By Rita Lynn
Your Cedar Valley Arboretum membership automatically enrolls you in the American Horticultural Society Reciprocal Program. Ever wonder how far that program reaches? A friend, on hearing that I would be vacationing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, highly recommended that we visit the Garvan Woodland Gardens there. That visit was put on our “must-see” list and was our first destination. The entrance fee at Garvan is $15 per person, and, on seeing my AHS card, the greeter happily honored it and waived the entire fee. So began a wonderful day!
Garvan Woodland Gardens occupy 210 acres of woodland landscape and 4½ miles of shoreline on Hamilton Lake, in view of the Ouachita Mountains. The land was initially owned by Verna Cook Garvan, heiress of family fortunes earned in a brick and tile business, and in a lumber company. Purchased in about 1915 after a timber clear-cut, commercial timber cutting was never again allowed there. In about 1956, Mrs. Garvan began to develop the land as a garden and for a future residence. Seeing how other structures around the lake disturbed the beauty of the wilderness, she eventually opted not to build the residence. She proceeded to dedicate herself to laying out paths, designating which trees were to be removed, and choosing thousands of plants and their locations as she developed her garden. Nationally acclaimed architects were then enlisted to design the Garvan Pavilion in the center of the original plantings.
On Mrs. Garvan’s death in 1993, the property was bequeathed to the Department of Landscape Architecture through the University of Arkansas Foundation. The gardens are now an independent department of the University’s Fay Jones School of Architecture. In addition, Garvan Gardens enjoys the support of the Arkansas Legislature, Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, Arkansas Economic Development Commission, many private donors, and more than 3,500 members.
The mission of the Gardens is to preserve and enhance that unique part of the Ouachita Mountain environment; to provide a place of learning, research, cultural enrichment, and serenity; to develop and sustain the gardens, the landscaping and structures with exceptional aesthetics, design and construction; and to partner with and serve the surrounding communities.
As we wandered the gardens, places of natural beauty met us at every turn and on every path we followed. Stately trees formed the backdrop for bushes and cultivated garden beds. Streams, ponds, waterfalls and picturesque bridges abounded. Although they looked as if they had been there for millennia, each water feature was intentionally designed and built, including placing boulders to make the hillsides look like a natural mountain terrain. It looked as if natural springs flowed over these many features, but water is actually pumped throughout the gardens from the adjacent Lake Hamilton. Displays change with the seasons, with special exhibitions throughout the year. One of the highlights is a holiday light festival, featuring colorful lights throughout the gardens. We arrived in time to enjoy the end of the azalea and hydrangea blooms and the beginning of summer plantings.
Garvan Gardens offers a wide variety of educational opportunities ranging from such topics as bonsai lectures to fly fishing demonstrations. Day camps for children take place during summer months, and docent training occurs throughout the year. The Gardens offer accessibility to visitors using wheelchairs and families with children in strollers. Dogs on leashes are welcome, although they too are charged an entry fee. Spectacular, architecturally significant venues – the Pavilion, an amphitheater, and the Visitors’ Center, as well as an incredible chapel complex – offer places for special events booked throughout the year. Visitors can enjoy a fairy garden, a model railroad display, a koi pond, a children’s garden, the resident peacock and peahen, and a wildflower slope. And a variety of foods are available at the Chipmunk Café. Under construction now is a huge tree house structure designed by architects at the university to provide children of all abilities the opportunity to directly experience the woodland environment.
Garvan Woodland Gardens is amazing showplace, the result of harmony between natural beauty, landscape design, and architectural marvels. It is an award-winning prime attraction in the Hot Springs area, and I will remember my visit there with awe in the years to come. To ensure you don’t miss experiences like this, remember to take your AHS card when you travel. Look for gardens and arboretums en route or at your destination. A list of benefits can be found at <ahsgardening.org/gardening-programs/rap/find/statebystate>