Blossoms, books and whimsey

Blossoms, books and whimsey

This column was published in the Oct. 10 News-Gazette.

Now that my kids are taller than me, I get these pangs of nostalgia whenever I see our favorite childhood haunts — their grade school playground, the sprinklers at Hessel Park, the children’s desk at the library, even the dollar bins at Target where they’d pick out holiday decorations.

Then there are the places I wish I’d taken them more often.

Tucked away in a corner of the Idea Garden on South Lincoln Avenue is one — a playful garden made for kids. I rediscovered it over the summer on long dog walks through the University of Illinois Arboretum, where high school cross-country students practice.Blog Photo

The children’s garden is one corner of the Idea Garden maintained by the Champaign County’s devoted Master Gardeners. The children’s section is supervised by Katie Kelsey, a master gardener who lives outside Mahomet.

Kids are immediately attracted to the sandbox, the tic-tac-toe rock, the teepee made out of vines, the colorful tunnel, the plant-covered “house” with benches inside for reading. In between are whimsical touches, including a fairy garden, stepping stones with kids’ handprints and a caterpillar made out of plants and drain pipe.

“I like that we can play hide and go seek tag,” said Riley Janczewski, 10, playing tic-tac-toe there last week with his sister Hannah, 8.

“I like the plants,” Hannah said. “I like the little bridge.”

The garden was revamped in 2013, but the bridge is a new addition. It was installed two weeks ago, replacing a wrought-iron version that just didn’t stand up to the foot traffic at the garden, especially during the annual Garden Walk.

This one, crafted by volunteer Art Porter, is made out of durable composite wood and weighs in at 600 pounds, requiring a trailer and many hands to haul it to the site, Kelsey said. Porter is also working on a solar-powered water feature to run underneath the bridge, which will debut in the spring.Blog Photo

Another popular feature is the Little Free Library, a tiny house with books inside for children (and others) to read at the garden or take home. The house is restocked each week with books donated to the Master Gardeners.

“It’s important to read with kids,” Kelsey said. “I’ve gotten so many donations. Every time my kids go they want to know what new books are there.”

Kelsey, 36, has supervised the children’s garden for about six years, recruited shortly after moving here from Chicago with her husband, Ryan, after their first daughter was born. They wanted to live in the country, and Ryan Kelsey’s parents are from Danville.

Katie Kelsey was honored to take on the job, though as a young mom she was a bit overwhelmed at first. But she simply brought her daughters along to meetings and volunteer days in the garden — as well as their potty chair (before the garden had porta-potties).

“I never thought I would have gotten this deep into it but now it’s kind of my passion,” she said.

Daughters Bella, 7, and Shelby, 3, now keep themselves entertained in the garden while she works.

“I love that the kids love it,” she said.

“When I go out there and see parents bring their kids, and the kids using the library, using the tic-tac-toe board, crossing the bridge, playing in the sandbox — that gives me goosebumps,” she said.

The overall purpose, of course, is to connect children with nature.

The garden is a favorite field trip destination for some Champaign-Urbana schools. Students love the sensory garden, where they can touch the papery strawflowers or the sensitive plant, a “pink twinkly ball” that closes up for 30 seconds or so when you touch it. Kelsey bought 15 sensitive plants to hand out to children during a recent Garden Walk; one went to a little girl who was “throwing a fit” and she immediately calmed down, Kelsey said.

Other children have taken part in the stepping stone project, with their names and handprints now a permanent part of the landscape.Blog Photo

But the garden is enjoyed by young and old alike — and the occasional pet. Kelsey has seen adults reading books and dogs relaxing inside the teepee. Weekends bring out UI students, families and tourists hungry for the outdoors.

On a recent visit, I mentioned to a volunteer that I wished my children were younger so we could enjoy the garden together.

Bring your teenagers here, she said. It’s something they’ll remember someday.

Maybe. Maybe in between filling out college applications and driving all over central Illinois to cross-country meets we can sneak over to enjoy one last fall afternoon, sitting in the sun surrounded by blossoms and whimsy.


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or


Top: Hannah,8, and Riley,10, Janczewski  play tic-tac-toe with rocks at the Children's Garden at the Idea Garden in Urbana on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Robin Scholz/News-Gazette

Middle: The bridge in the children's garden is a recent addition. Julie Wurth/News-Gazette

Bottom: Children helped make the stepping stones in the garden. Julie Wurth/News-Gazette


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