Soon after we moved to Raleigh, JC Raulston Arboretum became the place to take family when they came for a visit.
The arboretum, now about 10 acres, is a working research and teaching garden for N.C. State students and faculty. They focus on evaluating plants from around the world in an effort to find new ones for southern landscapes, like your backyard. That makes the arboretum stand out from other large gardens in the area.
This isn't the same as the carefully manicured landscapes of Duke Gardens, for instance. You might see plants that weren't pruned well or benches that don't match. In some cases, they are the result of student projects and research.
But what you will find is a variety of what Caroline Richardson, the arboretum's children's program coordinator, calls "garden rooms" or nooks. Some spots are shaded by tall trees with a strategically placed bench and others might have a small pond, for instance.
And while the arboretum's focus is on research, the public is more than welcome to come explore. Leaders hope to get the word out to more people that it exists so they'll visit.
Here are some of my favorite spots for kids at JC Raulston Arboretum (with a little help from Richardson, the mom of two young children):
- The White Garden. Here you'll find a couple of gazebos, lots of shade and a small grassy area. Young kids will enjoy running back and forth between the two structures and exploring.
- The Japanese Gardens. This enclosed garden includes a large, raked-stone Zen garden of contemplation along with some Japanese plants. It's OK if your kids walk on the stones, I'm told.
- The rooftop garden on top of the McSwain Education Center. It's not everyday you get to see plants and trees growing from the top of the building.
- The Ellipse. Once home to the arboretum's demonstration area, it was turned into a large, open green space a couple of years ago. It's now a great place for a picnic, a game of catch or the wearing out of young children as they run sprints back and forth.
- The Model Gardens. Here you'll find a collection of small gardens, including an area with a swinging bench and another with a small pond with stepping stones, which can be stepped on. They'll support an adult (just hang on to your kids).
- The Rose Garden. You'll find more than 200 kinds of roses here. Peak season is mid- to late-May. But I really love the gazebo covered in an explosion of tiny roses, which is in full bloom right now. Gorgeous.
- The Necessary. It's a unique looking building from the outside with a very useful purpose inside - bathrooms. There are bathrooms at both the entrance and middle of the arboretum, a wonderful thing for parents.
- The Xeric and Scree Gardens near the entrance. You'll find agave, yuccas and other dramatic plants. Your kids will think that you've returned to the time of the dinosaurs.
One thing to keep in mind when you do visit: Most of the paths are either grassy or gravel surfaces, perhaps not the easiest for some strollers.
As I wrote last month, the arboretum has launched a new series of programs for kids, starting with a very successful event a few weeks ago.
A second is planned for next month. Mayday! Mayday! is 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. May 7 at the arboretum at 4415 Beryl Rd. in Raleigh. That's the day before Mother's Day. During the event, kids can make a gift for mom, dance around a May Pole and learn about plant science too. Sounds like a great outing for kids and dads.
It's for ages 5 and up. The cost is $5 per child. Parents are admitted free. Pre-registration is required. Call 919-513-7007 to register.
And Richardson is working on a third program. Superhero Plants: Protectors of Clean Water is from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. May 21 for kids ages 8 and up with parent. The cost is $8 per child. No charge for parents. Kids will learn all about plants that protect our water from pollutants.
Preregistration also is required for this one as space is limited. Call 919-513-7007 to register.
More are in the works. Over the next year, Richardson will try out a number of programs aimed at different age levels to see what sticks.
"We're trying to figure out where we will best fit in in this environment," she tells me.
Hear more from Richardson and see some scenes of the garden in the video. And click here to go to the arboretum's website.