If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know that the U.S. National Arboretum is one of my very favorite spots to hang with the kids in DC. Not only does it top my list of best outdoor places, but it’s been a frequent recommendation as a recreational haven practically since day one (well, more like day 21, but I had to wait for Snowmageddon’s remnants to melt before suggesting readers go there).
The best thing about the Arboretum is that it’s so big, visiting never gets old. There are myriad adventures to be had — different collections of plants and flowers to explore, lots of short trails to hike, exhibits to see, wildlife to view. This partly explains why, until a few days ago, we’d never visited the Washington Youth Garden. I say partly, because I knew it was there, but thought it was only open to school groups. And since there was so much else to do at the Arboretum, I hadn’t looked into it further to find out for sure.
But last week, I chaperoned a field trip to the Youth Garden with Owen’s class and learned that it is, indeed, open to the public. Which is awesome. Because it’s yet another fantastic element of an already-wonderful place.
Developed to encourage kids and families to connect with the natural world, the Garden is cultivated and maintained by local youth. A variety of plants and flowers are grown there, many of them edible and harvested seasonally. We toured — and tasted! — strawberries, sorrel, mint, and asparagus, among the many crops grown in the garden . (No pesticides are used, as our guide explained, and she encouraged the kids to nibble a little as she discussed the different qualities of the plants.)
Right next to the actual garden is a natural play area where kids can engage with nature through self-directed activities. Everything in the space is made of materials that come right from their environment — benches made from tree branches and tree stumps to sit on, wooden sand tables for kids to dig in, even xylophones constructed of wood where they can make music.
Just beyond that is a compost station, with signs explaining how the three-bin system works. During our tour, there were gardening tools available for the kids to till the soil a bit. The guide said they aren’t there otherwise, but guests not on a tour can still visit that part of the garden.
From there, you can access a short trail that meanders through the woods behind the garden to get a look at the variety of plants that grow naturally in that small area. Our guide encouraged the kids to notice the different shapes of the leaves, moss growing on a fallen tree branch, even the smell of the woods. (And here I should note that guides are only available for school groups, but individuals are welcome to tour on their own.)
Our tour of the garden lasted about an hour, though a visit there could last much longer at one’s own pace. With other school groups coming through, the class spent the rest of our field trip exploring the nearby Fern Valley, having a picnic lunch by the Capitol Columns, and visiting the Koi pond. But next time I take my kids to the Arboretum, we’ll be lingering at the Youth Garden much longer.
The Washington Youth Garden is open during Arboretum hours from 8am – 5pm. Admission is free. You can find directions to it here.