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Tuesday, Apr 15, 2014
South Shore News

Have you seen Sunken Gardens lately?


Published:   |   Updated: November 20, 2013 at 07:20 AM

It’s that time of year when visitors start arriving. There are plenty of places to take them, but the state’s oldest attraction, Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, is a better choice than ever.

Gardeners will be inspired and informed, and nongardeners simply will enjoy the beauty. The entire park can be seen in a morning or part of an afternoon, or you can rest, read, or visit from any of the benches for as long as you wish. The price is very reasonable, and the enjoyment will last for years in your memory. If you’re close enough, you can afford to go at all seasons and see and learn something new every time.

When George Turner Sr. bought the Sunken Gardens property in 1903, the neighbors wondered why. It was quite probably a sinkhole that had stabilized to be a small lake but with much swamp on its edges, where their mules sometimes wandered in and got stuck.

But Turner was a plumber and soon drained the lake with a series of terra cotta pipes. That left him with rich muck that is still 10-feet deep in the lower areas and sandy soil on the rim.

A gardener and horticulturist, Turner planted fruits and vegetables that he sold at a stand on Fourth Street North. Soon neighbors were strolling through his gardens on Sunday afternoons. So in the early 1920s he added a gift shop and charged a nickel to tour.

By 1935, Sunken Gardens had become not only a full-time roadside local attraction with winding pathways, interconnected ponds and exotic plants and trees, but also one of world renown.

At one time it included more than 400 birds and animals for visitors to see and was advertized clear up into the Midwest. My husband, David, remembers a billboard on State Road 42 north of Cincinnati when we were children that read See Sunken Gardens. Many folks who came to visit liked the climate so much they moved down.

The third generation of Turners sold Sunken Gardens to the city of St. Petersburg in 1999. It was closed that June for renovation but reopened in early 2000. The following April Bill O’Grady began working as the horticulturist specialist. David and I and our daughter Brigid enjoyed a tour of the gardens with him when she came down from Iowa last August.

There are seven live oaks in the gardens that are estimated to be 200 to 250 years old. While these trees are often seen in Tampa, they are unusual in St. Petersburg. The giant bamboo near the entrance was started in the 1940s and was moved for part of the time when the park closed. Back now, new shoots can grow two to three feet in a single day.

Butterflies abound, and there are many plants to provide both nectar and larvae food. We watched a giant swallowtail laying eggs on an orange jasmine tree. I was glad to learn they will lay on many kinds of citrus.

I’m always amazed at the difference in the plant life between Hillsborough County and Pinellas. For instance, there is a plumeria in Sunken Gardens that is at least 40 feet tall and covered with clusters of pink flowers. Seagrapes here in Hillsborough are shrubs for us and seldom have fruit. They definitely can be trees in St. Pete, and the grape-like edible fruits dangle.

Sunken Gardens, 1825 Fourth Street North, St. Petersburg, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m. Admission for adults is $8. Children ages 2 to 11 are $4 and seniors ages 62 and older are $6.

For additional information, call (727) 551-3102 or visit www.sunkengardens.org. And be sure to see my much longer article about Sunken Gardens in the Florida Gardening Magazine February/March 2014 issue.

Today’s pick is the Acalypha species, including the copperleaf and chenille plants. They start easily from cuttings and thrive in full sun to partial shade. It was interesting to see so many of the cousins together at Sunken Gardens. I doubt they’re bothered by frost there. Over here it can happen but with the last two warm winters, one of mine is about 8 feet tall.

Now’s the time to...reassure you that Sunken Gardens’ main loop is 3/4 of a mile long and wide and smooth enough for strollers and wheelchairs. The paths are renovated as needed to preserve the historic patterns and colors of the pavers.

The center of the garden is 15 feet below street level, but the decline is gradual and not difficult. The whole place covers only 4 acres but it seems much bigger from the inside because there is so much to see.

Upcoming events

Marjorie Canterbury, who ran the Canterbury Nursery for decades, will have a plant sale in her backyard at 10051 E. Fowler Ave., Thonotosassa, on Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Her home is just west of the nursery now run by her children. Both places have plants you seldom see elsewhere at very reasonable prices. Don’t miss this one.

The Tampa Bay Orchid Society will meet on Thursday at Christ the King Catholic Church, McLaughlin Center, 821 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. Ron McHatton, the American Orchid Society’s chief operating officer and director of education, will speak about the orchids of Madagascar. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the meeting starts at 6:30 and refreshments will be provided. There will be plants for sale, a plant raffle and a bloom table, where experts will discuss various plants. The meeting is free and open to the public.

For more information and directions, call (813) 839-4959.

Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 11 gardening books who can be reached at monicabrandies@yahoo.com. Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.

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