Five reasons to play outside in Howard County this fall

  • Megan Lucas, 19, of Woodstock, paints Harrison Reece, 9, of Ellicott City, with mud from a stream at the Howard County Conservancy during the Reptile Rangers activity.
Megan Lucas, 19, of Woodstock, paints Harrison Reece, 9, of… (photo by Sarah Pastrana )
August 30, 2011|By Lindsey McPherson

Stop. Unplug. Go outside.

A welcome escape from our increasingly digital world is just that easy.

Reconnecting with nature could mean sinking your fingers into the soil, going “off the grid” deep in the forest or galaxy-gazing. All this and more is right in your backyard in Howard County — from the parks and lakes to working farms and nature-oriented clubs — making it easy to see just what’s so great about the great outdoors.

1. Robinson Nature Center

The newest environmental attraction in Howard County is the Robinson Nature Center.

Opening in early September, the three-level building located off Cedar Lane in west Columbia features exhibit areas, classroom space and a naturesphere — a room with a large dome ceiling that will be used as a planetarium and to show films.

Visitors can learn about local plants and wildlife, the county’s relationship with the Chesapeake Bay, home gardening practices and living “green.”

Run by a small staff of naturalists and a wide range of volunteers, the nature center will offer various educational and interactive programs using the exhibits and the 18 acres of outdoor space surrounding the building.

“The whole idea is that people will be able to step outside the door and be right in touch with the forest,” says John Byrd, director of Howard County’s Department of Recreation and Parks. “If people are in touch with their outdoor surroundings, I think it helps give them a perspective of their place in the community and on the planet ... in protecting and living in harmony with nature.”

2. Howard County Conservancy

A virtual cornucopia of natural splendor is offered by the Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental education center and land trust based at Mt. Pleasant farm, in Woodstock.

With trails, gardens, farm animals, education programs and social events, the conservancy has something for both longtime nature lovers and beginner environmentalists.

The conservancy’s four miles of trails are open to the public every day from dawn to dusk, but for those who want some help exploring, the conservancy offers a guided hike the second Saturday of each month at 10 a.m.

“That’s a great opportunity for people who want to get to know the property a little bit, who may not feel comfortable coming out on their own,” says Meg Schumacher, executive director of the Howard County Conservancy. The guided hikes always include an educational talk on a specific topic, such as butterflies, frogs or trees.

Education is a major component of the conservancy’s mission. Its native plant garden allows visitors to learn about the plants that grow in the area, and its rain garden demonstrates a way to ensure stormwater runoff does not end up in the Bay.

3. Working farms

Several of Howard County’s working farms welcome participation in the form of pick-your-own veggies and fruits, and community supported agriculture operations.

“Where your food comes from and how healthy it is for you, I think is pretty paramount,” says Marc Moreau, of Gorman Farm in North Laurel.

In addition to selling produce, Gorman Farm offers educational tours for children to learn about the farming cycles and seasons.

“We also have people who just come out and set up an easel for a little bit and ... paint the fields,” Moreau says. “It’s a nice little slice of the country.”

At Larriland Farm, in Woodbine, visitors can harvest their own fruits and vegetables straight from the vine.

Owner Lynn Moore says the experience can be powerful. “It’s just nice being outside,” she says. “There’s a breeze blowing, and the sun is out, and it’s quiet, and you have all the colors and the smells of the fruit.”

Larriland’s crops vary by season. The farm opens with strawberry season in late May and closes in early November after a fall harvest of pumpkins, apples, broccoli and spinach.

In addition to educating its visitors on its naturally grown food, Clark’s Elioak Farm in Ellicott City allows people to connect with its animals.

“We’re probably the most expansive petting farm in the area and the one that has animals all the time in full view,” owner Martha Clark says, adding that some lucky visitors have been able to see some of the farm’s goats and cows give birth. “That’s pretty amazing to watch,” she adds.

Sharp’s at Waterford Farm, near Glenelg, also has animals — cattle, chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep and pigs — for viewing while the farm is open in the spring (April to mid-June) and the fall (mid-September to mid-November). The farm has a 1.5-mile nature trail with signs explaining the features hikers pass, as well as other unmarked trails. In the summer, the farm holds a series of agricultural tours, by appointment only.

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