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The Garden of Yes

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s New Family Garden
Written by Andrea Abel. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

Children scampering across a streambed may spy dinosaur tracks modeled after those found in the Paluxy riverbed  in Glen Rose.

Luci Johnson, the youngest daughter of President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, admits that her love of nature came later in life, despite her mother’s devotion to protecting and restoring native plants. But, thanks to Lady Bird’s gentle persistence, an enthusiasm for the natural world eventually rubbed off. That’s one of the reasons Luci speaks with such passion about the new Luci and Ian Family Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Opened in May and named for Luci and her husband, Ian Turpin, the garden’s lead donors, the center’s elaborate, 4.5-acre addition intends to change the way children and their families approach play.

“Growing up, I wasn’t thoroughly disinterested in nature, but I didn’t bask as early as I wish I had. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited about this garden at the Wildflower Center,” says Johnson, who says she’s grateful to have shared her appreciation for the natural world with her mother before her death in 2007. The new addition to the Wildflower Center strives to stir an experiential sense of wonder and fun, unlocking the child in all of us. Among the activities in store: Come prepared to climb on artfully arranged tree trunks, hand-pump water into a limestone watering hole, and run barefoot with abandon on the Play Lawn.

Johnson stresses that visitors do not need to have children in tow to experience the garden. “I wanted visitors to feel like they could come with or without a child. After all, mother used to say, ‘A day without learning is a day wasted.’ What better way to learn than through playing in nature?”

Kick off your sandals and sink your toes into the soft, grassy expanse of the new Play Lawn, where such activities as running, kite-flying, and ball-throwing are encouraged.

Thanks to video games, busy streets, and a never-ending slew of structured extracurricular activities, most kids these days don’t spend much time outdoors. Rare are days spent collecting acorns, building tree-branch forts, constructing mud waterways, and braiding daisy chains. And being in nature and connecting with nature are two different things. Too often, modern outdoors play has a “‘look-but-don’t-touch quality.’” Wildflower Center Executive Director Susan Rieff noticed this when observing school groups and families at the center. 

“When we first started the design process, our primary interest was to create a place where kids could be outdoors and explore nature on their own,” Rieff says. “We want kids out there getting wet—if they want to—and playing in the dirt. We want all these kids to grow up and be stewards of the earth.”

Award-winning landscape architect W. Gary Smith designed the garden for both unstructured and structured hands-on play, and the Wildflower Center’s horticulturalists made sure the Family Garden has a decidedly native Texas twist. A palette of native Texas trees, shrubs, and flowers like red buckeye, salvia greggii, and Maximilian sunflowers lend an ever-changing mixture of color, texture, and scents throughout the year. 

The Wildflower Center also emphasizes sustainable landscape design throughout, from the plants and building materials to resource conservation components such as rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation. 

Maze

As you enter the Family Garden via a curved path and a short bridge made from recycled soda bottles, look for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators flitting from blossom to blossom. Then consider kicking off your sandals and sinking your toes into the soft, grassy expanse of the new Play Lawn, where such activities as running, kite-flying, and ball-throwing are encouraged. Life-size bronze sculptures of such savanna animals as jackrabbits and coyotes add whimsical touches, as does an assortment of all-weather exercise equipment—stationary bikes, elliptical trainers, and other contraptions that function on human power. This unusual touch was the idea of fitness devotee Luci Johnson, who saw similar equipment in British public parks and thought it would appeal to adults visiting the Family Garden. 

Meandering the main pathway past the Play Lawn brings you to an attraction called the Metamorphosis Maze, featuring nine different species of shrubs native to Texas. All the hedges naturally stay low-growing, making it easier for parents to keep an eye on little ones. Based on mazes found in formal gardens throughout Europe, the maze illustrates the life cycle of a frog via Austin artist John Maisano’s bronze sculptures, which kids are encouraged to climb. As you follow the maze, you can see a frog “develop” from egg to tadpole to adult. Grownups can climb on the sculptures, too, but can also learn which native shrubs make replacements for non-natives in home landscapes. 

