When I travel to a new city, I always make a point of learning where the nearest public garden is. Over the course of my travels I have visited many of them with one or both of my children including the Public Garden in Boston; the gardens at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy; the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris; Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin, Texas; and Rotary Botanical Gardens in Matt’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.
I’m very lucky however, to live about forty minutes away from one of the best public gardens anywhere in the world and my own personal favorite: Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. There are so many things about Longwood that make it a fabulous place to go with children. It is huge and offers a wide variety of terrain from forest to meadow. It has a tower and a waterfall. There are multiple ponds, dozens of fountains, and two children’s gardens, one inside and one out. There is an enormous conservatory that offers everything from a desert to a tropical garden to say nothing of roses in January (a salve to my soul many a time). It is a place of tremendous intentional beauty.
There isn’t a bad time of year to visit Longwood with your children, but mid-September may be the Platonic time to do so. The place is a riot of color and bloom and you can usually find a cool day. There are many, many pumpkins. And most importantly for my family, there is a large display of electric trains. Actually, I can’t imagine anyone not delighting in the train display, which includes miniature models of buildings from around the garden and the area (including the conservatory), streams, bridges, flowers, and of course a variety of different engines and cars, both passenger and freight.
Teddy and I started with the trains at his insistence. I lost count of how many times he circled the track, waving to the trains, peering at all of the little fountains and the fanciful mixture of pansies and shiny peppers that decorated the miniature landscape. (The picture I’ve included here are actually from our visit last fall, as I accidentally deleted the dozens I took of Teddy enjoying himself on Friday from our camera. I was especially disappointed that I did this given that the display was even larger and more fanciful this year.)
After a good forty-five minutes watching the trains, we made our way over to the Sunflower House in the outdoor children’s garden. Teddy was delighted to sit at a table just his size and run his hands over the pumpkins of all colors and textures. We looked inside the compost bin for the large vegetable garden whose produce goes to local food banks, and then he tried out a variety of different pumpkins to see which one was “the best to sit on.”
I hope that the management won’t revoke my membership for writing this, but I always sneak snacks into Longwood despite the stern signs warning visitors not to do so. I’ll justify myself by saying that I would never do this if I was there alone, and I’m fastidious about picking up every crumb, respectful that they want no contamination of their carefully planned beds and paths. But it’s a huge interruption to go over to the cafeteria and sit inside with the kids (they of course would like nothing more than to do this every time and are always happy when I buy us lunch there because they can choose a meal that ends with green Jello). Instead I act casual, find a bench, and feed them little bits of granola bar or dried fruit all the while looking furtively around for the gardeners. On Friday Teddy and I had the place mostly to ourselves and so sat out in the open in the children’s garden, next to the fountain where children are invited to splash and play. I know that Teddy is getting older because his shirt was not completely soaked by the time we got up to leave.
Fortified, it was on to the conservatory where we saw a dazzling variety of water lilies from the palest yellow to the deepest magenta. Teddy insisted on asking a man in waders who was working in the middle of one of the ponds if there were frogs in there. “Yes,” the gardener replied without cracking a smile, “but they are hiding.” I got the impression he himself would have liked to duck down under one of the large green platters that surrounded him, but my son wanted to keep chatting in his inimitable three-year-old way. “Why?” he asked (his go-to question at the moment), “why are they hiding?” I lured him away by tempting him with an exhibit of spun glass pumpkins tumbling out of a huge cornucopia made of woven grass and flowers. Some of them were lit from within so they glowed like jewels, much to Teddy’s delight: “they’re so bright Mommy!” Then he had to take a tour around the indoor children’s garden a completely magical place that I fear I cannot do justice to with its many fountains (including a huge smoking dragon head that Teddy refuses to walk by because it scares him) and more flowers and hidey-holes.
We finished our visit by touring two tree houses, part of a temporary exhibit called “Nature’s Castles” that has been built and is on display this summer and fall. First we visited The Birdhouse, a tall and narrow aerie in the middle of the trees designed to make one feel like a bird. Teddy of course peeped his way all around informing me that “Little Chick likes it up high.” The second, is named the Lookout Loft and is a sprawling pavilion at the edge of the forest that overlookes one of Longwood’s large meadows, which is changing from green to gold like a magical carpet.
We wandered back out through the Flower Garden Walk, always full of blooms arranged in order by color with purple at one end and moving through the rainbow to white on the other side. Here Teddy pretended to gallop like a horse; found a flower he christened an “octopus flower” for its many narrow, leg-like petals; wore another flower as a hat; and protested as only a child his age can when I told him it was time to go.
Why is visiting gardens such a wonderful thing to do with children of all ages? There are many reasons. For one thing, each garden, no matter its size, is its own self-contained universe and a safe place to explore. And it’s easy – you don’t need a plan to have a good time. Actually, it’s not even necessary to pick up a map when you arrive (although as I mentioned earlier this week, maps can be a lot of fun for children who are learning to read them) but can simply choose to wander around and be surprised. You are out in the fresh air getting exercise, as are your children. There are many opportunities for observing nature and for learning in a garden, whether it is reading the names of plants, finding caterpillars, splashing in a fountain, or smelling flowers. And some gardens, like Longwood, offer equally beautiful indoor spaces that can enliven dreary winter days and also offer a chance for little legs to wear themselves out before naptime.
But for me the overriding reason is that children of all types – those who love princesses and those who love Pokémon – are sensitive to beauty. What better way to help them keep this alertness, this wonder? And what better way to return to a childlike state yourself?