How Small Do Their Gardens Grow


Time was precious to the fifth-graders at Killybrooke Elementary School in Costa Mesa. They worked noisily but deliberately, huddled in groups over 16-by-16-inch plastic nursery flats. Students like Natasha Perkins, Enrique Lara and Travis Kelek had only four days to finish their project.

They had much to do. Natasha needed slices of sod so the grass could be used as pasture around the 100-year-old Newland House in Huntington Beach that her group was re-creating. The 10-year-old carefully trimmed the grass with scissors so it was low and closer to scale, and then she cut up dead pine needles to make hay for the paper barn behind the Popsicle-stick picket fence. Baby's tears became rows of cabbage in her miniature garden with the help of advisor Fumiyo Nishio, who's the mother of one of the children and also a professional gardener.

"Building them is the most fun," Natasha explained of her miniature farm yard.

Her group's landscape will be among the 100 entries from 17 public and private schools in Orange County to be displayed at the Southern California Spring Garden Show, which is to open Friday at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

Four years ago, the show's organizers were casting about for ways to involve kids. The big draw at garden shows are the specially built gardens by top area designers, so why not have the kids make miniature gardens?

Michael Ann Powers, now the coordinator of the Children's Gardens event and a landscape designer herself, came up with the idea of building the little landscapes inside standard nursery flats.

They are now one of the most popular attractions.

"People love them," Powers said.

The miniature gardens are designed and constructed by children in grades two through six. Though they have some help from teachers and volunteer advisors, such as Nishio, "they really do make and design the landscapes by themselves," Powers said.

"Lots of viewers at the show say 'Oh, they didn't really do these. Their parents probably did most of the work.' Not so!" she said.

Students create miniatures of existing landscapes, such as parks or historic spots. This year's theme has to do with the history of Orange County, so most of the landscapes are of historical places, though some are depictions of historic events, such as Orange County's catastrophic flood of 1938, which inspired the flood-ravaged landscape made by Tyler Drace, 11, and Ryan Oswald, 12, at St. Mary and All Angels in Aliso Viejo.

Students do their own research, draw plans to scale and build the landscapes using a variety of materials, including living plants. In the process, they learn about designing and building landscapes.

"It's not easy," according to Gilbert Johnson, 11, who was quickly seconded by Karen Luong, 10, both Killybrooke students. They were adding the finishing touches to a re-creation of the central fountain at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar--a carefully molded and surprisingly detailed miniature clay stork and sea otter. Blue hair gel would double for water in the fountain.

Individual teachers get the ball rolling by signing up with Powers (teachers can contact South Coast Plaza for the proper forms), who then comes to their classrooms and gives a presentation on the basics of design and construction.

"I give the same presentation to all the kids, whether they are in second or sixth grade, and they all get it," she said.

Powers brings a sample garden--built in a standard nursery flat--which she then takes apart and puts back together as she goes over the design process. She claims "the kids are intrigued and pay perfect attention."

She shows them how to research an idea, and they visit the site they are to re-create.

"You have to take pictures of everything," said a now-wiser Christy Gregory, 10, "or you'll have to go back to it."

Students make "storyboards" with photographs, maps and other information to which they can refer. They discuss what landscape elements--paths, walls, fountains, kinds of trees--they want to include. Then they learn about scale.

Powers has them stand in a nursery flat so they can see how they must shrink things if they are to fit them in. Then she has them measure each other and shows how they can make small-scale drawings of themselves, using printed scale rules. Next to these scale drawings of themselves she puts a twig, to show how it can look like a tree in comparison.

"Once they see how, they run around measuring everything," including their classmates, Powers said. Eventually, they make scale bird's-eye views of their landscapes to guide the construction.

The students learn a lot, said Killybrooke teacher Janet Mitchell, especially about doing things in three dimensions.

"They were a little confused at first, but now that they've actually done it, they seem to understand," she said.

"They do a lot of measuring and cutting, and they have to throw some things out because they didn't cut them right and they don't fit," she said. "There's a lot of trial and error, but they figure it out," and some of the resulting structures in the landscape are quite elaborate.

David Le, 10, Veronica Balch, 11, and Guadalupe Garces, 10, worked together on a complicated project --Mission San Juan Capistrano--and learned they had to carefully measure before cutting things out.

"If you don't measure, it will be all messy," David said.

Write to Robert Smaus, SoCal Living, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; fax to (213) 237-4712; or e-mail

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