said he was surprised with how beautiful the natural landscape of Pennsylvania was when he flew in, and wanted to design a garden that showed that.”
At the garden’s entrance are a “transformation canopy” and a water feature, and a path leads to other water features, a prairie patch, a gathering lawn, a bird lookout, gardens, the limestone cave and more.
The Harvest Garden includes state-grown vegetables, such as Pennsylvania Dutch crookneck squash from the Amish and Seneca red corn native to the northern tier.
Contractor Leonard S. Fiore began construction in May of last year, made possible by $4.1 million in donations from Edward and Helen Hintz and Charles “Skip” Smith, event and marketing coordinator Kate Reeder said.
The donations also will be used for the creation of an endowment to maintain the garden and develop educational initiatives for children. The programs would focus on Pennsylvania’s geomorphology and its flora, fauna and culture, Reeder said.
Edelson said the learning process would come through exploration, which she hopes will spark questions.
“There isn’t a lot of signage, so they’ll learn through being hands-on,” Edelson said. “We think it’s going to welcome and engage children and create a love of nature and enhance the spirit of curiosity.”
The children’s garden is free and open to the public year-round every day from dawn to dusk.
Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @ M11azzo.