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The Story Garden: Entering the Magical World of Books…for Real!

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

The Entry Arbor welcomes visitors of all ages to the Story Garden. Spanning the arbor is an original design by Michael Haas and local artist, Barry Baldridge, containing the name of the garden and representations of characters from children’s literature.
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Imagine being able to read a story, then walk through a door and end up in that very story. Imagine being able to become one of the characters. Imagine being able to change the outcome--make it better...make it funny...mix it up with another story and have all the characters from both interact. Talk about fun!


The Story Garden’s Celebration Tree, designed and created by sculptor, Tino Ferro, is a cast steel sculpture, with a sizable foundation that won’t fall over if climbed. Says landscape architect Michael Haas, “The tree is indicative of the one every child draws. It’s a scribble tree. The artist had a contorted pile of copper piping—and when we saw it in the scrap yard, we said ‘Use that for the canopy.’”

The Story Garden, designed by Michael Haas, RLA, ASLA principal of HAAS Landscape Architects, is an interactive children’s garden located on a three-quarter acre parcel at the Discovery Center, a hands-on children’s museum in Binghamton, NY. The Story Garden offers 13 vignettes focused on literary themes and provides opportunities for educational programming in association with the Discovery Center. The mission of The Story Garden is to reflect the mission of the Discovery Center in a garden setting, spark the imagination through interactive experiences with images from favorite stories, encourage the reading of children’s literature by children and adults, and foster a love and appreciation of gardens. All the gardens provide universal access. Another unique feature of the garden is that it is free to the public.

“I think I can! I think I can!” is the theme of The Determination Garden. A train handcar, set on tracks, winds its way toward a mineshaft. Visitors may re-enact the story of Casey Jones, the heroic engineer, or the Little Engine That Could. Precast vaults serve as a tunnel for the handcar or a mineshaft to explore and create a sense of anticipation.The climbing wall is limited to children by height.

In 2004, the Junior League of Binghamton commissioned HAAS Landscape Architects (HLA) to develop a Master Plan for an interactive children’s garden, based on literary themes and located at the Discovery Center. Michael Haas assisted them with site selection and development of a solid program to establish the theme and mission of the Garden and a Master Plan. Mr. Haas was retained to proceed with design development once fundraising was underway.

Set on the edge of The Wild Woods, the Three Bears’ House lets the child enter the world of Goldilocks. They use this log cabin storage unit for the Three Bears House in summer—and it goes back to being a storage unit in the winter.

“We provided a list of sustainable, non-toxic plantings,” says Haas, “Children are very hands on so they wanted to make sure all the new plantings were determined to be non toxic to humans. That limited the palette in some cases. They didn’t review movable pots which are loaded up with annuals. However, all perennials, woody shrubs and trees are safe. We requested a list from Cornell University, and they suggested plants such as Viburnum, iris and ornamental grasses, as well as some switchgrass, some Chinese fountain grasses, blue fescue, and miscanthus and maiden grass. Some of the plantings are edible. There is an orchard in the Four Seasons Garden. We planted apple and crab apple trees.

The visitor passes through an opening in a large book to an area where the spatial scale makes them feel very small, seated in an oversized Adirondack chair or crawling through a 5-foot flower pot cast by Brian Davis. Extra large vases hold flowers with extra large blooms. Dig into the mulch and discover giant flower seeds. Bright primary colors are featured on the structures.

The Story Garden became a showcase for many local artists, including sculptors, painters, and craftsmen. In the Story Garden children are able to actually enter the world of some of their favorite books. Children’s books have been laminated and are located throughout the garden for visitors to read and enjoy.

The dry “pond” in The Friendship Garden, made of Pea Stone Gravel, gives the illusion of a small pond, complete with a boat, dock, and talk-tube. Rounded boulders are carefully placed along the edge and inter-planted with ornamental grasses, sedges, and lilies. Book Nooks, containing children’s books for use by visitors, are placed throughout the garden.

“The site was actually owned by the city of Binghamton which has an agreement with the Discovery Center,” says Haas. “They mow the lawn and patch the parking area, re-stripe, etc. Once it was decided this would be the site of the Story Garden, they had to go back to the city to use the site, the city agreed on condition that the Discovery Center would maintain the grounds, though not the parking lot.”

Water has been used sparingly, with the Frog Pump as a manual interactive feature. “We ran a separate line to the frog pump, which is a big draw. Children can pump the handle to get water. There is a pedestal with watering cans so kids can water the plants and vegetables in the Peter Rabbit Garden.”

In The Welcome Homes Garden, creatively designed bird and other creature homes dot the landscape. Tree stumps, made of polymer concrete, can be used as seats as the old man did in The Giving Tree, or as a talk-tube to communicate to friends in another garden. Children are encouraged to climb into the nest and read. They may know the story of Stellaluna, whose mother never stopped looking for him, or they may use the nest as an opportunity to study the habits of mother birds. Additional nesting vines are available to adapt this home.

The Four Seasons Garden contains the Creation Station and a vegetable garden to be prepared by spring visitors. The Creation Station provides several sets of tables and seats and is shaded by a fabric canopy. This area can be used as a classroom to explore planting, create crafts, or as an eating area for a visiting group.

