A whimsical, educational garden for children grows in Magnolia’s forest

In the shadow of tall straight pines, work has begun at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens to create a children’s garden where young minds can explore nature in an enchanted world seen only through a child’s imagination.

This garden for children will become a 20 acre-complex with a campground, outdoor classroom, a miniature greenhouse and separate areas for butterflies, edible plants, ferns, wild flowers and a mystical place reserved for fairies.

Magnolia’s history as a commercial nursery influenced Magnolia’s executive director Tom Johnson’s selection of the garden site. The first phase sits along Magnolia’s entrance road. But eventually it will spread deeper in the forest where the Nursery at Magnolia Gardens functioned from the mid-1940s to the late-1970s.

“The area of the nursery should be preserved and used again for the children’s garden,” Johnson said. “I envision it to be more than a place where children can run, have fun and explore the outdoors. My goal is to create a place where young minds can learn the value of environmental protection. Throughout the gardens will be lessons about plants, insects and birds to educate our youth about the order of the natural world.”

Johnson wants to encourage children to be curious not only about what stimulates their senses but also use their imaginations to see what adults cannot. This part of his vision has attracted Paul Haden. He has volunteered to design a fernery and a fairy garden, a miniature garden with tiny structures and plants.

Haden is the managing horticulturalist of Willow Oaks Country Club in Richmond, Va., and owner of the Fife Corner Orchard in Goochland County, Va. He has worked on fairy gardens in Maryland and Virginia. Haden recently spent several days and nights at Magnolia evaluating the site. He will advise Magnolia on what seasonal plants to display in the fernery and fairy gardens. His selection will take into consideration what the local environment will be decades from now due to climate change.

The popularity of children’s gardens is spreading alongside the interest in locally grown herbs and vegetables. The success of a children’s garden, he continued, depends on the use of local history and lore to engage childhood fantasies. Doing so increases the chance of more opportunities for children to have fun while teaching them about the environment.

A fairy garden needs houses. Other horticulturalists from around the country plan to build houses for it. A local artist has created characters for the garden. Recently Magnolia received a cash contribution for the garden, and Bailey Nurseries in Newport, Minn., recently donated 100 hydrangea for it. Bailey has committed to donate more plants for the garden.

A children’s garden has to be designed with fairies in mind, Haden explained. “If you don’t have the right things for their physical and mental health they might disappear,” he said. “If you are going to invite fairies into your garden you want them to have things that are good for their entertainment. They are amazed by the silly things humans do. They are like people. They don’t want to be bored.”