New Miller library branch prepares to open learning garden

Rita Hamlet, development specialist for the Howard County Library, sits in the new "Enchanted Garden" at the Miller Branch on Frederick Road.

The new Miller library branch in Ellicott City will open its Enchanted Garden next weekend, an outdoor learning space that will be one of the few nationwide to be owned and tended by a public library.

The space, which will offer classes and activities related to nutrition, environmental science and gardening, was named for the now-defunct Enchanted Forest amusement park on nearby U.S. 40.

There will also be programs on meditation, acupuncture, insects and painting in the new space, said Rita Hamlet, the development specialist in charge of the quarter-acre garden. A variety of programs during the grand opening will showcase the garden space's offerings.

A donated object from the original nursery rhyme-themed park, part of the inventory rescued by Martha Ann Clark of Clark's Elioak Farm, will be unveiled as part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 p.m. May 12.

"We are trendsetters and always innovative," said Hamlet. She expects libraries elsewhere to embrace Howard County's concept by adding gardens.

While some observers contend that brick-and-mortar libraries are falling out of favor as e-readers and online research gain in popularity, that isn't happening locally, she said.

The library's two-day opening weekend Dec. 17-18 drew 7,000 visitors to the $29.7 million facility, said library spokesperson Christie Lassen.

With an average of 2,600 daily visits to the county's largest library branch since it opened four months ago, the staff pays little heed to predictions that libraries will go the way of video rental stores, Lassen said.

"Libraries are in a transition phase beyond our collections of books and resources," observed Hamlet, a trained cartographer who parlayed a passion for community gardens and volunteer work at the Howard County Conservancy into a position specially created to oversee the project.

"We are becoming more experiential," she said.

Also at the event, the winning name will be revealed for the metal frog that sits on a boulder at the head of the garden's meandering man-made stream, Lassen said. Visitors used computer touch screens at kiosks inside the library to propose 4,000 names, and staff voted on the final choice.

The human-size sculpture is made of copper, brass and stainless steel, and was created by Charles and Zan Smith, a father-and-son team from South Carolina. A second sculpture by the Smiths of an adult frog reading to its child sits at the library's entrance. Both were donated by the Friends of the Howard County Library.

Master gardeners from the county's University of Maryland Extension, who Hamlet said have been invaluable as consultants, workers and teachers, will be on hand as tour guides and will answer questions and give demonstrations on composting and using rain barrels.

"Part of the joy of the Enchanted Garden is seeing the plants and the conditions in which they're growing," said Georgia Eacker, master-gardener coordinator. "We've assembled a lot of instruction on a small scale to help with planting design and environmental issues."

Drought-resistant native plants will fill most of the landscaped plots in the fenced-in garden, Hamlet said. These include blue amsonia and Joe Pye weed, and redbud, sweet gum, magnolia and holly trees. Columbine planted near a window in the children's section inside the building will attract hummingbirds.

There will also be raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. To avoid the risk of frost, some planting will be done the morning of the grand opening, Hamlet said.

Specialty gardens have been set up to feature plants favored by Peter Rabbit or related to herbal healing, stir fry and pizza — the latter mapped out with landscaping timbers like a sliced pizza pie.

First lady Michelle Obama hasn't yet agreed to give the staff a list of her family's favorite fresh foods, to be grown in a raised bed that's been reserved for the White House Kitchen Garden, so that planter remains empty for now.

And while it's unlikely that will happen before the grand opening, Hamlet still has reason to believe the first lady will be in touch.

Obama travels around the country with her "Let's Move!" campaign to fight childhood obesity, Hamlet said, which ties in nicely with the library's goal to use the garden to "help kids learn what healthy eating really is."

And the first lady is about to release a book titled "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens across America." The book will detail the 2009 creation of fruit, vegetable and herb plots on the South Lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Perfect timing, Hamlet pointed out.

"We've been in communication with the White House," Hamlet said, "and we're still hopeful."

There are a few spaces for handprint tiles remaining a week before the ceremony, Hamlet said. Those age 18 and younger can put their first name, handprint and age on a tile for $100 during the grand opening, and their artwork will permanently adorn low walls on either side of the garden entrance. Pavers engraved with individual or family names are also available for $250. Proceeds from both fundraisers will be used for garden upkeep, Hamlet said.

Black-eyed Susan seed packets will be distributed to the first 500 patrons. Children will also be able to plant a seed in a peat cup that can be taken home and planted, cup and all. Stories will be read aloud from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and scavenger hunts will be held all afternoon.

The idea of constructing teaching gardens at the county's other branches has been discussed, Hamlet noted, though no decision has been reached. Oasis Design Group and Live Green Landscape Associates created the space at the Miller branch.

"We are working to make the library an even more central part of the community" than it already is, Hamlet said. "Even in a down economy, we have been expanding."