Just days before the formal grand opening in May of Atlanta Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, staff and contractors scurried around, completing the finishing touches on this lush woodland oasis in North Georgia and adding signage. The director of the garden, Mildred Fockele, was getting ready to place a tiny fairy village in the train garden, surrounded by colorful annual flowers. But first Mildred and Atlanta Botanical Garden’s President and CEO, Mary Pat Matheson, took the time to give me a personal tour. Atlanta’s Fox 5 News was also at the garden that morning. The opening of a new botanical garden is a major event, and media and horticulturalists from all over the state took notice.
After a decade of planning and planting, Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville is now open to the public, and you will want to make plans to visit it soon. When fully developed, the garden will expand throughout 168 acres of serene woodland scenery, making it five times the size of the downtown Atlanta urban garden.
The land for the garden was donated in 2002 by Gainesville philanthropists and conservationists Charles and Lessie Smithgall, and the garden is known as “A Smithgall Woodland Legacy.” Mrs. Smithgall, who is now 104 and lives adjacent to the garden, attended the grand opening in May. President Jimmy Carter personally contacted Mrs. Smithgall to thank her for her generous donation to the state of Georgia.
The first phase of the garden, which encompasses over five acres and cost about $21 million, features the Kay & Douglas Ivester Visitor Center, which sits on the highest point of the terrain. Spacious and comfortable, the center includes outdoor seating on the patio, situated around a fireplace with view of a forest pond. Available for rental, it’s a lovely space for events and weddings.
Also included in the initial phase is a 2000-seat amphitheater where outdoor concerts will be held, a model train garden, stream garden featuring a waterfall cascading over huge boulders, and five acres of display garden that highlight over 1,200 different plants, 400 of which were grown on-site in the new conservation nursery. While not open to the public, the conservation nursery’s mission is to preserve threatened and endangered plants in the Southeast and to grow plants for the Gainesville and Atlanta botanical gardens.
Mildred Fockele has concentrated on four groups of plant collections to enhance color and interest in every season in the garden. In spring, visitors will enjoy over 300 varieties of deciduous magnolias, along with lilacs and native azaleas. Summer brings the stunning blooms of 270 varieties of hydrangeas. Eighty different types of understory maple trees and late-blooming perennials take center stage in the fall for vibrant fall foliage and bloom color. In the winter, guests will enjoy 75 varieties of witch hazels. Mildred encourages visitors to watch the garden develop over the years. “Come to the garden now and come back to watch it grow and fill in,” she says. “It is a great pleasure watching it mature.” The gardens are connected by wide, easy-to-stroll pathways with seating throughout to encourage lingering.
A children’s garden, native plant garden, waterfall garden, and student training and education center are part of future expansion. Cultural activities are already scheduled for summer and fall. On the amphitheater’s expansive lawn, concertgoers can listen to the Motown sound of The Temptations on July 11 and the country music vibe of Scotty McCreery, an American Idol winner, on July 17. A “Wine and Woodlands” series is hosted the last Thursday evening of every month through October. Kids of all ages will enjoy Art with LEGO Bricks by Sean Kenney that will run from September 18 to January 3.
Mary Pat Matheson, CEO of Atlanta Botanical Garden, urges those of us on the southside of Atlanta to make a day trip to Gainesville, enjoy the garden and other local amenities. “Come be a tourist in your own state,” says Mary Pat. “Enjoy the beautiful setting of our woodland garden and then have a great lunch in Gainesville and take in the art, history, and kids’ activities.” I actually took Mary Pat’s advice after visiting the garden. My husband and I ate a scrumptious lunch at the highly-recommended Atlanta Highway Seafood Market, and then we strolled through the historic downtown to discover a nice mix of shops and restaurants.
General admission to the Gainesville garden is $8. Those who purchase the $69 annual membership to Atlanta Botanical Garden will enjoy unlimited admission to both the in-town urban garden and the Gainesville woodland garden. For more information, go to atlantabg.org