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Atlanta Botanical Garden, Smithgall Woodland Legacy a dream decade in making

At a glance
• What: The Atlanta Botanical Garden, a Smithgall Woodland Legacy
• Where: 1911 Sweetbay Drive, Gainesville; off-site parking at intersection of Cleveland Highway and Limestone Parkway
• Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (May to October)
• Cost: $8 adult, $5 children 3-12
• Online:

The site features 5 acres of gardens, including:
• 1,200 different kinds of plants, 400 of which were grown on site in the garden’s nursery
• Two half-mile walking trails
• Ivester Amphitheater seating 2,000
• Visitor center including classroom space and gift shop

Upcoming events
• Wine in the Woodland, evenings each last Thursday of the month May-October
• Concerts in Garden, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, June 13; The Temptations, July 11; Scott McCreery, July 17
• Nature Connects, art with Lego bricks exhibit in the fall.

Private rentals
• Spaces are available for weddings and parties. Contact the private events team for more information at (404) 591-1585 or

A timeline of events
• 2001: Charles and Lessie Smithgall donate their 168-acre property north of Gainesville to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The gift preserves the acreage as green space and assists in achieving the Vision 2030 goal of establishing Hall County as possessing the largest amount of green space per capita in Georgia.
• 2002: EDAW (now AECOM), one of the world’s leading landscape architecture, urban design and environmental planners, is contracted to create a conceptual master plan that maximizes the community use of the land while preserving its natural beauty.
• 2004: A 5,000-square-foot greenhouse and 4-acre nursery are built to begin propagating and growing plants used in the garden.
• 2005: First volunteers begin work in greenhouses. Initial land conservation efforts begin, including removal of invasive species.
• 2009: Maple collection of both gardens named part of multisite National Maple Collection of North American Plant Collections Consortium.
• 2010: Atlanta Botanical Garden moves its native plant conservation nursery to the Gainesville garden.
• 2011: Magnolia collection of both gardens named part of a multisite National Magnolia Collection of the North American Plant Collections Consortium.
• 2013: Ground broken on initial $21M phase of the garden.
• 2015: The garden opens to the public on May 2. Programs and events throughout the year to include outdoor concerts, Wine in the Woodlands and Nature Connects, art with Lego bricks by Sean Kenney.

GAINESVILLE — All was quiet in the garden, except for the croak of frogs following a rain shower on a recent afternoon. A man in a wide-brimmed hat planted flowers in a container near a pond.

Staff and volunteer workers at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, a Smithgall Woodland Legacy, in Gainesville were adding a few finishing touches to the garden in preparation for its opening celebration May 2.

After more than a decade, the garden off Cleveland Highway on Sweetbay Drive is finally ready to be enjoyed by the public. The opening weekend celebration drew a crowd of thousands.

Mary Pat Matheson, garden president and CEO, said she couldn’t be happier to celebrate the garden’s opening.

"We’ve been working on it for such a long time, and the community has waited as patiently as possible," Matheson said. "So to finally be here and have these wonderful opening celebrations, it couldn’t be a better thing."

General admission to the garden is $8 and annual memberships begin at $69. Members of the Atlanta Botanical Garden are able to visit both gardens at no charge.

The garden will also play host to a concert series this summer featuring acts such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on June 13, The Temptations on July 11 and Scott McCreery on July 17.

The concerts will take place in the garden’s 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.

The garden features a visitors center that can be rented for events, a porch with a fireplace, outdoor seating, an amphitheater with woodland backdrop, two half-mile walking trails around the woodlands and a model train garden.

More than 1,272 plant varieties are planted in the woodland, including more than 300 hydrangeas, 150 magnolias and 32 different maple species.

The garden has four seasonal collections: magnolias in the spring; hydrangeas in the summer; maple trees in the fall; and witch hazel in the winter.

Mildred Fockele, vice president of horticulture and director of the Gainesville garden, said there’s something for everyone to enjoy, even if it’s just sitting in a rocking chair with a book.

"I think they’ll enjoy seeing the garden, seeing the horticultural quality and just coming to the different events we have, whether it’s Wine in the Woodland or just coming up to visit with your family on the weekend and enjoying the train garden … I think there’s going to be events all the time that people will enjoy participating in."

Plans for the garden began in 2001 when Lessie Smithgall and her late husband Charles donated 168 acres to the Atlanta Botanical Garden in perpetuity.

Smithgall, who is 104, noted how uncommon it is find that many acres of woodland within the city limits and hopes people will appreciate the ability to experience nature so close to home.

She said it was important to her husband to have the garden available for people to visit and feels confident it will become a destination, not just something on the way to somewhere else.

"He wanted people to be able to come out there and hike and walk and enjoy the woodlands, as he did as a boy and later on too," Smithgall said. "He was hoping people could go out there especially in the summer time, they can go out there after work and hike and have the experience of real woods."

She praised the efforts of several individuals, including donors Doug and Kay Ivester, for whom the amphitheater is named, and Jack Burd, retired president of Brenau University, who has led the garden’s fundraising efforts.

The opening ceremony marks the completion of the first phase of the garden. Donors provided $21 million for the project.
A $50 million fundraising campaign is under way, a portion of which will go to the construction of a children’s garden at the Gainesville location.

"You know, I think this is going to be a destination for people, rather than just a stop on the way to Florida or Washington, D.C., or wherever," Smithgall said.