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Brooklyn Botanic Garden guide

Spend the day exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, now outfitted with a brand-new visitor center, as a family.

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    The New BBG Visitor's Center

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    The New BBG Visitor's Center

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    The New BBG Visitor's Center

  • Photograph: Alex Strada

    The New BBG Visitor's Center

  • Photograph: Joseph O. Holmes

    Discovery Workshops at BBG

  • Photograph: Joseph O. Holmes

    Discovery Workshops at BBG

  • Photograph: Joseph O. Holmes

    Sakura Matsuri at BBG

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Japanese Garden at BBG

Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

At long last the new Visitor Center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is open, and it's stunning. First you'll have to find it, though, as it's tucked behind the stately Brooklyn Museum on Washington Avenue thanks to the derring-do of architectural firm Weiss-Manfredi. (They suggested the discreet location themselves, despite explicit instructions to design for another locale.) The white, airy structure features a living roof—40,000 plants, visible once you're inside the garden, grow on it—and flows from street to garden with glasshouse elegance. Once inside, kids could spend a good hour exploring its clever and informative interactive displays, which have them smell magnolia and sweet birch, learn about the Osborne Garden's whispering benches, hear the song of chickadees and cardinals, and discover the difference between Chinese and Japanese wisteria. An on-site caf and handsome gift shop make it the obvious place to come in a downpour, too. Here are some highlights of things to do once you've made your grand entrance.

Celebrate June
Mark your calendar for Amble: BBG's June Jubilee, the big celebration of the new Visitor Center (and new exhibit, "Urban Garden"); it's on June 2, and admission is free. On tap are a solar-powered sound installation, window-box gardening workshops, live ragtime and fiddle music, and even botanical aromatherapy workshops. Kids can pot their own lemon balm plants throughout the day as well. When the gang needs a pick-me-up, swing back to the Visitor Center for tea-inspired drinks and tasty snacks.

Experience a little Zen
Built by Japanese landscape artist Takeo Shiota in 1915, the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden is a design masterpiece—and a great way to teach kids about Japanese aesthetics. The garden is meant to be experienced from many perspectives, and so lends itself to ambling. The bright vermilion torii, or gate, signals the presence of a shrine. A path winding behind it leads to a small waterfall. And the viewing pavilion by the entrance opposite the torii is an ideal place from which to spy the pond's inhabitants—turtles, ducks, koi and even an occasional crane—and listen to nature's sounds. Kids can learn one important design aspect, composition, by bringing along a camera to capture details like stone lanterns and stepping stones leading to a tiny island.

Time-travel back to a different Brooklyn
For a walk on the wild side, seek out the Native Flora Garden, which overflows with specimens native to New York City and environs. Ironically, of all the BBG's intimate corners, it feels least like the Brooklyn of today. Naturalists-in-training can see if they can identify all nine of its botanical communities—dry meadow, kettle pond, wet meadow and stream, deciduous woodland, limestone ledge, bog, pine barrens, serpentine rock and coniferous forest—while enjoying the spot's rustic beauty.

Globe-hop through the world's microclimates
The Steinhardt Conservatory's unusual, semi-underground pavilions may not be cutting-edge (they're getting their own renovation soon) but they're like little worlds unto themselves, a concept city-dwelling kids relish. The Desert Pavilion is full of cacti and succulents, of course, but also desert ephemerals: wildflowers that have learned to live in harsh environments. Kids will learn some of the strategies these plants use to stay alive, and see that deserts are hardly the empty landscapes we imagine. The lush Tropical Pavilion, right next door, is as wet as the desert is dry, re-creating a rain-forest environment with soaring trees, streams and waterfalls, while the microclimate of the third hothouse, the Warm Temperate Pavilion, shares aspects of both of its neighbors, supporting lush greenery from regions like California, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand that have cool, wet winters and dry, hot summers. Cap off the world tour with a look at the aboveground Bonsai Museum.

Become part of history
In 1914, the BBG opened its doors to kids with the Children's Garden, a plot of land set aside to give young urban dwellers a chance to work the soil, plant their own crops and come back in the fall to harvest them. The plot has the same function today, offering three- to six-week classes to NYC kids from any borough (advance registration required; need-based scholarships are available) in spring and summer. Right next to it, the Discovery Garden offers drop-in family workshops (from May to Sept, plus some school breaks) where kids can touch and smell all kinds of plants and get their hands dirty learning about such gardening secrets as the importance of worms. Both centers are getting a makeover for the Children's Garden centennial.

Grow a garden
Before leaving, stop by the Herb Garden—a living classroom that gives families tips on urban food gardening and introduces them to the herbs and spices that make their way into various cuisines found in Brooklyn—then head out the same way you came in so you can pick up some plants to bring home in the BBG's new gardening center, located in the breezeway of the Visitor Center. You never know: Having your child care for the new additions could spawn a botanist who'll one day come back to work in the very garden the plants came from.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center is located at 1000 Washington Ave at Classon Ave, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

 

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