Photo | Jenni Krchak
Entrance to Aromi Garden with native azalea in foreground
By Maarten van der Giessen, President, Van Der Giessen Nursery Inc.
A common theme of writers is whether the difference between reality and a dream is the number of people sharing the dream. It is certainly the dream, and not harsh realities, that has kept Mobile Botanical Gardens open.
It began as an idea from Mobile’s finest horticultural minds. Tom Jr. and Bill Dodd of Tom Dodd Nurseries, Pat Ryan of Bellingrath Gardens, horticulturalists from Spring Hill College, botanists from the University of South Alabama and landscape engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all had one vision: Let’s build a garden for Mobile. It wasn’t just a garden, either. It was envisioned as a shining star that would lead Mobile into a new era of civic life, an educated era where these venerable minds could share what they had learned about horticulture. That is to say, what they had learned about life.
They incorporated the South Alabama Botanical and Horticultural Society in 1971. Langan Park, a 720-acre longleaf pine savannah with a large, clean lake, seemed to be the ideal spot. Located in the Spring Hill community, the land had originally been set aside as a buffer to protect Mobile’s water supply. The city agreed to lease 100 acres to the society in 1974 and the transition from dream to reality began.
The founders immediately planted large areas as camellia, native azalea, holly and fragrance gardens. In 1979 concrete paths crossing a small Japanese-style bridge were poured to build what was envisioned as the fragrance and texture garden.
Of course, with dreams eventually come nightmares. For the Botanical Gardens, 1979 would be two steps forward and then Hurricane Frederic was a giant step back. Frederic devastated Mobile. Mobile devastated Langan Park. The debris from a million trees was staged in the open areas of the park until the time they could be disposed of properly. In addition, a drainage main in the neighborhood above the Gardens blew out. It created a 20-foot-deep ditch 300 feet long across the entrance to the Gardens. Still, the Gardens endured.
Funding for the Gardens was envisioned as grants, contributions and a bit of help from the city of Mobile. But by the spring of 1976, it had become obvious it would take more. The first plant sale to support the Gardens was held in Floyd McConnell’s yard adjacent to St. Ignatius Catholic Church on Springhill Avenue. By 1982, a fall plant sale had become necessary to fund the Gardens. It was barely enough to get by.
The decade between the late ’80s and early ’90s was something of a dark time for the Gardens, a fitful dream as it were. Greenhouse production was run by the Mobile County Master Gardeners organization to help with funding. Some progress was made. The Gulf Coast Herb Society built a new herb garden, designed and installed in 1996 by Plauche and Johnson Architects, but the Gardens themselves faltered. The city provided the Gardens with $5,000 a year; the county gave them $2,000. Everything else it took to keep the Gardens open had to be raised by the citizens of Mobile. Weeds ran rampant in the holly garden, the Shropshire nature trail was often closed by falling trees and eroding paths. Without proper horticultural supervision, the camellias were limbed up to allow the mowers to cut underneath, and finally the native azaleas were pruned back to 3 feet with plastic placed beneath them to hold back weeds. The Gardens were indeed rolling in their sleep.
It cannot be stated enough. The Gardens survived, as they survive today, due to the passion of the people of this city. In 2002, the Gardens found funding from local philanthropic groups and got back on its feet. The Larkin Educational Center was built that year. In 2005, the John Allen Smith maple garden opened. In 2006 the Gardens hired horticulturalist Marion Drummond as executive director. Things were improving dramatically.
Within the next two years both the Millie McConnell azalea garden and the K. Sawada WinterGarden were completely rebuilt and held the finest collections of those two groups of plants in the South. Fire was reintroduced to the long-neglected longleaf pine forest. What had been a tangle of privet and cogon grass became home to over 300 species of native plants. Mobile had created the largest urban longleaf pine forest in the U.S,, which was declared a Treasure Forest by the Alabama Forestry Commission in 2010. The K. Sawada WinterGarden received the prestigious International Camellia Garden of Excellence award from the International Camellia Society.
The Gardens were beginning to show what the dream could be, and with that, it showed what Mobile could be. By 2014 the Gardens had tripled in size of cultivated areas. It was declared by Tom Johnson, director of Magnolia Plantation Gardens, as “A Garden to Watch” at the Garden Writers Convention in Atlanta that year. Still, unseen by the public eye, it was in crisis.
Funding the Gardens had become unworkable. The Gardens had gone through three directors in 10 years trying to find a way to make it all work. The funding from the city remains at $5,000 per year, but the Gardens now has a budget over 100 times that amount. The City Council representative for Spring Hill, Gina Gregory, had done what she could to help keep the doors open, but in spite of the dedicated management of Director Robin Krchak, and the best intentions of the volunteers, the Gardens remain on the brink.
Inevitably, it is for the citizens of Mobile to decide. A botanical garden teaches people how to grow, what to grow, where we are and who we are. It is without politics and simply dedicated to making Mobile a better place to live. For Mobilians the question is: “If we are not to dream, to what will we awaken?”
Gardening Events for Your Calendar
What: Monthly Meeting, Mobile County Master Gardeners
When: Thursday, Sept. 5 (10 – 11:45 a.m.)
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road, N., Mobile
Program: Penny Smith: Why Propagation Fails, White Powdery Mildew
What: Sehoy Thrower, Poarch Creek Indians
Topic: Traditional Uses of Native Plants by Poarch Creek Indian Tribe
When: Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 (6 – 7 p.m.)
Where: Marx Library, University of South Alabama
Sponsors: USA Native American Studies, Mobile Medical Museum and Mobile Master Gardeners
What: Dr. Stephen Bridge, Executive Director of the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem
When: Saturday, Sept. 14 (10 a.m. – noon)
Where: Cornerstone Gardens, 1066 Government St., Mobile
Parking available, children welcome
For information: Call 251-377-2577
What: Mobile Botanical Gardens Fall Plant Sale
When: October 18 – 20
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 51 Museum Drive, Mobile
Contact: email@example.com or 251-342-0555, ext 2
What: Alabama Master Gardener State Conference
When: March 30 – April 1, 2020
Current activity: Inviting sponsors and donors to participate
Contact: AMGA2020Mobile@gmail.com for information about sponsorships and donations for the conference.
Master Gardener Helpline: 877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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