I recently retired from the San Antonio Botanical Garden after more than 25 years there. I like to say I was there long enough to see my hair turn silver and a beautiful garden evolve. It was my special delight to see the Garden step into its role as a place for families to connect with nature. And don’t mistake the past tense in that last sentence – the Garden will always be at the center of my heart.
What the Garden offers our community is wide ranging: a place where we could all learn about better landscaping practices, a place where cultural experiences range from family exhibits (watch for the Nature Connects exhibit featuring LEGO bricks this upcoming Tricentennial year) to outdoor sculpture, and where kids can make that all-important, needed connection to nature. It’s a place where architecture meets landscape and a place to spread a picnic with friends.
With an amazing new eight-acre expansion on the brink of opening, the Garden is poised to step up as one of the finest regional gardens in the nation. The project is cutting edge, sustainably designed, and programmatically advanced. More about that later.
When I came onboard at the Garden in 1991 as a board member, I found it a place where I could engage. I was at a transition point in my life, and the Garden gave me an outlet for volunteering and channeling my creative energy. Soon I was involved with the newsletter, something I continued until this past May when I edited my final one. For 12 years in that era, I served as managing director of the nonprofit organization, and in the last few years have worked primarily in community relations.
As I said in the opening, I have delighted in the Garden finding its identity by connecting with families. I will never forget the 2002 “Dinosaurus Tex” exhibit, when for three months the incessant squeals of delight from little dinosaur fans made the Garden come alive across the city. We saw what a difference an outdoor exhibit like this could do to create a special draw, a reason to come back for a visit. Of course, the Garden showcases the changing beauty of nature every day. It’s just that humans enjoy that extra stimulation that an exhibit about “Big Bugs,” carnivorous plants, or a rainforest can deliver. Ultimately, the exhibits challenge all of us to be better stewards of our environment because we learn the importance of protecting the natural world.
And I found that photography was always a dynamic connector. The Garden is rich with photo opportunities and I loved taking photos from early morning to dusk, whether it was capturing the beauty of fall leaves at the lake or photographing summer camp activities, Dog Days weekends, or evening events like “Brews and Blooms” or “Flowers and Fireworks.”
My favorite part of the Garden has always been the native area. Called the Texas Native Trail, this 11-acre area includes everyone’s favorite spot: the one-acre, tree-lined lake with an 1850s log cabin. For me, perfection is sitting on that porch and taking the long view across the lake. I have never tired of that view – or seeing the ducks make a calculated v-formation sail to check out a potential feeding opportunity.
The Bird Watch is another favorite spot. It’s at the farthest reach of the Garden, all the way at the back of the South Texas trail. Modeled after the birding blind/barn at Pedernales State Park, this viewing space gives humans the perfect perch to watch birds splashing in the trough out front or tasting some citrus that volunteers have generously tended. We humans can enjoy the view from inside a simulated open-air cattle holding pen, with a mirrored glass front. I’ll never forget seeing a painted bunting enjoying a splash early one morning.
One surprise about the award-winning Children’s Vegetable Garden is the hike to get there. I recommend taking the path that peers down over the conservatory courtyard and leads to the 65’ Palm House, the tallest of the five conservatory glasshouses. Veer left and you’ll see the handsome Cactus and Succulent Garden, a desert in bloom with seasonal wildflowers, soaring yucca, and exotic cacti. Just before reaching the Children’s Vegetable, turn around and look back at the futuristic conservatory complex, framed by the handsome desert specimens. It’s a spectacular view – and one that I’ve shown many a visitor.
And then of course, you arrive at one of the oldest children’s vegetable gardens at a botanical garden. Since 1982, generations of youngsters have spent their Saturday mornings each fall and spring learning to grow vegetables. Radishes are some of the first veggies planted since they assure relatively instant “crunch” gratification for the young gardeners. Under the supervision of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Bexar County Master Gardeners and other volunteers mentor the art and science of gardening for kids ages 8-13.
I am leaving the Garden just as an amazing new project is about to open. Expanding our footprint by almost eight acres, the new project creates a brand new entrance experience for guests, and, I might add, expanded parking as well. With architecture subordinate to landscape, the new entrance invites guests to pass through canyon-like walls which hold within new classrooms and an exploration station offering orientation to the Garden’s 38 acres. Access to culinary beds and an outdoor teaching kitchen/pavilion introduces an array of new programming opportunities that embrace health and wellness, including the exciting Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) initiative.
If you know who Richard Louv is, you know that he would be a fan of our new 2.5-acre Family Adventure Garden. His books Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle extol the benefits of nature for all of us.
Engaging children in nature at an early age gives them confidence, improving mental and physical health. Nature play opens their eyes to the importance of protecting and preserving nature, cultivating a sense of environmental stewardship in them. This new space is a unique “take” on hands-on nature experiences for San Antonio, from its Thunder Ridge to Prickly Pear Peak and Huisache Way. I think kids, their parents, and their grandparents are going to love it.
If you want a sneak peek of the new expansion, just drive up Pinckney Street toward Ft. Sam Houston and get a closer look at the new entrance layout, the outdoor teaching kitchen and culinary gardens, and the state-of-the-art Family Adventure Garden. Come Oct. 21, Funston will re-open at North New Braunfels Avenue, inaugurating this new entrance sequence.
Broadway is becoming an amazing cultural corridor, with The Pearl stimulating a creative burst all along the way. After two years of construction – and decades of thoughtful planning – the Botanical Garden takes one giant, exciting step toward its own transformation. Enjoy the old – and celebrate the new with the expansion’s grand opening. I know that I’ll be there.