The 4-H Children’s Gardens celebrate 30th anniversary

In summer 2023, the Michigan 4-H Children’s Gardens will celebrate 30 years of existence. As we mark this occasion, the Michigan 4-H Foundation is reflecting on the origins of the first garden.

Children listening to music performers
Kids join folk singer Sally Rogers for a garden singalong during the Imagination Celebration dedicating the 4-H Children’s Garden Aug. 11, 1993.

In summer 2023, the Michigan 4-H Children’s Gardens will celebrate 30 years of existence. As we mark this occasion, the Michigan 4-H Foundation is reflecting on the origins of the first garden, the early inspiration behind its creation and the dedication ceremony in August 1993. The following is a minorly adapted reprint of an article originally published in the Winter 1993 edition of Vantage.

Once upon a time, two MSU horticulture professors shared an office. One was deeply immersed in making a dream come true. The other began to think on how that dream could be expanded to include kids, too!

In 1987, Will Carlson, curator and director of the MSU Horticulture Demonstration Gardens, was trying to decide what to do with the area bordering the new MSU demonstration gardens on the south side of the MSU campus, between the parking lot and the Clarence Lewis Arboretum.

Professor Lee Taylor, Carlson’s office mate, and his wife, Jane Taylor, director of annual gifts for the Michigan 4-H Foundation, had some ideas for him. Ideas that evolved into the 4-H Children’s Garden.

The Taylors had been working with kids and gardens for many years.

“Lee was a 4-H vegetable garden leader, and I was a 4-H wildflower leader when our kids were little,” Jane said.

“I was always incorporating fun things in the garden,” she said. “I was always doing things that were a little off the wall.”

“Many kids didn’t see gardening as fun. A parent might say, ‘Go weed the garden,’ when a child didn’t clean up his room or had done something to displease the parent. Gardening was a punishment, and it shouldn’t be. It should be fun, so I did things that would make it fun,” Jane said.

In planning the 4-H Children’s Garden with Jeff Kacos, MSU assistant director of parks and planning; Deb Kinney, MSU landscape artist; and Dennis Hansen, MSU superintendent of site construction, including things that kids would find fun was the guiding principle.

“Research shows that pizza is the No. 1 choice of food in school lunch menus, so we had to have a pizza garden,” Jane said.

“Later, Disney did a survey of kids that asked their favorite foods and pizza was again No. 1, but we already knew that and had incorporated it into our plan,” she said.

“A lot of the themes in the garden came from kids of the MSU Laboratory Preschool. The kids represented 17 ethnic groups, yet regardless of their backgrounds, their ideas of a garden for them were pretty consistent.”

Their list of wants for the garden was headed by plants. Jane said the planners were glad to see this be the top concern.

Water was the second thing kids wanted most to see. The 4-H Children’s Gardens' most popular attractions are the spitting frog fountain and the “very touchable” bubble fountain.

The most surprising desire for the garden was for vegetables.

“We couldn’t believe it, but they actually wanted vegetables,” Jane said.

The kids also wanted color.

“When we asked them what colors, we were expecting the list of primary colors, but the kids mentioned 19 colors,” she said. “Now, when they get out of their parents’ cars heading to the garden, they can see the colors and you can hear the kids screaming, ‘This is my garden.’”

Another thing kids wanted to see were butterflies, so, of course, there is a butterfly theme garden. They asked that the garden have twisted paths – no straight lines – and they drew examples to be sure the designers got it right.

They said they didn’t want to see “no” signs.

“We will have a sign that limits things like roller blades, bicycles and other things that could potentially harm the garden, but those signs won’t say ‘no.’ They will welcome kids to the garden with only pictures of things that are now allowed,” Jane said.

“Public gardens in the United States have not ever actively done demonstration for children,” said Jane, who, along with her husband, worked to see that change at MSU.

They proposed the idea of a demonstration garden for children to serve as the buffer between the MSU Horticulture Gardens, the arboretum and the parking area.

“We [The Michigan 4-H Foundation and 4-H Youth Programs] asked Will if we could raise money to dedicate that area for a garden for children,” Jane said. “He agreed to dedicate $50,000 for anything underground – like drainage and electricity – if we agreed to raise money for everything aboveground. And we were off!”

More than $700,000 later – raised and contributed by 4-H clubs and councils, individuals, garden clubs, businesses, organizations, and MSU staff and faculty members – the original 4-H Children’s Garden was dedicated Aug. 11, 1993.

More than 80 children participated in the “Imagination Celebration,” which included a folk concert by MSU graduate Sally Rogers, who premiered the garden song she composed in honor of the 4-H Children’s Garden. Dian Blaine, author of the Boxcar Children Cookbook, gave a cooking demonstration featuring plants from the garden. Roger Swain, host of PBS-TV’s “Victory Garden” show, helped kids bury the “Seeds of the Future” time capsule. After rides in the Asgrow Seed Company’s hot air balloon and a garden scavenger hunt, Deanna House closed the day’s activities, helping the children create their own garden snacks.

At 4 p.m., 3,000 guests of both the 4-H Children’s Garden and the MSU Horticulture Demonstration Gardens gathered in the annual gardens to celebrate the dedication. Fred Poston, dean of the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and MSU President Gordon Guyer both heralded their opening while children dressed in pink and teal 4-H Children’s Garden T-shirts cut the ceremonial ribbons.

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