Like seedlings in the garden

Growth: City youngsters delight in the chance to observe nature abloom and learn at Ladew Topiary Gardens.

April 30, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

On this sunny morning at Harford County's Ladew Topiary Gardens, 24 Baltimore second-graders peered uncertainly through plastic magnifiers at soggy lumps of lima beans in their palms.

"Eeeeeeuuuuuuw," several of the Barclay Elementary School pupils exclaimed as they crowded together on a rug in the book-lined studio near the main house.

"They are a little cool and a little wet," reassured Rae Ann McInnis, an instructor for Ladew's children's education program, which began its spring season this week.

The 250-acre estate near Jarrettsville, created by Harvey S. Ladew, a 20th-century fox hunter and philanthropist from New York, was taken over in the 1970s by a nonprofit foundation charged by Ladew with keeping up the 22 acres of gardens for public enjoyment and education.

So in 1995, as part of that mission, the foundation worked with donors and educators to create programs about horticulture geared toward students, especially those in city schools who might not have the opportunity to visit a public garden. Today, students come from city and county schools during the spring and fall to study such topics as seeds, trees, wetlands and conservation.

"On the basis of a broader educational program, it's really important to have something to meet every age group," said Emily Emerick, Ladew's executive director. "This is the perfect way to offer something for children. It's also fun for us -- we see things in a whole new way every time they come."

Take the "bush dogs," as Dante Dunstan, 7, dubbed some of the topiary in "The Hunt Scene," a collection of greenery groomed to model a horse and rider tracking hounds and a fox.

"I think they're cute," said Dante, who visited with his classmates Monday. "When I saw the old man chasing the dogs, I thought they were farm dogs." He thought they were grass dogs, too, he said, until he thought about it and realized grass "doesn't usually stand up."

Ta-Shaz Garris, 8, wagered that it could take as long as, say, 10 months, to create topiary. As she walked through a meadow below Ladew's estate house, she ticked off her favorite things about the field trip, including frogs and fish and light splashing across a tiny waterfall in the Iris Garden.

"Most places, you don't see a lot of animals," she said.

For many of the city schoolchildren, the Ladew trip is their first outside Baltimore. Last year, Emerick said, only two of the 78 Barclay pupils who visited had ever ventured beyond the city limits.

Helping inner-city children "see the world outside the confines of the city" has been one of the strongest draws for the program's principal donor, the T. Rowe Price Associates Foundation, said Christine Stein, the foundation's program director. T. Rowe Price has invested more than $50,000 in the Ladew children's education program since its inception, she said.

"It's a very well-run and well-received program," Stein said.

Sharon Irons, a teacher at Barclay who took part in the Ladew program for the first time last year, said students are very excited about coming on the field trip to learn about seeds.

"I think it's very informative for the children," Irons said. "They get to really see hands-on."

The program runs from about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and begins with a half-hour of instruction in the studio. Pupils dissect lima beans soaked in water to learn about the anatomy of the seed and its importance to the growth process; they learn about botanists and are encouraged to think like scientists as they explore.

Then they head out into the 22 acres of fanciful garden "rooms," named for colors or flowers, armed with clipboards loaded with wildlife and foliage to search for, and a color to spot in plants and trees. Afterward, they have lunch and then plant a nasturtium seed to take back to the classroom and care for.

The program has grown to include pupils from more area schools, including Carter G. Woodson Elementary in the city, Jacksonville Elementary in Baltimore County and the private St. James Academy in Monkton.

A wetlands program designed for middle-school pupils also draws children from the Stadium School and Canton Middle School, said Joanne Frisch, volunteeer director for the children's program. She has two or three volunteers on hand during programs to help the pair of instructors who lead the session.

Frisch, who taught science for many years at Gilman's lower school, came to the children's program in the late 1990s because "it had everything I enjoy, children and gardening."

"It's a great opportunity," she said. "They love it," she said of the children, "and we get wonderful notes from teachers about how often they refer back to it."

For Frisch, the part of the program she likes best is "just watching these faces. They're excited from the minute they get off the bus."

On this day, as the temperatures floated into the 70s, the children romped through budding gardens and toed the edge of every fountain and brook in their search for tadpoles, frogs and fish.

In the Iris Garden, instructor Nettie Washburn sat her group down for some hard work. Under a magnolia tree, Washburn challenged her squirmy scientists to close their eyes and mouths -- for a full minute -- to explore the sounds of the gardens.

Some promptly lay down on the fallen magnolia petals; other squinted sheepishly at Washburn, who waited patiently as a crow strutted past on its way to wash in the garden's brook.

When asked what they had heard, the children called out: birds, breeze, the babble of the brook, the click of a visiting photographer's camera.

Washburn, a horticulturalist who helped create the Ladew children's program, said these are the memories the children will take home with them -- and bring back in the fall, when they return for a second session on seeds that builds on what they've learned.

"You can start seeing it click in their minds," Washburn said. "I think it's great. I wish it could be every day."

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