From somewhere within a giant, lush green boxwood bush come peals of laughter and gentle thudding. A view from the side of the shrub reveals a cave in the form of a three-foot-tall pipe where several children are crawling over one another to get through the secret tunnel. A few emerge from the cave and run towards the treehouse. Others make a beeline for the slide that accompanies the garden’s staircase entry. Paths lead to a tire swing, a spray ground, and of course flowers, trees, and sculptures. This is the Children’s Secret Garden section of the Wilson Botanical Gardens.
More than 30,000 visitors a year come to the award-winning gardens to wander its 11 acres packed with carefully cultivated sections designed to delight and educate. It’s a giant outdoor classroom for budding botanists, researchers from nearby NC State University, and school groups. To the volunteers and Master Gardeners who tend to it, the garden is a labor of love.
“We’ve been working on the gardens little by little since 2004,” explains Cyndi Lauderdale, executive director of the Wilson Botanical Gardens and horticulture Extension agent at North Carolina State University. “We’ve completed 18 gardens on six acres of land, with five more acres planned for expansion. The Children’s Secret Garden is the most popular garden. It really put us on the map.”
The Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) Garden, the newest garden, is another big draw. The carnivorous venus flytraps are a big hit with brave visitors who tempt them with a digit, and it contains exhibits geared towards middle and high school students to encourage them to engage with STEM subjects.
“It’s divided into four hands-on learning sections. Highlights include a weather station, hydroponic plant plots, a windmill pond, a Fibonacci piano, and more,” says Lauderdale. “So the STEM fields that maybe aren’t as interesting in the classroom become more interesting to the students because they are outside in a different environment. It makes me feel like we are doing some good things for our community.”
Beyond the educational aspects, the Botanical Gardens are inherently a lovely way to spend the day. Stroll through the Culinary and Medicinal Herb Garden, where your path is laid with recycled tobacco warehouse bricks–gleaned from a warehouse taken down on Goldsboro Street in downtown Wilson. Find a shady spot beneath the branches in the Arboretum. Relax in the tranquil Pondside Garden by its sculptures and lily pads. Continue your stroll to the Heritage Garden where you’ll see more of Wilson’s history as a farming community growing in front of you.
“Visitors who travel down 95 have seen white and green stuff growing in the field out their windows. When they come to the Heritage Garden they’ll see cotton, sweet potatoes, heirloom tomatoes and other crops that we mix in there,” said Lauderdale. “They can learn about what grows in the area, and it’s important that we remember our farming heritage.”
May and the summer months are when visitors will see the more spectacular blooms like roses in the Show Stoppers Garden and ornamentals that bring bird species from all over to the Fence and Bird Garden.
Imagine spending a day at Wilson Botanical Gardens, just a short detour off I-95, and only 45 minutes from Raleigh. Stroll the 18 gardens, discover new blooms, watch as children of all ages play and learn in tandem. One mile from Historic Downtown Wilson with its restaurants, shops, galleries, and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, you’re primed for an adventure so great, you won’t want to keep it a secret.