Budding Interest : Garden Tours for 3rd-Graders Hope to Plant Seeds of Learning About Botany and Nature

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cowabunga floribunda?

Could the gardens of a regal Beverly Hills estate be of interest to a pack of energetic children weaned on Ninja Turtles and Terminators?

Judging from the Virginia Robinson Gardens' plan for a hands-on tour for third-graders, they will. What's a fancy garden anyway but an excuse for big people to dig in the dirt?

The Robinson Gardens, a historic 6.2-acre estate donated to Los Angeles County by the late matriarch of the department-store family, have been open to public tours since 1982. But now they are offering tours catering to youngsters.

The children's tours, says John Copeland, supervisor of the gardens, are shorter but participatory.

"They'll have a chance to do things," says Copeland, with more than a hint of childlike excitement. "There will be games and hands-on science and basic botany experiences they can take back home."

The pilot program is geared toward third-graders, because they are at a "receptive age" that enables them to "take advantage of the information," says Joan Selwyn, founder of the Friends of Robinson Gardens, a volunteer support group. Selwyn cultivated the idea for a children's tour about a year ago. With the help of a grant from the Escada boutique at the Regency Beverly Wilshire hotel, the plan is coming to fruition.

"The schools are in (financial) trouble," Selwyn says. "The environment is in trouble. We felt the need to educate the children at an early age so that they learn to respect it and to protect it."

The Beverly Hills school district is the first targeted by the program because the gardens are "literally in their back yard," says Pat Isaac, head of the children's program. "And it fits in with their program. It's in third grade that they study their community, and the Robinsons are one of the founding families of Beverly Hills."

The estate--listed in the National Register of Historic Places--was built in 1911, one of the first houses north of Sunset Boulevard. Though the 6,000-square-foot bungalow is modest compared to many of its palatial neighbors, it is important to local history.

"It's a special place. It's one of the oldest in Beverly Hills, and everything is intact," says Copeland, including the gardens and the house, where Virginia Robinson lived until her death in 1977, about a month short of her 100th birthday. (Her husband, Harry, died in 1932).

The Robinsons were avid gardeners, Copeland says, and Virginia worked with noted landscape architect Charles Gibbs Adams to come up with a plan.

"She was interested in all kinds of exotic plants," says Copeland, a horticulturist and landscape architect himself. "She was actually responsible for introducing several trees to Southern California."

Nestled on a lush hillside, the Robinson Gardens is the ideal outdoor classroom--the palm garden, for instance, is a jungle-like setting on two acres where you might expect to find Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Commando" fatigues. The king palms here are so tall that the temperature is 10 degrees cooler than in the rest of the gardens, creating what Isaac calls a "garden within a garden." Here the children will learn about seeds and how they germinate. The docents--all volunteers trained by a children's garden consultant--will be posted at stations around the property.

Rotating to a station in the herb garden, behind the servants' quarters, the children will feel the textures and smell the aromas of a variety of plants. They will learn, for example, that the little plants sprouting in drifts are oregano and basil--which are used to make pizza, Copeland says.

The flower station will be set up in the Italian Garden, the oldest part of the Robinson homestead. From the top of the hill, one looks down at a series of terraces, original statues and fountains, all connected through a central waterway.

"There are very few changes here, what you see is how it was," Copeland emphasizes. "Virginia and Harry created this. It's a 66-year effort, started back when they moved in."

Now it's up to the county, says Copeland, to "maintain the spirit" of their gardens, while "focusing on drought-tolerant and historic plants."

The goal of the children's program, Isaac says, is for them to experience firsthand what they study in the classroom, and get a better understanding of what all the fuss is about when they hear terms such as drought and conservation in the news.

Each child will take home a coloring book--created by Selwyn--that covers what they learn at the gardens, plus seeds or a live plant.

After all, someday it may be up to these kids to use all their knowledge and ingenuity--like any self-respecting Terminator--to save the world.

Virginia Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills is open for school tours Tuesday-Friday. The first is scheduled for January, but space is available now. School tours are free. The gardens are open to the public Tuesday-Friday. Reservations are a must. Adults $3; seniors, children 5-17 and students with ID $2.25. For information, call 276-5367.

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