A preserve in tranformation
Sunlight floods across the grassy clearing along the shore of a tranquil pond. Nearby gardens filled with flowers — from orchids and begonias to camellias and caladiums — radiate with color and life.
The peaceful Mead Botanical Garden wasn’t always thriving with life. Trash once littered the ground, and potato and skunk vines coiled around the budding plants and flowers.
If the garden were to ever thrive again, it needed a community effort; an effort that began 10 years ago.
Winter Park residents gathered at Mead Botanical Garden last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Mead Botanical Garden Inc. (MBG), a non-profit organization that spearheaded the restoration of Winter Park’s prized garden.
The anniversary commemorated more than 20,000 hours of volunteer work that brought the garden to its current, blooming state.
In a clearing where three abandoned, damaged greenhouses once stood, residents, City Commissioners and Mead Botanical Garden Inc. leaders reflected on the collective effort the city made to reestablish a natural treasure.
“The fact that so many of you all are here is really evidence that Mead Botanical Garden is no longer a neglected or forgotten spot in Winter Park,” Executive Director Cynthia Hasenau said. “It’s really a place that so many of us have become very passionate about.”
The garden was originally privately owned when it opened in 1940, and eventually came under control of the city in the later part of the decade.
The city mowed the lawns and emptied trashcans for decades, but the plant life that made up the garden was slowly forgotten, and greenhouses succumbed to vandalism and neglect.
Formed in 2003 by concerned residents under the name Friends of Mead Garden, MBG slowly invested time and resources to rejuvenate the garden into a destination in Winter Park.
MBG Inc. rallied residents to lend a hand by pulling weeds, cleaning up trash and donating other services.
The cleanup effort took four solid years to complete.
Today, the plant life thrives more than ever before, and an old maintenance shed has now become the environmental learning center, a hub for horticultural education and summer camp programs.
Last year, Mead Botanical Garden Inc. oversaw the construction of an outdoor performance pavilion in partnership with the city and the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra – another addition to the garden that comes from collaboration in the community.
“The power of community and partnership is alive not only in Mead Garden, but in Winter Park; that’s been our goal since the get go,” said MBG Board Member Jeffrey Blydenburgh. “This garden is a special place that needs to be handled and cared for in a special way. That only happens when people work together.”
Last week’s gathering celebrated every volunteer who has contributed to the garden, but focused on two women in particular.
Winter Park residents Alice Mikkleson and Rene Kelley lent a hand pulling weeds at the very beginning of the cleanup effort, recruiting scout troops, youth groups and civic organizations to join the cause.
The duo pulled so many weeds in a span of four years that they became known as the “weed warriors.”
“When I was mad at my husband, I’d go out and weed,” Mikkleson said. “My next-door neighbor says he always know when I’m mad at my husband because the weeds are flying.”
Mikkleson and Kelley led the charge to clean up the garden, uncover the flowers that make the area unique, and ultimately pave the way for future restoration.
In 2009, Rene Kelley passed away from cancer, and a pathway was dedicated to her shortly after.
“This is the area where Rene gave so much of herself,” Mikkleson said. “I wish you could have seen her eyes light up when we found the camellias in the middle of those bushes.”
At the 10th anniversary celebration, Parks and Recreation Director John Holland announced that a private donor would pay for the restoration of the sediment-filled pond adjacent to Rene’s Path, and that the pond would now be known as Alice’s Pond.
Mikkleson hopes that the next generation will take up the responsibility of caring for the garden, keeping it in its pristine state.
“I hope we have younger volunteers come in to just keep it up,” Mikkleson said.
“Just keep it going and don’t ever let it go back.”
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