A car swooshes past at 25 mph as a dark green bus slows down to a stop. The doors fly open and students hop on their commute as others exit the back, carrying heavy backpacks with heads down, eyes on their phones. For just a moment, they pop their heads up and look both ways before jaywalking the street.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the city’s urban research university sets a peaceful sanctuary behind the sidewalks and bus stops. Directly across from the greenhouse, you enter the Botanical Gardens and suddenly, the noise begins to fade. Now, it’s just you and nature.
This is the Susie Harwood gardens; The three acres are home to colorful petals and bright green leaves. As you walk down the pathways, squirrels cross — unusually close — and birds mock each other’s songs above your head.
You’re greeted by the fragrant paperbush. Clusters of white with yellow tips hang off of the branches. Its sweet scent is strong, but not enough to overpower the winter wine eurya just a few steps ahead. If it weren’t for the pungent smell, comparable to a litter box, passersby would give no thought to the green shrub.
Down the path, people sit at picnic tables where they listen to the pond’s constant flow of water. It’s surrounded by rocks and picnic tables where people sit and observe or relax.
“One of the things that we’ve really been trying to do here is to create places for people to come and just sit and enjoy the gardens,” says Dr. Jeff Gillman, director of the gardens.
Two freshmen, Viji Dantuluri and Jackie Gagilardo, sit on a bench at a nearby covering. They’ve been coming here since the weather began to warm up.
“Today we kind of came for inspiration because she’s redoing her backyard but usually, it’s just nice,” Gagilardo says.
“We read the messages up there,” Danuluri adds, pointing up at writing visitors have made on the ceiling of the gazebo. “And we walk to get exercise.”
Just steps ahead, a towering picture magnolia demands attention. Its long, flowy petals are bright purple on the outside, white on the inside. People stop here the most, recognizing the well known flowers.
Further down, you walk across a bridge with red detailing that crosses over a stream. The sun reflects off the shallow water.
Around the corner, you’re at the start of the native terrace, where native plants grow. Its beginning is marked as the Asian garden, identified by its Moon Gate, a circular opening with a brick outeiro and a red rim interior. It’s a common spot for photo shoots. Couples from the community pose for engagement photos and photography students flash their cameras, hoping the subject lands them an A on their project.
Beside the Harwood Garden is Van Landingham Glen. The Harwood was more of a “planned” garden with exotic species, but this is seven acres of native forest plants with over a thousand types of azaleas and rhododendrons. When the rhododendrons bloom in spring, it’s the best time to visit, says Gillman.
“You can see that, everything, if it’s not blooming, it’s about to bloom,” he says, on a late February day when the temperature just began to warm. “The spring just really, really pops.”
The ground is covered in bloodroot, an interesting name justified by its traits. When pulled out of the soil, a red, blood-like liquid covers the digger’s fingers. When the root is split in half, the spread of red becomes even more bold.
“You can really make yourself look nasty with this stuff,” Gillman says.
There’s a tiny wood shack in the glen with a plaque. It reads “Dr. Hech’s Log Cabin.” Today, if you look inside you’ll see an art piece, but in 1966, it was Dr. Herbert Hechenbleikner’s shed. The biology professor helped found the garden with Bonnie E. Cone. He wanted a “living classroom” for his students and a resource for the community, according to the Botanical Garden’s website. He died in 2004, but his legacy remains in the garden and this structure.
However, his legacy isn’t the only one that lives on in the garden. At the end of the walk, a memorial catches your attention. Cone lies here.
“It is a special thing that she decided she wanted to be in the gardens,” said Gillman. “Obviously, plants and the natural world were important to her and it’s so wonderful to have her still involved in some way with us.”
Literally and figuratively, the garden wants to keep growing. Over 40,000 people visit a year. To engage more of the community, Gillman is pushing for a visitor and welcome center, and a larger greenhouse.
“If we had that 15,000 square feet,” he said, “we’d be the premiere conservatory center between Atlanta and D.C.”
When that happens, the sounds of hammers on nails and bulldozers digging will be just one of the noisy occurrences the campus is accustomed to. And when it gets to be too much, you head to the gardens for a moment of peace.
Now, it’s just you and nature.