Gail Pianalto sees imaginary gardens everywhere. At schools, local parks, even the fire station. As Gail puts it, “My mind is going all the time. Thinking of plants and thinking up gardens.” Luckily for the people—especially the children—of northwestern Arkansas, Gail Pianalto is as focused on action as she is on ideas.
Gail’s first community garden project was an educational butterfly garden. She soon moved on to create daffodil gardens, compost demonstrations, and even a reading garden. The common thread of all of these gardens is the goal to educate children about their environment. “My passion is to get kids out in nature,” she said. “When they learn about plants or butterflies they start to learn that everything is connected.”
To honor Gail for her vision, tireless work, and impact on thousands of schoolchildren, Gardener’s Supply has presented her with the Garden Crusader Award for Education for 2008.
Tucked into the middle of Fayetteville, AR, is a new botanical garden that has developed from the dedication and hard work of Gail and a grassroots group of gardeners.
The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks officially opened in the fall of 2007, but it has been in the works for a dozen years. It is a regional community botanical garden that serves to educate the public about the plants and nature of the area. So far, nine out of 90 acres have been developed with a variety of gardens, such as a native Ozark garden, a vegetable garden, a sensory garden and more. More gardens, greenhouses and a visitors center are planned.
Gail is now the co-chair of the education committee for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. When she joined the board as a volunteer in 2003, the first gardens had yet to be planted. Gail wondered, “Why do we need a garden to get started?”
She and other volunteers decided to host an event for schoolchildren about butterflies and got a grant to help pay for it. Just two months later they hosted 800 children to learn about butterflies, pollination, metamorphosis and how to plant a school butterfly garden. After five years, the program has grown to serve more than 4,000 children a year.
With butterflies, Gail was just getting started. Since then, she has developed a program that helps children plant over 10,000 daffodil bulbs at schools each year. Other programs include Earth Day celebrations, Pollinator Week activities and composting programs. She also does inservice trainings for teachers and presentations at national conferences. And Gail is helping to start a Junior Master Gardener program for Washington County.
Her latest idea combines gardens with literature. “At a symposium I heard a speaker talk about classic children’s tales that involve gardens, and it got me thinking,” she said. So she is designing part of the children’s garden to have quotes from literature next to appropriate plants. For example, chamomile will reference The Tale of Peter Rabbit. And a willow tree will be labeled a “Whomping Willow” from the Harry Potter books.
The Reading Railroad Garden will also have a concrete train sculpture on which kids can sit and climb. “I wanted to have something different that would really engage kids and maybe interest them in new way,” Gail said.
For Gail, it all comes down to the kids. And for the kids, it all comes down to the dirt.
“Kids love to dig,” she said. “A lot of the kids that come to the garden tell us they aren’t allowed to dig at home. And they will dig with anything we give them. Even magnifying glasses. We have them plant something, and then they want to plant more.”
Gail sees her job as helping to treat children’s “nature deficit disorder,” a term coined by writer Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. It describes a trend in which children spend less time outdoors, which, he says, leads to behavior and health problems.
“Between homework, television, video games … kids exist in a virtual reality,” she said. “Well, I want to show them real reality … with plants, and soil and animals. And we can see the kids love it.”
Once children discover butterflies or daffodils or even chamomile, they want to learn more about the natural world. That is what motivates Gail. “I get energized by the kids. That is what makes me want to keep going,” she said.
Gail is connecting children to gardens at home too. Her first grandchild was born in April. Now, she’s creating a garden for him. Her husband built a permanent frame around which she planted sunflowers and vines. “It’s his own place to be and be comfortable. It’s Noah’s Garden,” she said.
And what about that fire station garden? Her son is a fireman, and she’s been plotting to plant a garden at his workplace. “It’ll all be fire-related: burning bush, red hot poker …,” she said, hot on another idea.
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