Free Spirit

by | May 1, 2014 | Landscapes

I SENT MY OLDER SON, Lukas, to two different nature-themed day camps the summer after he finished kindergarten. In one, he and fellow campers dissected a squid from the bay and made nature journals bound by sticks. In the other, he dredged through muddy water and got stung by a bee while hiking through the woods.

Lukas is eager to return for the third summer this year to the latter informal camp for more muddy pants and potential bee stings earned during unhurried time in natural areas. Campers are free to trade found bottle caps and take an interest – or not – in bird-watching. My younger son will join them when he is old enough to keep up with the group.

Author Richard Louv hypothesizes that kids who lack these direct experiences in nature could suffer from a host of behavioral problems he’s coined Nature Deficit Disorder. The Wildflower Center opened its answer to Nature Deficit Disorder on May 4 – the Luci and Ian Family Garden, a nearly 5-acre play space that provides children and adults the opportunity to connect with the natural world in an environment that encourages unstructured play. The garden is also a model for sustainable landscape design and creation – having participated as a pilot project in the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ program that was developed by the Wildflower Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Garden.


Garden Highlights

A lot went into selecting plants to evoke imaginative and creative play at the luci and Ian Family garden. Lead horticultural designer and the center’s director of horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya chose plants for their unique sensory or playful qualities and to create dramatic visual effects. Family garden senior horticulturist Samantha Elkinton says some choices really resonated with her daughter charis during the planning.

“She loved studying the plants that we chose for the Mays Family Nature’s Spiral to find the spiral in the leaves, seeds or flowers of the plants,” says Elkinton.

Delong-Amaya used plants to certain effects, such as bordering the lawn with clump grasses to provide a safe, soft landing for kids to fall on and situating fragrant plants near pathways.


  • A nectar garden designed to attract pollinators with chocolate flower chosen so passersby can catch a whiff of chocolate;
  • A giant play lawn and surrounding gardens designed for kids to play on;
  • The maze featuring five species and several cultivars of native shrubs including mountain laurel, cenizo, yaupon holly and Texas wax myrtle that can be shorn and trained into a thick, formal hedge;
  • The grotto where spiky yuccas sit on top – visible but out of reach of small hands and bodies;
  • Creek gardens featuring riparian and creek-edge plants;
  • Xeric-edge gardens where candelilla and wheeler’s sotol enclose parts of the garden in place of a fence;
  • Spiral gardens that feature plants that have a spiral pattern, such as Datura wrightii or river fern; and
  • The Woodland Edge garden, which borders the Ann and O.J. Weber Butterfly garden and features butterfly friendly plants that naturally occur on a woodland edge.

W. Gary Smith is the landscape architect and artist who designed the Luci and Ian Family Garden with staff and educators at the Wildflower Center, under the guiding principle that the new space evoke imaginative nature play among visitors. “If they don’t have a children’s garden already, most public gardens now have one in the works,” says Smith. “And most are driven by educational standards, designed for example to correlate with school environmental education curriculums.”

What’s different, Smith says, about the Luci and Ian Family Garden is that – while there are opportunities for kids to learn in more formal programs – the main focus is on unstructured nature play activities.

Like many adults, when Smith was a child, he had the freedom to ride his bike unescorted to play in the woods near his home in northern Delaware. Long gone is the chance for most kids today to do the same, but it is clear when visiting the Family Garden that it was created with that spirit of freedom in mind. There’s even the Dinosaur Creek running through the new garden – a direct translation of a creek in those woods near Smith’s home where he marveled at organisms beneath rocks.

“There was nobody telling me anything or teaching me anything in those woods. We’ve tried to create a place like that – where there’s minimal interpretive signage with which parents can bore disinterested kids. And if no one is there directly teaching them anything, kids have the opportunity to get their hands and feet wet in that Dinosaur Creek and create their own stories like I – and so many adults – once did,” says Smith.

Once kids make those memories, Smith and Wildflower Center staff reason, they’ll want to come back for more, and they’ll learn even in the absence of formal teaching. They could learn about the groundwater recharge message behind the Jeff Wilson Memorial Watering Holes or about the importance of native plants to wildlife by peering through the Wildlife Blind.

And what about risk? Child development experts now question how today’s overprotected kids will fare making judgment calls about things that really are potentially dangerous when finally they emerge from the proverbial bubble wrap of modern childhood – with no helicopter parent or padded playground in sight.

Within the Family Garden’s Alice C. Tyler Stumpery, at first I bristled when I saw that the wood of its teepee-shaped trees made for a ferocious splinter waiting to happen. Then I recalled Lukas and his bee sting at camp and exhaled.

