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No Ordinary Walk in the Park

By Jenny Boyle, regional editor

The Discovery Tree, shown from both the front and back views, is the central and most interactive feature in Highfield Discovery Garden. Children can enter the tree through its mouth and peer out of the eyes. Once inside, they can climb up transfer platforms to the second level, which has a deck on the outside and features a periscope that looks up through one of the tree-house pieces. At the top level of the tree, youngsters get a panoramic “bird’s eye view” of the garden and pond. The tree stands at 23 feet tall and its canopy reaches 25 feet wide. All three levels of the tree were specifically designed to be wheelchair accessible and the entire surrounding area is covered with a 12-inch layer of rubberized, shredded mulch, to ensure that kids have a soft landing, should they trip or fall while playing.
PHOTO COURTESY OF Hamilton County Parks District, Ohio.

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Life-size amphibians, clouds that rain on command and a fire-breathing dragon are just a few of the wonders kids will encounter when they visit Highfield Discovery Garden, near Cincinnati, Ohio. As the newest addition to Glenwood Gardens–a 335-acre expanse of land that was partially donated by two prominent Ohio families to the Hamilton County Parks District–Highfield Discovery Garden provides a unique learning experience by combining classic children’s stories with natural surroundings. Tim Zelek, a registered landscape architect and staff member in the park district’s planning department, takes us on a tour through this whimsical children’s garden.

When the park district’s planning team decided to develop a portion of land within Glenwood Gardens, designers entertained every idea from building a golf course to designing a wedding facility.

Their final decision to create a themed children’s garden gave life to a magical learning environment that has kids and parents returning again and again. But, Zelek explains, the end result only came about after much research and careful planning.

“We’d been looking at children’s gardens for a number of years,” he says, noting the many ideas they went through before coming to a decision. “It seemed like a very viable option.”

Zelek says the team was drawn to the popularity of other children’s gardens and there really wasn’t one in the area. They also found that the location of a garden within the Ohio River Valley provided a major programming element. The potential to center programs around native plants and animals played a large part in the ultimate decision to build the garden.

Park planners spent four years coming up with the design for Highfield Discovery Garden. They visited children’s gardens around the country to gain inspiration and to learn from the experiences of those establishments. The park’s six themed gardens each relate to classic children’s stories. The whole design is meant to combine learning about nature with reading, in a mutually-reinforcing manner.

The Plan

Planning for Highfield Discovery Garden took approximately four years and involved staff members from every department at the park district. Initially, the staff visited children’s gardens throughout the United States to generate ideas and learn from the experiences of other agencies.

“We actually went back to the Hershey Children’s Garden a number of times because it seemed to be the closest to the concept of what we wanted ours to be,” says Zelek.

Because the Hershey garden was comparable in size, and was very interactive, Zelek and the rest of the team found much of their starting inspiration from it. Since the conception of the idea to create a children’s garden, the team knew that it had to be educational, as well as fun and “cool.” Early brainstorming sessions provided many ideas outside the realm of a basic nature center.

Larger than life garden features are found throughout the park. This mushroom, like many of the features, was made by Jennings, Inc. using special foam. The pieces were built down in Nashville, Tenn., then cut apart, shipped up to Cincinnati, and put back together again.

“We wanted a storybook garden,” explains Zelek. “So we went through various classic children’s stories and looked to see how we could implement them into the gardens.”

Zelek says they came up with the idea to have books available in the gardens and also at the visitor’s center and gift shop so that children could relate the different gardens to the actual books. The whole design is meant to combine learning about nature with reading, in a mutually reinforcing manner.

A Stroll Through the Garden

Several themes were discussed during the planning stages and eventually the team chose six distinct gardens that would surround a 23-foot “Discovery Tree.” As visitors enter the garden, a woodland path leads them across a suspension bridge to the first of the six areas–the Wizard’s Garden. Zelek says the inspiration for this garden came from the popular Harry Potter books.

“We wanted to incorporate things that seemed to relate to wizards,” he says.

They designed a 12-foot “fire-breathing” topiary dragon with red impatiens that billow out of his mouth like flames, and a larger-than-life wizard’s hat that serves as a backdrop for the occasional nature lesson. Zelek says they also tried to incorporate owls into this area because the nocturnal birds are often associated with wizardry.

