Interview with Luci Baines Johnson about Wildflower Center’s new Family Garden

Water feature with streams, pond, rocks, and grotto in the new children’s garden

Some of you already know this story. In early 2000, while visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with my baby daughter and 3-year-old son, I unexpectedly met Lady Bird and her daughter Luci Baines Johnson at the newly constructed Hill Country Stream, into which my son was enthusiastically chunking rocks he’d plucked from the stream’s edge. Though starstruck to see Lady Bird in her namesake garden, I was also red-faced at being caught in a bad parenting moment. At her brand-new stream, no less! Lady Bird graciously pretended not to have seen and merely inquired about the children’s ages, exclaimed over the baby, and asked whether we were enjoying the garden.

My kids at the Wildflower Center in 2001

The kids and I loved our Wildflower Center visits over the years, and from their toddlerhood through middle-school years we came to know the garden well — and even learned not to chunk rocks there. But I would have given up my babysitter’s phone number to have access to a garden designed especially for children, where they were invited to get wet and dirty, to explore and climb on things, to make-believe. Of course we did all that in our own back yard, at playgrounds, and along greenbelt creeks (where chunking rocks into the water is a compulsion for little boys), but a dedicated children’s garden that encourages nature exploration would have been a special treat.

Me & my daughter, Wildflower Center 2001

Artistic rendering of the new Family Garden at the Wildflower Center. Image courtesy of W. Gary Smith

Therefore I confess to being a little envious of today’s young parents, who soon will be able to explore with their children the new Luci and Ian Family Garden at the Wildflower Center, which is scheduled to open in May. Designed by acclaimed landscape architect W. Gary Smith, the garden’s play features include a stumpery (fanciful tree stumps), a hedge maze, a stream and pond with a hand pump and buckets nearby, a grotto hidden behind a waterfall, giant birds’ nests with wooden eggs, a spiral wall, and a 1-acre lawn (buffalograss to be eventually overseeded with Habiturf) for running, playing tag, flying kites, or whatever else kids dream up.

A young visitor explores the new water feature.

Senior director Damon Waitt says the Family Garden will be “the garden of yes” for children, with staff “play leaders” on hand to redirect any unsafe activity. One thing you won’t find in the garden are signs explaining what things are and suggesting ways to play with them. Young visitors will be entrusted with exploring in their own fashion and playing creatively in any way that interests them. Adults will be welcomed into the garden as well. In fact, outdoor exercise equipment will be provided so that adults can improve their own fitness while the kids play, if they’re not busy exploring the grotto, maze, and stumpery themselves.

Luci Baines Johnson with husband Ian Turpin. Photo courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Recently I was invited to attend a press preview of the still-under-construction garden and interview Lady Bird’s daughter Luci, who along with her husband gave the lead gift to establish the garden. Following is our email conversation, interspersed with sneak-peek images from the garden.

PP: In what ways will the children’s garden be a place where kids can cut loose from the traditional garden no-no’s: no picking, no climbing, no stepping?
LBJ: The Family Garden is designed to connect children and families to the natural world. The garden offers more than a dozen interactive features, including a small cave kids can climb inside, porous limestone pedestals for adding water to a creek, giant birds’ nests, a metamorphosis maze, a spiraling wall inlaid with mosaics, and much more.

Giant birds’ nests

LBJ: I took my granddaughter Annie to the Family Garden, and she had a delightful time exploring. You come with preconceived notions of what will be popular, and then you watch folks discovering nature in this really magical spot, and you realize that there are experiences that make your heart sing that you hadn’t anticipated. My hope is that our Family Garden will be a place where families go to play and discover. It’s about learning through discovery instead of formal instruction, and we hope it gives them a sense of excitement.

Spiral wall with Fibonacci number sequence tiled in

PP: How will the children’s garden differ from a nice playground? What makes it a complementary part of the Wildflower Center?
LBJ: What the Family Garden means to the Wildflower Center and Austin is transformation. Every time a children’s garden has been added to a botanical garden throughout the country, memberships explode. The Wildflower Center is on the cutting edge of sustainability, [its focus] the health of the environment. Future generations will come here to discover the wonder and importance of nature.

Upside-down juniper trunks will be part of the Stumpery.

