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The quiet pastoral beauty of the Bartlett Arboritum

Lu Anne Stephens

The joys of finding tranquility and solace in a hidden garden.

BELLE PLAINE – Kansas is full of natural beauty.

Sweeping open spaces, the craggy Gypsum Hills, the Tallgrass Prairie.

But it also contains quieter, secluded pastoral places, like Bartlett Arboretum in tiny Belle Plaine, about 15 miles south of Wichita.

On this day, the arboretum is bustling with visitors. They're here for Art at the Arb, an annual event with around 60 artists and craftsmen.

There's a lot to enjoy, aside from the beauty of the arboretum. There are food stands and a stage with live music. A cart is set up with veggies for sale, grown on-site.

But when it's not hosting an event, the Bartlett Arboretum has a very different feel

"It is an oasis," said Robin Macy, the steward and owner of the arboretum. "It's a secret garden. We like … that it's a little bit off the beaten track.

"And people walk in here and usually … they're gobstopped and fairly surprised that they are in Kansas and not North Carolina or heaven.

"I would say, 'No, you haven't died and gone to heaven, and you really are in Kansas.' "

The arb is lush and paths wind past a stately house, a gazebo, through the groves and flower beds. It's tulip time and as we walked along, the phrase "a riot of color" kept coming to mind … pinks, purples, reds and bright orange blooms.

"And these are called giant orange sunrise," Macy said, pointing to some tulips.

"They're so beautiful. … We get all of our tulips from Holland."

There are at least 40,000 of the Holland tulips, joined by flowering bushes and trees.

"This is your Betsy Ross lilac right there," Macy said. "It smells fabulous. Stick your nose in there if you want."

The arboretum was started in 1910 by Dr. Walter Bartlett when he purchased 15 acres of pastureland. The arb was an approved test site for the United States Department of Agriculture, which tested the hardiness of trees from around the world.

By the time Macy purchased the property in the late 1990s, it had dozens of varieties of trees, many of them state champions, which means they're the largest on record.

We crossed a bridge over a small pond as the tour continued.

"This is a little more organic and willy-nilly, and that's a little more fussy back there," Macy said. "We have plenty of tulips over here, too. … We planted 12,000 daffodils in the back meadow."

This part of the arb is more like a park: flowers accenting the trees and grassy areas. There's a large open lawn with a stage at one end for summer concerts and close by, an old train depot converted into space for indoor concerts throughout the year..

"So, we've got more than trees and shrubs and woody plants and tulips and flowers," Macy said.

Lu Anne Stephens

There's a small orchard and a hoop house, a kind of semi-permanent greenhouse.

"We can grow peppers and corn and tomatoes and lots and lots of greens and root vegetables all year long," Macy said.

There are a couple of AmeriCorps Vista people who work with the produce (the arboretum sells and donates produce locally). But other than Macy and her husband, Ken White, the arboretum is maintained by volunteers. Macy calls them the Soil Sisters and Brothers.

"The power of place can unify us," she said. "We just kind of check our politics, our religion, our opinions at the gate. And we kind of come in here and we find solace, and we unify over this common thing that brings us all together. And you would never know there's divisiveness in the world.

"And I guess it's just sort of a metaphor for how maybe, maybe, the world could be one little neighborhood at a time. If we could just find something that we all treasure and value."

Lu Anne Stephens is KMUW's Director of Content and Assistant General Manager. She has held many positions over many years at KMUW. Lu Anne also produces KMUW’s New Settler's Radio Hour and the Hidden Kansas segment for KMUW’s weekly news program The Range.