HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Road Trip: Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg Florida

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All things vintage strike my fancy and this garden had me at its sign:

The Retro Sign of Sunken Gardens  - St. Petersburg, Florida

The Retro Sign of Sunken Gardens – St. Petersburg, Florida

I am thinking of this small gem today as I keep the wood stove burning and the thermometer doesn’t get out of the single digits. Sunken Gardens has been around since 1935 when George Turner Sr. opened his 6 acre property to the public to show off his walled gardens for $0.25 a person. Starting out as a place with a sink hole and a shallow lake, Mr. Turner turned this land into a rich area to grow fruits and vegetable by installing a tile drainage system. He was a plumber by vocation and horticulturist by avocation, Turner’s gardening transitioned from the fruits and vegetables he sold at his road-side stand to exotic flowers and tropical plants.  Turner maintained the gardens, eventually leaving them open year round and amassing a flock of flamingos numbering in the hundreds. Turner’s sons purchased the property from their father and the garden became world famous. Celebrities visited and beauty contests were held there. The gardens went through many changes, a large gift shop (at one time the largest in the world), walk-through aviary, religious exhibits. Due to the construction of a nearby interstate and the creation of large theme parks, this garden, like many others, experienced a decline in audience and an increase in operational expenses that led a discussion concerning closing the gardens. The City of St. Petersburg now owns the attraction. Since 1999 the Parks Department has been operating and maintaing this oasis with great help from an army of volunteers. Right behind this sign is a strip mall and bustling 4th Street. You must enter, and leave (of course) through the gift shop. Modest, I’m sure, compared to the mega-shop of its past, this shop featured locally made and horticulture themed gifts for all ages and budgets. When you park in the lot, you have no idea what’s in store for you. The garden is walled, and even at my height, I couldn’t sneak a peak to see what was inside.

A Tropical View in the Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg, FL

A Tropical View in the Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg, FL

This little four acre garden in busy St. Pete, has 1 mile of walking trails and a variation in topography one doesn’t expect from a city block. The avian history of the garden remains visible and audible in the singing of a caged bright red macaw. I have no photo of this handsome fellow, I was too busy singing along with him to remember to take a photo. Other splendid birds add their songs and colorful plumage to the experience.

A Path winds its way through the Sunken Gardens of St. Petersburg Florida

A Path winds its way through the Sunken Gardens of St. Petersburg Florida

While the collection seemed to be comprised mostly of sturdy tropicals, the water and rocks are what make this garden a must-visit.  Water runs throughout the garden. While the drainage originally installed by the owner is still used to drain the land with horticultural displays, also on display is a portion of the ornamental water system Turner installed. At some points in the garden, you are 15′ below street level. Waterfalls, natural limestone outcrops, flamingos, turtles and winding pathways had me spending much longer than I had expected.  Don’t miss your opportunity to sit on the growing stone. If you do fit upon the rock, the sign next to it will let you know that you will earn ‘tranquility, inner harmony and the talent to make things grow.’

This example of long-ago roadside attractions known as St. Pete’s oldest living museum has 500 species and 50,000 plants on view. Now a historical landmark with 27 different garden areas, the small space dilutes activity well. It never felt crowded or overwhelming, despite the fact that during my visit many students were visiting on a field trip (love to see kids in gardens!) there was live music in one of the pavilions and a steel drum player meandered the pathways sowing his caribbean beat. Need your own escape from the cold? Watch this video of the Sunken Gardens. While I couldn’t live in Florida (I like snow too much and I feel I would shrivel and blow away if I weren’t able to witness the changing of the leaves in our hardwood forests) it is nice to have these photos to look back through and the memory of the warm air, the tropical scents and the sounds of macaws singing to the beats of a steel drum. Public Service Announcement: Rumor is the Carrabba’s right next door makes an excellent margarita.

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