Grandma’s Tea House and Scent Garden was created especially for hearing and visually impaired children. When coming up with a design, park planners capitalized on scents and textures, rather than colorful objects. The pavement is textured differently with flagstone to indicate special features, and a porch swing provides a place to relax for a few moments. Fragrant plantings include sweet woodruff, sweetbay magnolia, sweetpepper bush, oregano, spicebush, butterfly bush, fairy rose, sassafras, feather reed grass, and more.

They even brought in a naturalist with a live owl as part of the programming on the park’s opening day.

Continuing along, visitors enter the Trolley Garden, where four trains chug along through different fairy tale scenes, all made from natural materials such as willow branches and cedar bark. Zelek says this garden was based on “The Little Engine that Could,” “Thomas the Tank Engine,” and a little of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” The four trains travel past the Old Women Who Lived in a Shoe, the Three Little Pigs’ homes and more. Children can also go into the Train Depot, which lets them push big, colorful buttons to control the trains.

“There’s activity in as many of the gardens as we could get it in,” says Zelek.

Moving along the path, children and their parents will discover caterpillars and butterflies in the Morph and Butterfly Garden. Based on the children’s classics, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Waiting for Wings” and “Butterfly House,” the garden is shaped like a butterfly and filled with plants that attract butterflies and their larva. Zelek says plantings include willows, which look like a caterpillar when they are grown, feather reed grass, sunflower, oxeye daisy, grey goldenrod, stonecrop, anise hyssop, swamp milkweed, and several other butterfly-attracting varieties.

To the left of the Butterfly Garden stands Grandma’s Teahouse. This fanciful little building is flanked by a white picket fence and porch swings and surrounded by aromatic plants that were specifically selected for children who have physical disabilities that inhibit one or more of their senses, such as sight or hearing.

The name of the garden and logo are sandblasted into granite preserved from a landmark Cincinnati building that burned in the early 1900s. The granite, which was cut into hundreds of various ornate shapes for its original use, is used throughout Glenwood Gardens to identify individual gardens. This piece is intended to suggest a garden caterpillar.

“We were already making the garden handicap accessible,” says Zelek. “We thought there should be something for the visual and hearing impaired too.”

The team took the idea from the book, “Knots on a Counting Rope,” a story about a blind child.

Next to the Scent Garden is the Garden Workshop where children can make crafts, pot plants, and learn about the weather. Designers took an existing three-car garage on the property and turned it into the rabbit-themed workshop, based loosely on “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!” and “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” It serves as a small classroom for different programming.

Outside the Garden Workshop is the Vegetable Garden, where topiary rabbits nibble on the sprouts of tomatoes, peppers, carrots and other veggies. Though there was not much planted in the garden in its first season, Zelek said the hope is to eventually get kids involved in actual planting. For now, kids can “garden” in the sand box with kid-sized tools and watering cans. They can also make “rain” fall from clouds attached to the roof of the Garden Workshop. A barrel catches the rain and the children can scoop it out with pails to water the ground.

The last of the six garden areas is Frog and Toad’s Pond. Comprised of amphibian-attracting plants, the pond was inspired by the “Frog and Toad” books.

An existing home on the property was renovated and now provides a setting for a visitor’s center and gift shop, as well as a meeting room and offices for staff. The layout of the house remained the same with a large great room serving as the primary shopping area, filled with educational toys, artwork and garden accessories. Outside,1,100 square feet of clay pavers and 3,500 square feet of tumbled concrete pavers lead visitors into the center. The planters feature seven sons shrub, cordyline ‘red sensation,’ pretoria canna, blue vein double wave petunias, optic fibre grass, gazania, gaillardia, white million bells, sunbini sanvitalia, and variegated vinca vine.

Zelek says the water is kept heated year-round to avoid freezing in the winter and it is fitted with a special filtration system that zaps algae using ultra-violet light.

“We don’t use chemicals because we don’t want to harm the frogs and turtles that live there,” he explains.

Interestingly enough, Zelek says the creatures that inhabit the pond found their own way there.

“Pretty soon after the pond was installed, the frogs just kind of showed up,” he says.

The real-life versions of Frog and Toad were an unexpected, but perfect addition, offering kids the opportunity to view amphibians up-close.

The six theme gardens surround the Discovery Tree, a 23-foot high “tree” made mainly of foam around a wood base. With three different levels and a 25-foot canopy, Zelek says the tree is the most interactive part of Highfield.

“This was the iconic piece of the garden,” he says.

