Have you ever seen an “outdoor library” of plants? That’s what Kathleen Cook calls her workplace. She’s the landscape design horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden (FWBG) in Fort Worth, TX.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden stone water path

Water is an integral part of the Japanese Garden, which was designed to provide a place for meditation, relaxation, repose and a feeling of tranquility.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fort Worth Botanic Garden Japanese Gate

The Japanese Garden is the centerpiece of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Its three gates symbolize heaven, man and earth.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fort Worth Botanic Garden signage

Signage, brochures and other self-teaching aids help gardeners of any age and skill learn more about the plants around them.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fort Worth Botanic Garden water conservation garden

The newest addition is the Water Conservation Garden, where visitors can learn about plants that thrive in the hot, dry Southwest.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Feeding koi at Fort Worth Botanic Garden

Feeding the koi is a favorite activity for all ages.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fort Worth Botanic Garden arbor

Constructed in the 1930s, this beautiful arbor remains a cool, shady place to enjoy the garden.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fort Worth Botanic Garden trial garden

The Trial Garden is maintained by volunteers who help determine which plants are most suitable for Southwestern gardens.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Fort Worth Botanic Garden Republic of Texas garden

Visitors to the Republic of Texas Garden can study the state’s garden history and find plants that will work well in their own yards.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Kathleen has designed most of the display gardens at the FWBG in her 23 years there, a process she calls “guerilla education” for the local gardening public: Plants are labeled, handouts are placed in every display, tours are arranged, signage is current, and the biennial plant sales are a roaring success.

Located only a couple of miles from the city’s center, the FWBG is a popular midday respite for downtowners – and a great place to learn about plants and gardening. Want to learn how to grow vegetables? Prune roses? Save water? Choose the toughest perennials? Use native plants appropriately? Think taking data in a trial garden, assisting the plant propagator, weeding perennial beds or giving tours might be fun? There’s a place for you at the FWBG as a volunteer. And if you really know your stuff, you might even teach a class. The pay isn’t good, but the education is free.

And so is admission. Unlike many other public and private gardens, the FWBG doesn’t charge a fee – nada – to enter the grounds and take in all the horticulture you can absorb. (There are charges, however, for special events and the Japanese Garden.)

The FWBG is the oldest botanic garden in Texas, dating back to the Great Depression when the federal government taught unemployed workers to cut stones, lay cement and plant trees to build what was first known as Rock Springs Park. Most of the original, well-constructed beds and stonework survive and lend a quiet dignity and solid framework to the space. Since its opening in 1933, the FWBG has grown to 109 acres of gardens and natural settings, and the displays seem to be popping up as fast as Kathleen and her crew can design and install them.

The latest is the Water Conservation Garden, which showcases a wealth of native and well-adapted plants for Southwestern landscapes. These beauties (many of them grasses) are water-thrifty, colorful and wildlife-friendly – welcomed traits for such a hot, dry region.

The gleaming centerpiece of the FWBG is its expansive Japanese Garden, built in the 1970s on the site of an abandoned gravel pit once used as a dumping ground by an army camp in World War I. By most Japanese garden standards, the Fort Worth garden is Texas-size, with 7½ acres of fully developed paths and water features. Dr. Kingsley Wu, a graduate of the University of Tokyo, approved the garden design, characterized by its simplicity, harmony and balance.

Generous donors provided for the construction of the Zen Garden; koi carp ponds; the Ryoanji, or meditation garden; the Tea House; the Pagoda and Moon Viewing Deck; the Suzuki Garden (a study in contrasting stone surfaces softened by evergreen plants); and the Dry River Bed. The Japanese Garden was designed to provide “a place for meditation, relaxation, repose and a feeling of tranquility.” And does it ever do its job!

All told, the Japanese Garden has 5,900 feet of walkways and exposed brick and asphalt; abundant original garden art; three pools and a waterfall; seven crossings over water; and plants, plants, plants! (In fact, there were 71,000 containers of them used in the original construction!)

The FWBG is jam-packed with learning opportunities for all gardeners – amateurs or experienced. You can take courses there on design and plant selection offered by Texas Christian University, or select among mini-courses offered by the garden staff with such titles as Front Porch Citrus, Bonsai Basics, Yoga Flow in the Japanese Garden, Making a Birdbath for Mother’s Day, and Champagne and Roses. Gail Manning, director of education, also teaches a popular class on how to plant a butterfly garden.

Don’t have time to take a formal class? Drop in and teach yourself! Signage and printed materials will guide you as you encounter the Rose Gardens – the first FWBG gardens planted – and the Republic of Texas Rose Garden, which combines the beauty of antique roses with their historical significance. The Fragrance Garden is a pleasure to experience, too, and the Trial Garden is full of new varieties of perennial flowering plants that you can stroll through and take your own notes on how they perform.

Learn about forest ecology and the value of trees in our everyday lives in the Texas Native Forest Boardwalk. And don’t forget to explore the remarkable 10,000-square-foot botanical Conservatory. You can walk among exotic plants like orchids, bromeliads, birds-of-paradise and tropical trees from around the world. If you have the time, be sure to take a leisurely stroll through the open vistas and visit the native tree forest as well.

You can even be married at the FWBG. (The Fuller Garden, a perennial garden designed to depict the stages of life’s journey, is a favorite spot.)

The FWBG’s theme is “In Any Season, A Sanctuary for the Senses.” After a visit, you might agree that it’s also a sanctuary for gardeners – especially those who want to learn more, from the ground up.