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An inside look at the new Stowe children’s garden

When adults get lost, it’s an inconvenience. When kids get “lost” it’s about adventure and discovery.

That’s the idea behind the new “Lost Hollow” children’s garden at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden: an area meant to be explored and uncovered.

DSBG Executive Director Kara Newport, her staff and the garden board considered 455 different combinations of words with designer Jeff Suttoff before deciding on “Lost Hollow” as the name of the new 3 1/2-acre space designed for children.

The name seemed like a natural fit because of the sense of discovery inherent in the garden and because the space, in its existing form, was an actual hollow.

That was just one of many serendipitous happenings during the creation of the first major addition in six years to the botanical garden in Belmont. Another was when Newport told landscape designer W. Gary Smith that a crown motif in the ironwork was a “nice nod to Charlotte.” He wasn’t even aware Charlotte is known as the Queen City.

When the garden opened Oct. 18, more than 3,500 people came to explore. They liked what they saw. DSBG reached an all-time high membership roster over the weekend and now has about 4,500 members.

It’s meant to look as if it’s been there for centuries. The pathways are made of recycled asphalt, so it feels like it’s been worn down over hundreds of years. And there’s plenty of what Newport calls “hidden whimsy.”

“We tried to get away from the linear,” Newport said. There are no “Stay on the path” signs. Visitors can walk, climb and crawl nearly anywhere they please. Children have already begun to wear a path through some of the mulched areas, and that’s just fine with Newport. There’s nothing precious about the area.

Duke Kimbrell’s vision

A children’s garden had always been part of DSBG’s master plan. The Visitor Pavilion opened in 1999, but there was no set time frame for the the children’s area. Garden leaders felt the timing was right to create something to appeal to families.

The price tag for the now-complete Phase I of the kids’ hangout: $4.4 million. Gastonia textile executive Duke Kimbrell, who died Oct. 21 – just days after he saw the garden’s opening – got the campaign started with a $2 million challenge gift. More than 200 others contributed to raise the rest of the funds needed.

Phase II, to include restrooms (dubbed “The Necessaries”), a “Wicket Thicket” toddler area, an educational pavilion, “Ramble Rocks” climbing area, a throne room and an old English phone booth in the middle of Walnut Ring, will require raising another $2.2 million.

Giving kids contact with nature

While the garden was made possible, in large part, by Kimbrell, it is a tribute to DSBG’s late founder, Daniel Stowe, who died in 2006. New York-based landscape designer Smith incorporated artifacts from Stowe’s Lake Wylie home into the garden’s design.

Chimney stacks, looking like ancient ruins, came from Stowe’s roof. The lamp posts, too, are from the Stowe property. And a Japanese maple was transplanted from the old home.

Smith has designed creative gardens all over the country, including the new children’s garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas and Enchanted Woods at Delaware’s Winterthur Garden.

In choosing Smith, DSBG got a designer known more for artistry than science. “We don’t do science gardens, and we don’t do playgrounds,” he says. His approach was exactly what DSBG was looking for.

“Gary works with what’s there,” says Newport. “He’s happy to keep some of the space undefined and let visitors make up their own stories.”

Smith says his goal is always to “inspire imagination.”

His design respects the intelligence of his primary audience. “We don’t give kids enough credit for being able to perceive the same things we do in a garden,” he says. “But they sense beauty, fragrance, the movement of the wind, the changing seasons. We’ve got to give kids places that allow contact with nature.”

Imagination at play

Smith centered the garden on the mystically named “Moon Keep” (a nod to fortified structures of the Middle Ages) complete with flying buttresses and what could be perceived as a dried moat. A real slate roof and weather vane add to its authenticity.

The Balconette is an elaborate railing along the pond that overlooks much of this garden in the hollow. Brasstown, N.C., metalsmith Lynda Metcalfe created the ironwork, including 64 leaves, of which only two are alike.

Fireplace Cave and a 12-foot-tall aviary are both tributes to Stowe. The aviary, which once housed birds in Stowe’s garden, is now a rotating play space for children. Except here, the children are inside the cage and the birds are outside.

The cave’s entrance is a giant limestone fireplace surround from the lakefront estate Stowe built in the late 1960s. Inside is a disco ball he used for parties – kids think it looks like the moon – and medallions which were on his living room ceiling. Children think of those as stars. It only takes a little imagination to turn the interior of this cave into a twinkly night sky.

The garden will change dramatically over time. One redwood will eventually be 60 feet tall and provide shade where there is now full sun. Majestic oaks will form a canopy over the Commons.

Newport says, “This is the kind of garden you come back to repeatedly and find there’s always something new to discover.”

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