UF’s secret garden not so secret

Thanks to efforts from the College of Medicine, plans to restore Wilmot Gardens are underway.

By: Jamison Webb

Every Saturday morning, Linda Luecking rises with the sun, climbs into a pick-up truck with her husband, Bill, and drives to the University of Florida to visit an ailing patient at the Shands at UF Medical Plaza.

For a good portion of the day, she will tend to the patient, doing all she can to restore the healthy look of the patient’s younger days. Sometimes it’s just she and her husband working with the patient; sometimes as many as 30 volunteers will also help.

The patient at the focus of this care is more than 60 years old. It has lived its entire existence on this corner of Mowry Road and Gale Lemerand Drive, and it would’ve died long ago if not for the efforts of Luecking and other concerned faculty members with the College of Medicine – primarily former dean, Dr. Craig Tisher.

The patient is also 4.6 acres.

It is Wilmot Gardens, and it is a veritable Eden hidden within the concrete and chaos of the UF campus. Once a thriving green space, it had been neglected for decades as the university expanded around it. But thanks to the interest of Tisher and the passion of volunteers like Luecking, it has been rescued from complete ruin.

And just in time, too. Until only recently, the gardens looked like nothing more than a patch of land overrun by weeds and downed trees, and it was treated as such. In the fall, football tailgaters parked their vehicles on its grounds, trampling its plant life and bruising its historical significance. Campus planners similarly had little use for it–there once had been plans to erect a new building on the acreage it occupied.

Tisher saw other potential in the property, however. He pictured a sanctuary–not just for the patients of the nearby medical centers, but also for the staff and physicians working there. Restoring the gardens became his pet project.

“I’ve been driving past here for 26 years,” said Tisher, who recently retired from his post as medical dean. “It has the potential to be a beautiful area of green space.”

As project coordinator, Luecking is working to make Tisher’s vision a reality.

“These gardens offer something special for not just the body and the mind, but the spirit as well,” she says. “There’s something soothing about being surrounded by nature.”

Historical Value

If Wilmot Gardens was anything in its younger days, it was beautiful. Founded by UF horticulturist and renowned camellia expert Royal James Wilmot in the 1940s, the gardens were at one time home to the largest publicly held collection of camellias in the United States. Pine trees planted at the time promised to give the camellias the shade they needed to properly grow. Azaleas lined the man-made paths winding through the brush.

Wilmot died in 1952, but the gardens didn’t pass with him. Even more camellias were planted, and as the flora bloomed, so did the romances.

John and Peggy Kirkpatrick are one of the many couples from over the years for whom Wilmot Gardens has been important. John first took Peggy to the gardens in 1962 for an afternoon picnic when both were enrolled at UF. By the time he was ready to propose to her in November of that year, there was only one place to pop the question–among Wilmot’s camellias and azaleas.

Married since 1963 and living in Gainesville, the Kirkpatricks continued to visit the gardens. But as time went on, and as campus extended towards the once-isolated location where the gardens stand, the area began to lose its allure.

“It had slowly been a very sad experience because it had gotten overgrown,” Peggy says.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Wilmot Gardens had been all but forgotten by the university. It no longer received attention from groundskeepers, and while the campus flourished around it, life within the gardens was being strangled by cat’s claw, air potatoes and other exotic invasives. Magnolias died, while camellias were swallowed by the sunlight, stunting their growth. The gardens needed help.

Last year a building project planned for property next to the Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Institute on N.W. 34 Street happened to provide an unexpected boost the gardens needed. The university was required to set aside $40,000 to offset the environmental impact of a new ambulatory surgery center, and the dean felt it would best be spent on rehabilitating the gardens.

The hard work begins

With an arsenal of rakes, clippers and shovels, and a master gardener and certified horticulture professional in her husband, Luecking has proven to be that help. In the first two months of work at Wilmot Gardens, three dumpsters’ worth of brush and exotic invasives were removed, and that was only the beginning.

“None of it could have been accomplished without the assistance of all the volunteers – including master gardeners, horticulture professors and physical plant staffers,” Luecking adds.

While the plan is to keep much of the gardens as they were when Wilmot first cultivated them, new features will be added, turning Wilmot Gardens into the sanctuary that Tisher has envisioned. Tall and thick anises will drown out the drone of the cogeneration plant to the north and the activity of the Cancer/Genetics Research Complex to the southwest of the gardens. Mulberry trees will attract birds, whose songs and calls will provide the perfect harmony to the moving water that Luecking hopes to stream through the grounds. A boardwalk will allow visitors in wheelchairs to enjoy the gardens without concern for manuevering along the dirt paths, and benches placed throughout the park will offer spots for rest and relaxation. With towering pines providing filtered shade, the camellias and azaleas will bloom once more, giving Wilmot Gardens year-round color.

When the gardens are complete, Luecking hopes the ambience will provide a treatment that medicine can’t quite satisfy.

“We hope to bring healing to a new level,” she says.

Peggy Kirkpatrick echoes Luecking’s wishes for public embrace of the refurbished Wilmot Gardens, adding that the beauty of the landscape can have a very positive effect on those who visit it.

“It’s such a gem of a secret garden,” she says. “Hopefully it’ll mean as much to the patients as it did to us.”