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Highlands Center Discovery Gardens makes nature accessible

David DeVille, key volunteer at the Highlands Center for Natural History, teaches Jacob and Spencer Herschel about beetles with grandmother Susan Ide watching at The James Family Discovery Gardens on Saturday, June 3. (Jason Wheeler/Courier)

David DeVille, key volunteer at the Highlands Center for Natural History, teaches Jacob and Spencer Herschel about beetles with grandmother Susan Ide watching at The James Family Discovery Gardens on Saturday, June 3. (Jason Wheeler/Courier)

At the Highlands Center for Natural History’s James Family Discovery Gardens, people of all ability levels have been able to enjoy nature and learn about the natural world around them.

The gardens opened in 2017 after it became clear that unless people were coming to the Highlands Center for a specific program or to hike the trails, there was nothing to interact with, said Marketing Coordinator Tom Agostino.

“There should be something you interact with. There wasn’t anything,” Agostino said. “In a sense, we were a venue without a destination.”

Since the Highlands Center for Natural History is all about nature, the end result was a space accessible to all people, paved and with signage, that people could enjoy, he said. Educational Director Filipe Guerrero also said that people on all sides of the spectrum of human ability, from little kids to people in wheelchairs, are able to go through the gardens to take a calming and educational stroll that is also comfortable, undemanding and contained.

People going through the gardens also can see exhibits that show the greater biological diversity found in the Central Highlands, Guerrero said.

“Each of our learning circles features a different biotic community,” he said. “It’s like a native botanical garden that showcases the different types of biomes that we find in this region.”

It’s a rudimentary treatment, however, because there are at least two different types of forest in the area, as well as two different types of woodlands and two different types of grasslands, Guerrero said. The goal was to keep it simple so it can remain accessible for people, he said.

On Saturdays, those walking through the Discovery Gardens can find naturalists out at discovery stations, Agostino said.

“There’ll be somebody there with a table. It’ll be an interactive, basically five- to 10-minute experience you can have whatever the subject matter is,” he said. “We let our naturalists choose, we probably have 10 or 15 things that they can do, and we let them choose the one they feel comfortable (with) and they want to share with the people.”

Initially, the thought was to charge $5 on weeks for people to come, but that meant creating activities, and with a volunteer organization it’s hard to create stable things, Agostino said. As such, the realization hit that since the Highlands Center can’t have activities all the time, entry to the Discovery Gardens would be free and to raise money needed to keep it running, there would be festivals and special events on select weekends, which resulted in the educational family fun fests that happen about every other month, he said, they’re all educational.

The next event taking place in the Discovery Gardens is Arthropalooza, from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday Aug. 17, exploring the world of insects and taking a closer look at the aliens of planet Earth from beetles to butterflies. It’s $6 for adults, $4 for children and free for Highlands Center members.

Between the Discovery Gardens themselves and the educational events that are held within, the hope is that people leave knowing more than they did when they came in, as well as wanting to become a member of the Highlands Center for Natural History, Agostino said. Memberships are $40 for individuals, $50 for family, $100 for a family joint membership with Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary, $100 for a Manzanita level membership and $250 for a Walnut level membership.

The Discovery Gardens is always a work in progress because it’s alive, Agostino said. Right now, work is being done on bathrooms for the area, he said, noting that the whole idea is for it to be accessible, and if you have to go back up to the main area to use the restroom, that kind of defeats the purpose. Additionally, Guerrero said that the Highlands Center is working on new educational areas, including native landscaping, rainwater harvesting, a pollinator garden and a hummingbird garden.

The Highlands Center for Natural History is located at 1375 S. Walker Road. For more information about the organization or the Discovery Gardens, visit The gardens are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April through October and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. November through March.

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