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Garden club & students lauded for work & artistry

Garden club & students lauded for work & artistry

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — An idea cultivated during an excursion to the Big Apple has blossomed into one-fifth of an acre full of outdoor education.

The concept for the Gateway Children’s Garden was born about five years ago when Sue Ann Palmer and some fellow garden club members were thinking about what kids like doing outside. 

“They like a hill, they like a playhouse,” Palmer said. 

While at a New York club with friends, she drew a simple sketch with four spokes extending from a hill in the middle. Palmer shared that vision with one of her former students, Matthew Grove, an architect with Gerrardstown, W.Va.-based Grove & Dall’Olio Architects PLLC. He turned that hill into a mountain that is now the centerpiece of the garden at Ambrose Park in Martinsburg. 

“We all saw things that kind of sparked (ideas),” Palmer said of the other 18 members of the Gateway Garden Club. There also are three associate members.

The possibilities were plentiful, but the funds were not. 

“We had no money,” Palmer said while sitting on a wooden seat in the garden’s outdoor classroom. 

“We sent letters to everyone imaginable,” she said, but not much funding was generated. 

In March 2012, the club received a $5,000 youth grant from the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation. Then, it got $25,000 from the W. Randy Smith Family Fund through the community foundation. 

“From there, things just rolled,” said Palmer, including financial support from the Shenandoah-Potomac Garden Council.

Presentations to civic organizations yielded more donations, and area residents gave funds to honor or memorialize loved ones among the flora off Mall Drive. Fill and rocks unearthed from a hotel construction project were given for the cause. The club, all of whose members live in Berkeley County, W.Va., held yard and bake sales, and hosted bus trips to raise dollars for its growing project. 

In June 2016, the fence-enclosed garden opened to the public. 

“It’s an educational opportunity,” said club member Judy Heck. 

Watching kids explore the garden and engage in the programs offered there is worth all the work that went into it, she said. Past activities have included potting plants and saplings to take home; roasting marshmallows and listening to storytellers; birdhouse building; and mini camps focusing on birds and water. 

“That’s the joy in it — seeing the kids,” Heck said. 

Fellow club member Donna Yost said being among nature has healing effects. 

“Whenever things go wrong, nature can soothe the soul,” Yost said. “As humans, we need this.”

Keeping the gates open

To ensure its longevity, the garden is not open all the time. 

From June to Saturday, Aug. 19, the gate is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays, and from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. From Saturday, Aug. 26, to Saturday, Oct. 28, it’s open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m Saturdays. Admission costs $3 for ages 2 to 11; those younger than 2 are admitted free. All children must be accompanied by someone 18 or older; adults do not have to pay to enter. Every child who pays admission is given a book to take home.

The fee irritates some residents who mistakenly think the garden sprouted with help from their taxes. 

“We didn’t have a single penny of tax dollars,” Palmer emphasized. 

While it was difficult to sell the garden concept at first, the ingenuity involved and its learning potential gained state and national attention. 

At the May convention of National Garden Clubs Inc. in Richmond, Va., the club won $750 as the recipient of the Operation Wildflower Award. 

“We’re keeping them in reserve,” Gateway Garden Club President Mona Hayford said of the dollars gained. 

The club also won national accolades for civic achievement and bird protection and was a runner-up in the outdoor classroom/nature trails category.

The opportunity for national recognition came after the West Virginia Garden Club in March lauded the mountainous undertaking for beautification, environmental education, bird preservation, landscape design and community improvement. 

Area youths sponsored by the local garden club also were honored at the state and national levels. 

Sculptures made primarily of recycled materials by fourth-grader Kevin Ruiz and fifth-grader Andrew Sisk won at the state level and for the South Atlantic Region of National Garden Clubs. Sisk’s creation also earned honorable mention at the national level. Both boys are members of the Boys & Girls Club of the Eastern Panhandle. 

Poetry on the theme “Bees, Butterflies and Me” penned by Boden Shepherd, a fourth-grader at Mill Creek Intermediate, and Kendall Shepherd, a sixth-grader at Musselman Middle School, were lauded at the state level. Musselman High School ninth-grader Grant Shepherd’s poem was recognized at the state and regional levels. 

From sketch to reality

Wandering through the mulch and dirt at the Gateway Children’s Garden is a feast for the senses. Birds chirp as a few club members play on the xylophone and bongos in the music area. Colorful letters on stakes mark plants from azaleas to zinnias in the alphabet garden. Lingering in the air are aromas from bright buds that attract butterflies. 

“Everything has a physical and educational component,” Palmer said while pointing to plants that grow on the roof of a hobbit house on the grounds. 

There’s plenty for kids to dig — literally — in the space that features steps built into the hill and a rope banister on which to grab. The dinosaur area, complete with replicas of the extinct animals’ ribs, has a sandy area surrounded by stamps of fossils. 

A fort atop the hill has a great view that students can enhance with binoculars that can be borrowed on-site. They also can dig underneath it or in the compost pile in one corner that teems with hardworking earthworms. 

And it’s not done. 

“There’s still projects that we’re working on,” said Gateway Garden Club member Hannah Geffert. 

One is a station that will feature buttons on which children can hear the calls of some native birds while reading about and perusing pictures of them.

If you go ...

For a list of upcoming programs offered at Gateway Children’s Garden at Ambrose Park on Mall Drive in Martinsburg, W.Va., go to and click on the tab for the informational brochure. 

General hours of operation

From June to Saturday, Aug. 19: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays; 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays

From Saturday, Aug. 26, to Saturday, Oct. 28: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m Saturdays

General admission costs $3 for ages 2 to 11; those younger than 2 are admitted free. All children must be accompanied by someone 18 or older; adults do not have to pay. 

Memberships that cover May through October are available for $30 for one child; $45 for two; $60 for three; and $75 for four, which includes members-only events and discounts on workshops.

For more information, call 304-264-4842; go to or; or find Martinsburg-Berkeley County Parks & Recreation or Gateway Garden Club on Facebook

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