What makes a place a “children’s garden?” Colorful flowers and features to engage all the senses are certainly high on the list. It might have a theme that appeals to children, or it might include whimsical plants with unusual shapes. It should certainly attract little creatures, such as birds, bees and butterflies, that delight little people.
The plants should be suited to their location and not require large inputs of water or chemicals to maintain. Nor should they require the use of herbicides or pesticides. Overuse of resources and toxins today leaves a debt of damage that will be paid by the very people the garden is for.
The Topsham Public Library Children’s Garden was designed with all of these features in mind. It is a rainbow garden, roughly mimicking the sequence of colors in the rainbow. It starts with reds and pinks, moves through the warmer colors of yellow and orange, continues into the green section (with many white-flowering plants), and ends with cool blues and purples. My children think I should put the purple coneflowers in the pink section. They may be right, but the plants are called PURPLE coneflowers, so purple.
The plants you see in the garden, with very few exceptions, are highly drought tolerant and tough – necessary features for this hot, dry, windy site with poor, sandy soil. During the summer the garden gets watered about once per month. While this is more than enough for most of the plants here, some of the less drought-tolerant species will not look as spectacular as they otherwise might. We think this is a reasonable trade-off for a garden that uses fewer precious resources.
Plants of different textures, smells, and shapes populate the garden. The flowering panicles of the prairie dropseed grass smell like vanilla. Leaf forms range from the soft and fuzzy leaves of lamb’s ear to the spiky yellow and green leaves of the yucca plant. Bright blue spheres of globe thistle dot the top of the garden in mid summer. Gayfeather sends out long shoots of flowers resembling fireworks.
You would be hard-pressed to visit the garden without seeing butterflies and bees busy at work. One plant, commonly known as butterfly weed, is among the only food sources used by monarch butterfly caterpillars. In fall, goldfinches visit the dried seed-heads of coneflowers and black-eyed susans.
In its short lifetime, this garden has battled a variety of pests. Most noteworthy was a fearsome attack of Asiatic Garden Beetles in 2011 which severely damaged nearly one third of the plants. Faced with the ruin of the garden it was tempting to spray a pesticide. Instead, we replaced a number of plants with ones the beetles were less attracted to and we left some in that had less severe damage to see what the next year would hold.
As with every interaction with the natural world, the garden is a work in progress and continually evolving.
Thistlegaard Perennial Gardens
From the Garden