- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

Children are encouraged to play in this garden. By all means, they can touch and smell, learn and ask, too.

The Children’s Garden at George Washington’s River Farm south of Alexandria is an excellent place to introduce youngsters to the joy of things that grow. The space, part of the American Horticultural Society’s headquarters, is divided into 13 little gardens, each with a theme, says Nancy Busick, River Farm’s youth programs coordinator.

“The favorite thing here seems to be the worm garden and digging for worms,” she says. “It is so basic.”

Perhaps the runner-up is the bat cave. There are no bats in the shelter, which was built half underground. Rather, children can crouch inside and pretend they are bats.

Opportunities for pretend play abound. The boat garden holds an old wooden skiff; visitors can climb inside and pretend they are sailing the Potomac during Washington’s era.

A “Little House on the Prairie” garden blooms by the front door. Children can play house — as well as play gardener. Beau Beau’s garden is a great place for sitting under a pergola and bridge and acting out “Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

Of course, the Children’s Garden is an excellent place for learning how things grow, why we grow them, how plants help the environment and what scents aromatic plants give off.

At the hummingbird garden, signs — written in simple language schoolchildren can understand — explain that the tiny birds like bright flowers and lots of nectar.

At the touch-and-sniff garden, little ones are encouraged to rub their fingers on plants such as bee balm and lavender, then smell their skin for the scent of the plants.

One of the most whimsical garden plots is also one of the most educational. Running along one side of the children’s area is the ABC garden, where various plants grow alongside big, colorful plaques with wooden letters. Preschoolers will have fun seeing if they can find the first letter of their name, then learning which plants match it. They also will see that D is for daisies and day lilies; T is for thyme and F is for fern, among dozens of others.

Ms. Busick says gardening can be a great educational opportunity.

“I really believe anything you can teach children in school can be taught outdoors,” she says.

A host of youth educational workshops are offered at River Farm, most geared for children ages 4 to 10. Children’s programs are offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and cover a variety of topics through hikes, crafts and other hands-on activities, Ms. Busick says. Some of the most popular topics: learning about snakes or spiders, making seed pictures, making binoculars, and learning about animals and their babies.

Adults also will appreciate River Farm, a former working farm owned by Washington. The former president purchased the property in 1760, but records indicate he never lived there. Tobias Lear, Washington’s personal secretary, was given a lifetime lease on the property after he married Washington’s niece.

Today’s gardeners can get tips on environmentally safe gardening at the Green Garage, located near the entrance to the property. Other areas that will draw envy from weekend gardeners include the immaculate azalea garden, wildlife garden, shade garden and perennial border.

The view of the Potomac, however, is the most dramatic part of the 25-acre property. Visitors can stand by the main house and lawn and take in the wide vista, just as Washington probably did centuries ago.

When you go

Location: George Washington’s River Farm is located at 7931 East Boulevard Drive south of Old Town Alexandria.

Directions: Take South Washington Street/George Washington Parkway out of Alexandria toward Mount Vernon. Take a left onto East Boulevard Drive.

Hours: From April through September: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. From October through March: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Closed Sundays and national holidays.

Admission: Free. Children’s educational programs typically cost $5 per child.

Parking: Free parking in lot.

More information: 703/768-5700 or visit www.ahs.org and click on “River Farm.”

Notes:

• George Washington’s River Farm is a 25-acre site on the banks of the Potomac River. The property, which once was owned by George Washington and is the headquarters of the nonprofit American Horticultural Society, has dramatic views of the Potomac as well as natural and formal gardens.

• The Children’s Garden is a popular family destination. Children are encouraged to explore, pretend and learn about nature in the 13 themed plots.

• There is a garden shop that sells books and other garden-themed items.

• A picnic area is on site.

• Pets on leashes are permitted.

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