The idea for the central tree feature came from “The Giving Tree,” and “The Magic Tree House” series. Zelek says the design is completely wheelchair accessible, offering ramped walkways to every portion of the tree. The entire tree was built in a kid-friendly manner, though adults shouldn’t have too hard a time crouching to follow their children up the different levels.

Visitors exit through Cotswold Visitor Centre and Nature’s Niche Store, the park district’s gift shop, and former home of the Burchenal family. Within the center, children can play games on the Highfield Discovery website,, or read a story in the “book nook.”

Based on the classic “Frog and Toad” children’s books, the Frog and Toad Pond features amphibian-attracting plants such as water plantain; water lily; Japanese, yellow, and Siberian iris; butter-bur; rose mallow and lizard’s tail, to name a few. The majority of the pond is less than 12 inches deep. The deep section, which is 48 inches deep, has a false bottom made of wire mesh on metal framework. This allows fish to swim down into the deeper area, but still maintains a depth of less than 18 inches for the safety of children.


The former owners of the site, the families of Mr. Sam Benedict and Mrs. Mary Burchenal, generously donated the land and funding that enabled the Hamilton County Park District to create Highfield Discovery Garden. Zelek’s team put a focus on preserving as many of the existing landscape features as possible for the new development. Deciding where to put the children’s garden proved to be the biggest challenge. Glenwood Gardens is tucked behind a busy suburban strip mall. It was determined the area surrounding the homes of the former owners provided an excellent setting, due to the character of the buildings and relationship to potential future development of Glenwood Gardens. The location also lends itself well to potential future expansion. Once the site was selected, another difficulty came in arranging all of the gardens into the space allotted. As the design evolved, the Discovery Tree became the centerpiece of the garden and was surrounded by other theme gardens.

Zelek says another major challenge was construction of a garden that required many different forms of specialty construction. There were eight separate bid packages with multiple contractors simultaneously working on the garden, including the Cotswold Visitor Centre, the Garden Workshop, garden infrastructure, landscaping, the Discovery Tree, the Garden Railway team and demolition.

“Coordination was the biggest issue,” he says. “We had people crawling over each other.”

Through careful scheduling and on site coordination, Zelek says many conflicts were systematically avoided.

The Trolley Garden–shown here at night with low voltage lighting–was made almost entirely of natural materials. All the trestles were done with willow branches and the small houses were built with leaves and cedar bark, which were the leftovers from a sawmill. The depot in the background offers kids a place to “control” the display by pushing large colorful buttons that activate train whistles, crossing lights and one of the trains

Happily Ever After

It was almost immediately clear that Highfield Discovery Garden was a hit. In just six weeks, total revenue generated by Highfield Discovery Garden had exceeded $100,000 and in its first three months, the park’s visitation exceeded 18,000 people and over 3,600 family passes were purchased. As the summer waned to fall, more and more visitors flashed their worn family passes before entering the garden. Interest has only continued to grow as new features and programs are introduced.

“It’s been fabulous,” says Zelek. “It has way exceeded our expectations as far as the people who have come and since returned.”

Since the park’s opening, Zelek has come back to observe how young visitors interact with the garden features and also to address any unforeseen challenges.

“[Kids are] climbing on a lot more things than we thought,” he says, noting that every “fall zone” is layered with rubberized mulch to keep children from being injured. “We also didn’t anticipate the need for stroller parking which has brought about a lot discussion.”

The shaded boardwalk leads to a suspension bridge that hangs over a 30-foot swale, about 48 inches off the ground. Woven rope safety netting lines the bridge, which was built with four-by-six-inch wood planks. The bridge connects the park entrance to the Wizard’s Garden.

In addition to meetings concerning the lack of stroller parking areas, the team has been in talks about how to deal with some unwanted visitors.

“We have a lot of deer that are becoming a problem because they like to eat the flowers that are blooming,” he says. “We might have to put in a 10-foot deer fence.”

Aside from these minor issues, the garden has been an overwhelming success. The garden fulfills the staff’s original vision to create a unique, changing, inspirational garden experience that promotes stewardship of natural resources through engagement of children in education, interpretative play and fun. Highfield Discovery Garden also provides the community with a fitting tribute to the Burchenal and Benedict families. Zelek couldn’t be more pleased.

“It has just been a tremendous success,” he says.

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December 6, 2019, 1:46 pm PDT

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