VAN WERT, Ohio – Anyone taking a drive down Leeson Avenue in Van Wert, Ohio, would be hard pressed to miss the city's new children's garden – a one-acre world of vibrant rainbow colors that does wonders to brighten the drab of a windy, gray October afternoon. Fitting, then, that the garden is located at Smiley Recreational Park.
The garden, designed, developed, and maintained by Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener volunteers, is attracting visitors from around the world and recognition for its creativity. Recently, it was named a 2009 Ohio Outstanding Master Gardener Volunteer Project.
"The land was offered to us by Smiley Park and we thought a garden would be good for the city, adding to the people's enjoyment, as well as be an attraction for people who visit Van Wert. We chose a children's garden because we wanted to create a place of fun as well as education," said Louise Hartwig, an OSU Extension Master Gardener and one of the proponents in the development and maintenance of the Smiley Park Children's Garden.
Construction of the Smiley Park Children's Garden began in 2006 and officially opened in 2008. A walk through the garden takes visitors to over 20 points of interest. Some highlights include the butterfly house, an official waystation for Monarch butterflies, and a place to experience the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly; the 100-Aker Woods where the story of Winnie the Pooh and his friends comes to life; the Healthy Me Garden, which emphasizes eating more vegetables; the Enabling Garden, designed for people with disabilities; the Secret Garden, a special place of respite and sharing amid three weeping mulberry trees; the Rainbow Garden, which highlights plants from around the world; and the Sun Dial Garden, which teaches youth how to tell time with the sun.
"It's an amalgamation of ideas gathered by visiting various children's gardens across the United States made reality through the loving support of the community," said Jackie Dearbaugh, an OSU Extension Master Gardener.
It's that community support – from monetary to material donations to gardening involvement – that makes the Smiley Park Children's Garden so special.
"This garden brought a lot of people together. People in the community feel a sense of ownership with this garden," said Dee Jackson, an OSU Extension Master Gardener. "They can say that this garden is theirs and they are proud of that."
To date, Van Wert residents, community businesses and other interested parties have donated upwards of $175,000 to support the garden.
"If we went out and contracted the design and construction of the garden, it would have cost us $400,000 to $500,000," said Hartwig.
In addition to material and monetary donations, nearly every aspect of the garden's development has been touched by the community. For example, the entrance to the garden was built by an OSU Extension master gardener with expertise in welding; the tiles found along the outside of the gazebo were made by area schoolchildren; the flower art was designed by local street artists; and benches, plants, street lamps, picnic tables and other items were donated by area residents and businesses.
"There are so few places where one can get outside and enjoy nature in a safe environment," said Hartwig. "This garden provides that for adults and children alike."
The Smiley Park Children's Garden continues to expand. Next spring, organizers plan to install a fossil garden, chronicling Ohio's ancient history. Limestone rock, embedded with hundreds of long-extinct plant and animal species, will be donated by an area rock quarry.
"The effort that the master gardeners have put into this project is amazing," said Dearbaugh. "They've put in thousands of community hours to make this garden a reality. The diversity of talent is broad – engineers, welders, art majors, educators, nurses – but when we are in the garden we all speak the same language."
Smiley Park is located at the corners of Leeson Avenue and Woodland Avenue in Van Wert, Ohio. For more information on Smiley Park Children's Garden or to make donation to support the garden, contact Louise Hartwig at (419) 238-1214 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.