A lot goes in to building a place where the main mission is feeding kids’ individual imaginations with a goal of helping children and families become more comfortable in nature through play. Wildflower Center Senior Director and Senior Botanist Damon Waitt, Ph.D., played a key role in facilitating the project, which began six years ago with Smith’s original designs.

Waitt looks back on nearly 34 three-hour construction meetings in the past year for the project between Center staff and Spaw Glass Construction – as well as on the lessons that no amount of planning could predict.

“Giant Birds’ Nests, for example, don’t come with an instruction manual,” says Waitt. “For one, they are 8 feet across and 5 to 6 feet tall. We gathered all the grapevines from our 270-acre site and still had to go out to staffer Philip Schulze’s farm for more.

“Grapevines are as thick as your wrist, so bending and weaving them into a nest-like structure is no simple task. Each birds’ nest took a week to weave.”

Center arborist Andrew McNeil-Marshall took ownership of this lesson in basket-weaving on a grand scale, learning fast that the thicker the piece of vine, the less pliable.

There were other challenges that come from making a built place look natural; to “make it look like God put it there” – as Lady Bird Johnson once said to the architects of the current Wildflower Center. The Hill Country Grotto, for instance, is a feature that visitors can walk inside to stay cool from the hot summer Texas sun as a waterfall cascades from the top of the grotto.

As a public garden with Texas native plant displays at its core, the Wildflower Center has always emphasized the sense of place that native, locally sourced plants and materials give the gardens. The plants are, of course, native to Texas, but the buildings evoke distinct cultural influences on Texan architecture: the Spanish mission-style architecture of San Antonio, the native white limestone used by German settlers and the types of galvanized tin roofs you would see on mid-century ranchstyle Texas homes.

The Family Garden is similar in that it makes the Englishgarden- style grotto right at home in Central Texas. “The natural stone harvested from the construction site makes it so it would be out of place virtually anywhere else,” says Smith. The materials are not only local, but the grotto was crafted by a career stone mason – Steve Edwards – who had grown up near the Wildflower Center and come out of retirement to build it.

Kids are unlikely to appreciate the handwork involved in making tile in the Mays Family Nature’s Spiral or the native plants such as Texas wax myrtle shorn into a hedge in the Ann and Roy Butler Metamorphosis Maze, but adult visitors may. Lead horticultural designer and Wildflower Center director of horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya wanted the gardened areas to be not just beautiful but show how native plants can be used in ways other than naturalistic designs; the maze is a great example of this concept.


Home Work

Don’t have room in your yard or patio for an 8- foot birds’ nest? No problem. You can create nature lessons at home similar to those at the Center’s new Luci and ian Family Garden. The Bette and Nash Castro Giant Birds’ Nests and Mays Family Nature’s Spiral, for example, could be interesting topics for at-home discovery.

Discuss with the children in your life the different types of birds’ nests. The more common include the cup nest – made mostly of grass and twine – and the more obscure pendant nest that hangs from a tree branch. Make your own nest by collecting enough twigs, sticks, leaves, dry grass, small rocks, moss and pine needles to be shaped into a round nest. Landscape architect and artist W. Gary Smith hopes children will let their imaginations soar in the Family Garden’s giant birds’ nests – after all, they could be space ships or rockets too!

The Mays Family Nature’s Spiral allows children to see the Fibonacci sequence – a pattern that can be observed across flowers, plants, trees, fruits, insects and even animals. The Fibonacci sequence starts with the numbers 1 and 1 or 0 and 1. Then, depending on where you begin, each following number is the sum of the previous two numbers. For example, if you start with 1 and 1, the next number would be 1 plus 1, which would make 2, and then 1 plus 2 would make 3, and 2 plus 3 would make 5, and 3 plus 5 would make 8. You can choose to take your children outdoors, or – if it is a rainy day – allow your children to use fruits or vegetables you have in your kitchen to observe the sequence.

That may be Wildflower Center Executive Director Susan Rieff ’s favorite thing about the Family Garden – that there is something for all ages to enjoy. Kids can literally run wild on the Ellen Clark Temple Play Lawn, or families can gather on the elevated boardwalk in the Diana Poteat Hobby Dry Creek Overlook to gain a new perspective on trees. Adults may or may not hopscotch on Hopscotch Way but will appreciate that there are hopscotch stones that are hidden math lessons in the traditional, octagonal-shaped and rectangular hopscotch courts.

Rieff says, “We struggled with the name before Luci came up with the concept of a family garden – a garden not just for kids but for parents and other adults too. In a world where there are so many don’ts for kids, I like to think of the Luci and Ian Family Garden as a ‘garden of yes.’”