The Children’s Garden at Smiley Park

This past weekend, my wife Mindy and I traveled to northwest Ohio to visit Kylee and Romie Baumle during the Van Wert Peony Festival. I’ve been meaning to visit Kylee since last fall when we had a friendly bulb-planting competition, but our schedules didn’t coincide until now. It was a wonderful visit that included garden tours, a small town parade, and lots of conversation about plants and the people we’ve met through our garden blogs.

I plan to write several posts about the trip, but wanted to start with the Children’s Garden at Smiley Park in Van Wert. The garden is a project of the Van Wert County Master Gardeners, and its biggest proponent and supporter is none other than Kylee’s mother, Louise Hartwig.

Louise met us at the entrance to the garden, where she’d been working in the mid-day heat and humidity. We’d had the chance to meet Louise earlier this year at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, so weren’t surprised that she has played a large part in making the Smiley Park Children’s Garden a success. She proudly pointed out that the funding to support the garden was entirely private monetary donations or donations of goods and services from local businesses.

I was instantly impressed by the flowing lines of the garden, the use of bright colors, and variety of plants and structures to engage the children who visit. The garden is open to the public on a daily basis, but is also used for scheduled workshops and educational opportunities for the community.

The Butterfly House sits directly down the main path from the entrance. Painted bright pink and chartreuse, it brightly stands out from the surrounding garden, but is complemented perfectly by Petunia and Lysimachia in the window boxes. Built at a child’s scale, we adults had to duck to enter the house.

The backside of the butterfly house is screened to let in light and air and to keep the butterflies inside. Butterfly-attracting plants such as this Lantana are planted inside the house as food for the butterflies. There were no butterflies during our visit. The butterfly house is one of the main focal points of the garden, but also a microcosm of the challenges the garden faces as a public space. At one point after the butterfly house was installed, vandals broke through the screens and smashed every butterfly and chrysalis in the house. This incident and others have led to security cameras being installed throughout the garden.

One of my favorite spots in the the garden was a small area called Melody’s Secret Garden, where an arched entranceway covered by a climbing rose welcomes visitors to a mulched oval that includes two weeping mulberries. As I climbed in under the low-hanging branches, the famous children’s song and nursery rhyme Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush kept echoing through my head.

On the backside of the butterfly house is perhaps the most clever use of boxwood I’ve ever seen. With the addition of a few colored pipes, this undulating boxwood hedge morphs into a caterpillar garden.

Louise has been able to get plants for the garden from a variety of sources, but there is a common thread. There’s not a boring plant in the garden. A rainbow of colors and sensory overload of textures keep the eye moving from place to place — essential for keeping the interest of small children.

The plants aren’t the only points of interest. Statuary serves as visual interest for visitors both young and old. Roscoe the Rhino stands guard in the International Garden.

As I mentioned to Louise several times as she gave me a personal tour of all the areas of the garden, I was thoroughly impressed that a town the size of Van Wert could support such a huge endeavior as the Children’s Garden at Smiley Park. That support is largely due to the efforts of Louise Hartwig, who has deftly and tirelessly worked to make the garden what it is today.

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