“The Creation Station Pavilion, which is furnished with tables and chairs, has programs planned around the garden,” says Haas. “Children particpate in the planting. Early in spring they do a potting. The plants grow in the Pavilion and when they are big enough, they move it all outside. In the fall, there are pumpkins, red tomatoes and beans growing up the fence. The children can see the fruits of their labors. The wonderful thing is the garden has never been vandalized. People respect the garden.”

Adjacent to the Creation Station is a vegetable garden surrounded by a gated picket fence. Visitors can see a variety of plants growing, and may recall Peter Rabbit’s adventure in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Composting bins and storage shed complete the area - a must for any garden! Whimsical sculptures by Tino Ferro, such as this water pump frog, can be found throughout the garden.

The site was challenging with 10 to 15 percent slopes covering about one-third of the Garden. The initial challenge was convincing everyone to use the present site. They had originally chosen a much steeper site. “We were able to convince them that it wasn’t accessible and they would blow their budget on retaining walls,” says Haas. “This site was much better. Although one third of the site has slopes in the range of 15 percent. That created a design challenge regarding accessibility and designing features keeping the slope in mind. The Amphitheater was built right into the slope. We turned disadvantages into advantages. The Secret Hideaway Garden wall was built right into the slope. The Determination Garden allowed us to build the mine shaft right into the slope. The Tree Fort has four accessible points that use the slope. We took the constraints and made them into assets.”

The crosswalk area from the Discovery Center to the Story Garden is identified by patterned asphalt to clearly articulate the crossing to both visitors and pedestrians. It also serves as the drop-off zone for children. Michael Haas worked with the installer to design the steel templates used to create the flowers.

The existing loop access drive with parking surrounding the space could not be impacted. A colorful pavement design was created in the asphalt at the drop-off for the Discovery Center to alert drivers of the crosswalk to the Garden entrance. Says Haas, “Since the site is encircled by a loop drive and parking. We had to get the children past that into the garden. The crosswalk is well defined, with a 20-foot wide crosswalk with painted flowers. It’s very visible that this is a public access/crosswalk.”

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be as big as a giant…or as small as a rabbit? A two-part garden, Giant Country & Tiny Town provides experiences in both. The visitor can pretend that she/he has fallen down the rabbit hole and see what Alice in Wonderland saw. The visitor towers over miniature buildings such as houses and a replica of the local County library. A checkerboard surface adds to the illusion of scale and extends into the mural, painted by Nancy Ryan.

All major existing trees were saved. “We felt it was important to sustain the irreplaceable mature trees such as pin oaks, red oaks, Austrian pine and maple,” says Haas.” We designed with those existing trees in mind. They gave us shade and helped define spaces. We designed the Tree Fort around an oak tree, which isn’t mature yet, however when it is, it will be quite majestic. You feel as if you’re already up in the canopy. This also helped the budget, as well. It saved the cost of 15 to 18 trees.

A Tree House in The Adventure Garden can bring to mind the adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson or Jack and Annie with their Magic Treehouse. Visitors may enter from below, the side or from the handicap-accessible pathway above. The outcrop of boulders and a rustic bridge provide opportunities for physical activity and creative play, perhaps trip-trapping across the bridge trying to outsmart the ogre as one of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Hidden treasure awaits the curious observer. The Tree House provides a focal point to the visitor and takes advantage of the existing slope and adjacent Oak tree.

The Storytime Garden also features a human sundial in the stage plaza below. During opening ceremony, Haas said to a child, ‘Stand on the month of the year and look at a number in the pavement and tell me what time it is.’ “The child got it exactly right. We worked with a company out of Scotland, Modern Sunclocks, that specializes in helping you lay out mathematically a human sun dial for both daylight savings and standard time, so there are two arcs of numbers in the pavement. A plaque explains how it’s used.”

Working with the many artisans proved challenging as their work was constantly monitored and altered for child safety.

The Secret Hideaway Garden is reminiscent of an English Country Garden similar to the one found in The Secret Garden. A wood door in an ivy-covered wall, slightly ajar, gives a visitor a glimpse of the garden on the other side. The view of the garden was painted by local artist, Mary Grassi. A garden bench is available for rest and contemplation.

Says Hass, “Just listening to the children’s conversations and the excitement in their voices is great. “Come look at this! ‘Look there’s books in the mailboxes!’ ‘Check this out.’ ‘Hey, this thing moves!’ They love to explore. It’s such a gem in our community and people have really tipped their hats to the creativity that went into the making of the garden.”

Educators realize that there are different learning styles and motivational needs. The child of today needs visual, kinesthetic, and tactile experiences in addition to other means to promote learning. The total-sensory experience of the Story Garden offers all of these opportunities to excite the child in every one of us. What a unique way to get a good book in the hand of an eager child!

Says Haas, “It was truly a collaborative effort from the beginning and with the contractors. We were involved from the beginning to the end which is the way a landscape architect should work. And it’s so rewarding to see the gardens mature year after year and seeing the kids using it every which way imaginable. It has met its mission: allowing the discovery center to grow and expand.”

“Just listening to the children’s conversations and the excitement in their voices is great. “Come look at this! ‘Look there’s books in the mailboxes!’ ‘Check this out.’ ‘Hey, this thing moves!’ They love to explore."


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June 18, 2019, 6:46 pm PDT

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