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Whimsy in the garden

A few years ago, I added a bottle tree to a perennial border in the back garden. The reaction, unfortunately, wasn’t what I had expected. People, even strangers, had lots to say about it, and many of their comments weren’t positive. It was too whimsical, too primitive, too impromptu looking. Too, too, too much.

Since then, I’ve thought long and hard about all of these reactions, but I’ve left the bottle tree in place, a reminder to the neighbors and to myself, as well, that the unexpected is valuable.

Given this experience, I had to laugh when the director of public relations at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden invited me to a sneak preview of a new garden installation. It’s all about whimsy, playfulness, learning from the unexpected and just plain fun. The exhibit, which opened in late May and continues until Sept. 18, is Nature Connects: Art with LEGO Blocks. Imagine more than half a million LEGO pieces used to construct 27 giant flowers, birds, insects and other animals. Roam around the garden and you’ll find a 60-pound bumblebee in the conservatory; a dragonfly with a three and a half-foot wingspan; an Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly made from 37,000 pieces; and, best of all, an adult bison and calf. The adult even has an amazingly lifelike bird perched on its back.

The sculptures are by New York artist Sean Kenney, who designed each piece first on specially designed graph paper and then used regular LEGO pieces to make them. To provide stability, the LEGO pieces are glued in place and re-enforced with metal rods. While each piece looks like every child’s fantasy of the ultimate LEGO project, they’re all designed to teach about nature and life. The sculpture of the giant hummingbird and tubular flower, for example, illustrates the concept of co-evolution.

And while you’re visiting Lewis Ginter, be sure to check out the massive number of Aechmea blanchetiana paired with dark red copper plants not too far from the entrance to the garden. They’re the same plants you’ll see in front of the train station in Farmville. When planted in full sun and slightly deprived of water, these bromeliads turn bright orange. They really know how to put on a good show. Continue walking at Lewis Ginter and you’ll find banana trees, just like the ones planted around our home town. They’ll make you smile and instantly transport you to your own personal tropical paradise.

Yes, gardens can be very formal and quite proper, but even then, an element of whimsy isn’t amiss. After all, every proper 18th century English garden had to have a folly — a faux Egyptian ruin, a mini castle or even a roaring monster.

Think about your own garden and what you could add that would be unexpected and that would make you smile. I’m thinking about adding a giant butterbean tent this summer. Kids will love it, and I bet at least several adults will just have to explore the inside of it.

Happy gardening.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is Cynthia.crewe23930@gmail.com.