Ithaca Children’s Garden: Then and Now

By Erin Marteal


Photos provided by the
Ithaca Childrens’s Garden. The future home of the ICG, as the field looked in 2000.

At the northwest entrance to the City of Ithaca along Rt. 89 stands a 3-acre children’s garden in an area with a rich and colorful history. While the garden – Ithaca Children’s Garden – has been there for 14 years – and has grown into an attraction that serves more than 70,000 visitors each year – its evolution has been steady and at times imperceptible.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrant families – many of whom were boatbuilders from Dutch, Irish, English, Swedish, Finnish, Czech, and Greek descent, populated the west end waterfront, also known as “The Silent City.” These inhabitants were dubbed “the Rhiners” as they commonly referred to the Cayuga inlet as “The Rhine,” in remembrance of the German River.

Many Rhiners were penniless and relied on their own resourcefulness to survive, building shacks from scrap metal and scavenged lumber on land they did not own, sleeping on floors of straw bedding. They fed their families by fishing, trapping, and berry collecting, and cobbled together day labor when it was available, existing largely on a barter economy.

The lack of plumbing, continuous flooding, and proximity to the marshlands created extremely difficult conditions to thrive. A major flood of 1935 sparked a new focus on solving the flooding problems that plagued the west end and in 1970, after lengthy project discussions and planning, the Cayuga Inlet local flood protection project was finally completed.


Photo provided by the
Ithaca Childrens’s Garden.
Children explore pond life at the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

The south end of Cayuga Lake along the inlet – originally natural marshlands – were filled in with dredging spoils that resulted from the Cayuga Inlet flood project. These spoils created what we know as Cass Park. The southernmost 3 acres of Cass Park became Ithaca Children’s Garden more than 30 years later.

Ithaca Children’s Garden, founded in 1997 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1999, moved onto the Cass Park parcel in 2004, with a mission to connect children to plants and the natural world. Over time, the 3-acre garden slowly developed, guided by founding Director Meg Cole, Education Director Leigh MacDonald-Rizzo, its original master plan by Landscape Architect Rick Manning, and the help of thousands of volunteers and supporters.

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Ithaca Children’s Garden is a unique garden in three key ways. While children’s gardens as a phenomenon have been flourishing across the U.S. and around the world in the last two decades, they are typically affiliated with a larger botanical garden. ICG is unique in that it is a stand alone garden with a principle audience of children and families. The second most notable distinction is that the majority of children’s gardens launch with substantial funding (usually in the multiple millions of dollars) which allows the garden and facilities to be designed and built in a very short period of time – frequently a 12- to 24-month period. This translates to what can feel like an overnight transformation.

ICG’s evolution has been quite different, with grassroots origins, broad community involvement, and youth input in the design concepts and implementation under the founding leadership of co-founders Harriet Becker, Monika Roth and Mary Alyce Kobler. ICG has been evolving slowly, over time, not unlike the pace of the snapping turtle which stands at the entrance as a symbol of this area’s natural and cultural heritage.

The third most distinctive characteristic of ICG compared to its children’s garden counterparts, is the highly interactive nature of the space, with children’s authentic developmental needs and interests at the heart of its design. While most children’s gardens invite a level of engagement, they are typically highly curated and controlled. ICG’s design and curation allows for a great deal of creative latitude in its use and interpretation by its young visitors.


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Photo provided by the Ithaca Childrens’s Garden.
Youth harvest the food that grows at the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

Prior to signing the lease with the city for the 3-acre parcel in 2004, the ICG parcel had only one path for access and was scattered with playground equipment that had fallen into disrepair. It was largely indistinct from its surrounding parklands and ballfields of uniform turf coverage.

In 2005, ICG began work on its first and most notable landmark at the Garden – Gaia, the larger than life turtle giantess sculpture standing at the southernmost point of Cass Park. From there, the Garden developed slowly from the south end to the north, with the Bird Garden, Wetlands, Bioswale, Troll House, Wildflower Meadow, and Kitchen Garden taking shape in the first five years. In the years since, new features including the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, the Bulb Labyrinth Memorial Garden, the Woven Tunnel Huts, the Kids’ Kitchen, the Village Green, the Very Hungry Caterpillar Boardwalk, and a formal main entrance – have further defined this child and family-centric community space that is free and open to all, 365 days a year.

Each of ICG’s rich garden habitats gives visitors an up-close and personal chance to experience the living world, and form a personal relationship with a bug, bird, plant or an entire ecosystem. It is a unique augment to traditional classroom instruction because the learning happens on the child’s terms, and is therefor more eagerly investigated and readily absorbed.


Photo provided by the Ithaca Children’s Garden.
The Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone is a favorite among those who frequent the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

Recently, ICG added a colorful entrance sign with the words “Free & Open to all,” and in 2017 served more than 8,000 program participants. It is interesting to imagine how a space like this could have served the children and families of the Silent City a century ago, and to think of all the children today who lack access to safe and free exploration of the outdoors and authentic child-directed play. It is an aspiration of ICG to serve every child and family in Ithaca and Tompkins County, and to inspire environmental stewardship by offering rich hands-on experiences for every child through the continuing design of the Garden. Readers are encouraged to contact the author with ideas and suggestions for how we can continue developing ICG to best serve the evolving needs of our community.

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  • Erin Marteal, who has served Ithaca Children’s Garden as its executive director since 2011, would love to hear from you. She can be reached at