PP: I grew up running around in the woods, wading in streams, and maybe you had that kind of childhood freedom too. But today so few kids, at least in the city, enjoy that level of freedom and exploration. What do you hope today’s indoor-oriented kids will get out of this garden?
LBJ: Mother’s love for the natural world came out of her being born in a rural community and having her mother die when she was five years old. She spent a lot of her early years out in the woods of East Texas. Plants, shrubs, and trees became her instructors and friends. Today our society is much more urban, and children are not outside discovering this world through nature. Nature deficit disorder is a reality.

I believe that the Family Garden will be a magical spot in the Wildflower Center, a place where all ages will enjoy coming. People in Austin love being outside, being in nature. The Family Garden speaks to the child in all of us.##

Covered pavilion and future rain garden

Note: The public grand opening of the Family Garden will be on May 4, and will include food carts, music, and fun activities. If you’re a member of the Wildflower Center (and you should be), you can attend a members’ preview on May 3.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

27 Responses

  1. Kate S. says:

    My kids are about the age that your kids were in 2000 and I am so excited and grateful that we have this resource nearby! I love that they will grow up with this.

  2. Cute kids…then, and now.
    This new garden sounds wonderful. Getting kids out, in the fresh air and nature, is such a good thing. Real, on-hands lessons, that feel like play.
    Good interview.

  3. susan harris says:

    Fabulous! I look forward to your report from the grand opening, with lots of photos.

  4. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    How lucky are the children of your area. I would love to be able to join them there.

  5. Very cool preview, and I can’t wait to hear / see more!

  6. Les says:

    I love that it is referred to as a family garden and not a children’s garden. It has a more inclusive air about it and not some place apart. And lucky you for that serendipitous run in so long ago.

  7. ricki says:

    Surely there must be some youngsters nearby that you could borrow.

  8. Jenny says:

    So nice that you have that history which connects you to the new Family Garden. Precious pictures. I was lucky to be there along with you and loved all their ideas. I am sure I will be taking my grandchildren there when they come to visit. I can’t wait to see it finished. The Wildflower Center just gets better with every passing year.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      It really does, Jenny. I’m so pleased to see the new gardens that have been added recently, including the arboretum. Now if they will start fundraising to redo the demonstration gardens with a fabulous Ten Eyck design I will be first in line to write a donation check. :-) —Pam

  9. Tina says:

    We also spent lots of time along the trails and gardens when the kids were little. Lucky are the families who will enjoy this gift of the family garden.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’m sure it will become a star attraction in Austin for families. And how much better than Chuck-E-Cheese or a McDonald’s playground. —Pam

  10. I love the first image. The water feature and hardscapes are beautiful, a real work of art. The giant bird’s nest is pretty cool, too. :) What a neat place for a child or child at heart.

  11. TexasDeb says:

    Fabulous images – can’t wait to see for myself once the crowds have come and gone. I’m gladdened to read there are spaces for children of all ages (including those of us who are simply “young at heart”) so I won’t have to hunt for a young one to tow along. I’m also quite happy to hear the expected boost in membership will help put the Center into sustainability territory. The Center is a treasure – not just for Austin but for everybody lucky enough to visit.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’m with you, TexasDeb. I also think it’s nice that tweens and teens are welcome. Sometimes older kids are excluded from children’s play spaces, which is a shame. —Pam

  12. Wonderful article and interview! I love that you met Lady Bird. She is one of my heroes! I can’t wait to come see it in person : )

  13. That was such a touching story you told! I am happy to report San Antonio Botanical Gardens is getting a family adventure garden too!!!! It sounds like it is going to be AMAZING as well. I will try to get a post out. yay to childrens gardens in south and central Texas!

    Landscape architect is Ten Eyck Landscape architects and Terra Design Studios for garden design. At least that is what the e-mail I got said! I am super excited. Hey if you work your way into a sneak preview (it’ll be a while I think) can I tag along!!!!

    cheers to the kiddos that will benefit for years to come!!!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      That’s great, Heather! I knew that Ten Eyck was working on a new entry for San Antonio Botanical Garden, but I didn’t realize a family garden too. Awesome! —Pam

  14. […] the Luci and Ian Family Garden opened on May 4, I’ve been wanting to check it out. I previewed the garden before it was completed in mid-March and could see it would be a great addition to the Lady Bird […]