TLC and lots of hard work help create enchanted garden

A garden is a gathering place for people and plants, a living sanctuary both vigorous and fragile. When creatively designed, lovingly tended and frequently visited, a garden flourishes — on the ground and in the heart. In particular, children and gardens seem made for one another. A garden offers the grandeur and mystery of nature scaled down to explorable size, a perfect fit for a child.

A perfect example is Nancy's Rainbow Garden, a little jewel set by Makom Shelanu, an afternoon child-care program at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Though it looks natural and spontaneous, the miniature world of Nancy's Rainbow Garden is actually the result of a prodigious amount of planning, labor, devotion and perseverance.

The garden's current splendor features an imaginative mix of flowers, trees, vegetables, spices, a dog-shaped topiary, a fanciful trellis with a vine of tiny flame grapes growing upward, a water garden of hyacinths and lilies, cow and rabbit-shaped stone benches, and a birdbath. And that's just for starters, because the garden is a work in progress, as it always will be.

The vision is that of landscape architect Denna Breen, whose design was recently made real by a team of volunteers from nearby Hewlett-Packard during the United Way's "Week of Caring."

For 20 years, the original garden had been tended by teacher Nancy Harjan. She died last year, and in her memory Makom Shelanu (Hebrew for "Our Place") decided to enlarge and enhance Nancy's Rainbow Garden.

Enter the HP volunteers, who descended on the patch with energy that left Barbara Hart, director of the school, amazed.

"They made every moment count," Hart says. "They performed a metamorphosis, working nonstop — digging, shoveling, raking, hauling. Now we have a beautiful garden that is unfolding in front of our eyes."

Norma Slavit, JCC director of public relations, tells of how "the volunteers built planter boxes, installed a series of metal arches for vines to grow on, and created a soft, grassy knoll for the garden. Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund paid for a fence placed around the garden's perimeter, giving the area a sense of definition." The garden has also benefited from the generosity of Orchard Supply and Woolworth's Garden Center, as well as from fund-raisers and private donations.

Creatively, the garden offers experiences at different levels, from the towering and fruitful apricot tree planted eight years ago from the pit in a child's lunch, to an apple tree with six different varieties grafted onto it. Another apple tree came all the way from Israel. A very large onion grows alongside squash, baby green peppers, and red and yellow tomato varieties.

So what do the children themselves like best about the garden? "I can find bugs," said Charlie Buelow, age 8, "and I found a worm under the bricks."

Waverly Starke appreciates the many varieties of annual and perennial flowers, while Jonathan Naydenov, Anton Kachanova and Michael Lerner voted the apple trees their favorite plant (as they munched the apples). Dom Azulay added that "Audrey let us try some fresh peas we helped grow."

He was referring to staff member Audrey Kass, who says the garden "serves many purposes. We have Sukkot parties here. Kids bring their homework in to study and concentrate. They wrote haiku poetry this summer about the garden." Clear acrylic panels invite children's own artwork.

"The kids are very respectful too," Kass remarks. "They appreciate that if something is beautiful one should try to keep it that way." To that end, the children help nurture the garden's mulch pile with occasional apple cores and sandwich ends.

In today's fast-paced urbanized environment, says Hart, children may not have the experience of a backyard garden. So Nancy's Rainbow Garden provides the opportunity for children to pause and appreciate the many familiar and exotic forms that life can take, right in their own schoolyard.

Best of all, the kids can observe the harmony of life firsthand and reinforce their respect for living things. "If they find a snail," says Kass, "they gently remove it…before it damages the plants."