Designed to encourage hands-on play, the new Family Garden features multiple opportunities to engage the senses, including touching flowers and dangling your toes in a pool that mimics Central Texas’ aquifers.When the temperatures soar in the summertime, children and adults alike are drawn to swimming holes, and so for the new Family Garden, the Wildflower Center developed watering holes to mimic Central Texas’ aquifer systems. Using a manual pump, visitors can pump water from a streambed, pour it on limestone boulders, and watch it seep down into tiny rivulets that feed a nearby pool. Be sure to look for dinosaur tracks modeled after real dinosaur tracks found in the Paluxy River at Glen Rose. And yes, you can dangle your toes in the cool water, but be considerate of the fish and other creatures that call this pond home. 

Nearby, the Family Garden’s grotto replicates a Texas Hill Country cave, complete with a waterfall that rewards pint-sized spelunkers with refreshing spray. Here, as with other spots in the garden, whimsical elements complement realism; the grotto’s walls gleam with colorful tile mosaics, and spiky yuccas growing atop the grotto create a fanciful profile Dr. Seuss likely would have approved.

When you’re ready for a break, the shady Robb Family Pavilion is the perfect spot to relax with a drink or snack. Outdoor programming also takes place at the Pavilion, creating a prime setting for concerts, workshops, classes, and the wildly popular summertime Nature Nights program, which explores topics such as snakes, wildlife tracking, fossils, and birds of prey.

Dozens of avian species make permanent and temporary homes at the Wildflower Center, and the Family Garden’s new wildlife-viewing blind features a prime spot to try to spot them. A long wall of cedar interspersed with viewing portals, the blind overlooks a small pond surrounded by numerous feeders; in the late summer, you’re likely to spy chickadees, mockingbirds, and cardinals.

Human-scaled birds’ nests made from grapevines feature wooden “eggs.”

Adjacent to the wildlife-viewing blind, a tangle of tree trunks and artfully arranged cedar limbs invite climbing, swinging, and scrambling. Then, run over to an installation of three human-scaled birds’ nests fashioned from woody mustang grapevines. Here, wooden eggs the size of watermelons inspire some creative kids to chirp and try to “hatch” them.

Since part of connecting with nature involves taking notice of details, the center included a tribute to spirals, which exist in many forms in the natural world. Nature’s Spiral, a low stone spiral set with a colorful tile mosaic, showcases this phenomenon with depictions of a snail shell, Turk’s cap blossoms, a snake, and agaves. The wall also teaches visitors about Fibonacci numbers, a pattern sometimes known as “nature’s numbering system.” Found in flower petals and seed heads, shells, and leaves, the Fibonacci sequence allows sunlight and other necessary elements to reach the entire organism.

Hopscotch games and a giant sandbox equipped with miniature shovels and buckets round out the formal attractions at the garden, but Rieff says the goal is to allow children’s imaginations to run wild. “They’ll make up things we never thought about,” she says.

That’s readily apparent on the Dry Creek Overlook, a footbridge that rises more than a story above a seasonal creek bed, where young boys were yelling “Tarzan!” during a recent visit.

Surrounded by native trees like bigtooth maple, lacey oak, and Eve’s necklace, the overlook provides an overview of both the creekbed and the Family Garden’s many enticements.

With a copious bounty of native Texas plants and aquatic, terrestrial, and aerial attractions, the Luci and Ian Family Garden is a destination that will lead people, no matter what their age, to new discoveries with every visit. “Mother used to say the joy of nature is the joy of being together and sharing it,” Johnson says.

Austin-based writer Andrea Abel spent many childhood days counting spots on ladybugs, constructing mud waterways, and building secret forts beneath backyard shrubs. Photo Editor Griff Smith says he lost track of time taking images for this story. “It was so peaceful,” he recalls, “and it was a lot of fun to watch the kids play.”

The Luci and Ian Family Garden is the newest addition to Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, at 4801 La Crosse Ave. Call 512/232-0100.

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