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Learn about prairies, trains at Taltree

Five breeds miniature chickens will call this coop home when Children's Adventure Garden opens Sept. 1 Taltree Arboretum

Five breeds of miniature chickens will call this coop home when the Children's Adventure Garden opens Sept. 1 at the Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in Valparaiso, Ind. | Andy LaValley~Sun-Times Media

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Arboretum & Gardens

♦ 450 W. 100 North, Valparaiso, Ind.

♦ Admission: $10 for adults, $5 for kids 5 to 12, free for kids 4 and younger

♦ (219) 462-0025;

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Described locally as a hidden treasure, Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in Valparaiso, Ind., hopes to become better known with two new family-friendly exhibits. The arboretum unveiled its new Railway Garden in April and will open its new Children’s Adventure Garden Sept. 1.

“First and foremost [the goal] was to increase our offerings so there was enough for families … to come and have a day trip and get away from it all — to come out to a beautiful 360-acre site [with] five miles of hiking trails,” said Alexis R. Faust, Taltree CEO and president.

Both gardens are models for sustainability and recycling.

The children’s garden was created largely from materials left over from the creation of other gardens along with fallen trees from the arboretum.

“It’s a lesson in recycling,” Faust said.

It features houses made of sunflowers, passageways formed by willow branches, a tool shed with a roof made of plants, a flock of chickens in a colorful coop, worm composting, statues made by local artists, two play areas with “loose” play parts, a sand and water play area, and an Alphabet Prairie Walk, which Faust calls “really cool.”

Taltree is home to 37 acres of prairie, but visitors can’t wander it. The staff built a miniature prairie in the children’s garden, choosing 26 plants to match the letters of the alphabet. Each plant is labeled and connected by stepping stones.

“The kids can kind of hopscotch on these stepping stones from one plant to the other and just by physically interacting with the 26 stepping stones … They’ll be able to sort of inherently understand this incredible diversity that we have here in Indiana prairies,” she said.

Other highlights include the seed-to-table area that demonstrates how plants, composting, worms and chickens are all connected and the human gnomon sundial, in which the numbers of a clock and months of the year are put into the ground. Visitors stand on the appropriate month and their shadow tells the time.

“It teaches kids about the seasons,” Faust said.

Showcasing the steam era of trains, the Railway Garden is composed of 3,000 lineal feet of hand-laid track, upon which seven trains (including a Thomas train) traverse mountains, bridges and tunnels through varied landscapes and vignettes depicting scenes from the 20th century. It all happens behind a replica of a 1920s train depot.

“I think there was the real desire to leech out some of the familiar history from a railroad perspective in the Midwest,” Faust said. “And to really help people have a new understanding of how the railroad changed American history and our country in general.”

To that end, historical vignettes cover the Civil War (it was the first time the military used trains in combat), Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train (the cars were the same in which he campaigned), the railroad’s construction and a lumber camp.

Some 850 tons of Missouri limestone were used to construct the display, which includes 4,000 miniature plants (500 varieties), 30 handmade bridges and six water features powered by a reclamation system. Garden pathways are lined with pervious concrete, which allows rain water to filter into a pond and get recycled through an irrigation system into the water landscapes.

The steam era display takes up about one acre of the 2.5-acre site, leaving room for expansion. Faust said the arboretum plans to add two more displays depicting other eras from railroad history.

Upcoming events at Taltree include Art in the Garden Sept. 29-30 and a haunted version of the Railway Garden for the month of October.


♦ The Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, offers free general admission to Illinois residents every weekday in September beginning Sept. 4. Call (773) 684-1414 or visit

♦ The Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox, hosts its second annual Shamrock Kids Club Ice Cream Social from 2 to 5 p.m. Sept. 9. Cost is $5 per family; recommended for kids 12 and younger. Reservations are required by Sept. 6 to (773) 282-7035; visit for more information.

Jennifer Burklow is a local free-lance writer.

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