Cultivation, NOT construction, at Bok Tower Gardens

| New partnership between attraction and UF/IFAS expands horticulture horizons for the public |

A PARTNERSHIP between the historic, Lake Wales-based Bok Tower Gardens and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) aims to help make the gardens a more integral part of learning. “We don’t go to an elementary and a high school and not expect to see a library. Why couldn’t we utilize gardens as a teaching tool and a place of learning just as we would a library?” asks Nicole Walker, Polk County’s UF/IFAS extension director, who is acting as the institution’s local liaison for the partnership.

Through the partnership, Bok Towers Gardens will become a hub for UF/IFAS programming. The gardens and UF/FAS will also promote school and community gardening, native-plant and wildlife gardening, and garden classes through existing UF/IFAS programs like Florida Friendly Landscapes.

“The ultimate goal of the partnership is to reach adults and children with an important message about eating healthily,” says Dr. Nick Place, dean and director, UF/ IFAS Extension. “If kids can really start to change their behavior and desires in what they want to eat, they go back home and start talking to their parents about these sorts of things,” he asserts.

The partnership has a $2 million annual budget from the state and will operate from a new building now underway at the non-profit gardens. The 4,452-square-foot building will house two IFAS employees initially; it has the capacity to house five.

The goal is to eventually have a statewide network for school gardens, with training and support provided, to help them be successful, says Dr. Cynthia D. Klemmer, Bok Tower Gardens’ director of education and UF/IFAS partnership liaison. “A lot of times they (school gardens) are the passion project of one particular teacher,” she explains. “When they retire or transfer to another school, it often becomes defunct.”


Mini-grants will be awarded to build or expand school and community gardens. Applications are being accepted through February 1; those interested should contact Dr. Klemmer or Walker for proposal guidelines. Another round of applications will be accepted in the fall.

A little bit of money can go a long way in a school garden. At Sebring’s Fred Wild Elementary, teachers Sheli Gossett and Michelle Peragine have been planning to add two gardens. The school already has a nature and fitness trail, outdoor classroom, and quiet reading nook.

“Our goal is to improve student achievement and reduce student bullying by cultivating well-balanced student leaders,” says Gossett, who teaches handicapped pre-kindergarteners. “Ultimately, we’re trying to create life-long learners and give them something to carry on into adulthood.”

That can be especially important, because 90 percent of the school’s students are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program.

Gossett and Peragine (a fourth-grade teacher), have been working on plans that include a “Synergy Soup and Salsa Garden” to teach nutrition, replacing an old hydroponics garden destroyed by fire with raised beds. First-graders and pre-kindergarteners would work together on the garden. A sensory garden in the main courtyard would include plants with texture and aroma and be maintained by fourth-graders.

The school already has scheduled a field trip to Bok Tower Gardens for its first-graders to commemorate Earth Day.


The partnership held a kickoff celebration January 9 for the new office building expected to open this summer.
The partnership evolved after Bok Tower Gardens’ staff approached UF/IFAS with the idea. Discussions began in 2011 with then-state Senator J.D. Alexander, who chaired the Senate Budget Committee; Dr. Jack Payne, UF’s senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources and the administrative head of IFAS; and Bok Tower Gardens President David Price.

“Across the nation, there is such a disconnect between farming and picking up food at the grocery store,” explains Alexander, a Lake Wales citrus grower and adviser to the Polk County Farm Bureau. “I hoped they would be able to work out the partnership they have.”

Of Alexander’s role in the process, Price adds, “He has been a real champion of education. His family is so involved with agriculture. He has been a big champion to help us achieve these goals.”

The partnership melds outreach goals of both institutions. Part of the garden’s mission is literally carved in stone in the fireplace mantel in the Founder’s room: “Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it,” the inscription reads. Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant, gave the gardens to the American people in appreciation for the opportunities he had here.


Historically, Bok Tower Gardens has been involved with conservation of the land and rare plants. It includes 126 different species of birds, along with the threatened gopher tortoise and endangered eastern indigo snake.

Plans call for the addition of an Outdoor Kitchen and Edible Garden where, among other things, chefs may demonstrate how to make kale tasty. Through demonstrations intended to make health and nutrition fun, children will learn where food comes from.

The kitchen and a Discovery Center classroom was designed by the San Antonio, Texas-based Lake|Flato Architects. Dr. Klemmer points out that the gardens provide “a living stage” that enhances UF/IFAS activities. “It allows the garden to go beyond the gates and reach out into the community,” she says.

“It’s a little bit like extension on steroids,” Walker observes. “We have fundings to go further than we normally could.” By investing in infrastructure, UF/IFAS is able to put “boots on the ground to actually carry out this work,” Dr. Place adds.

In addition to onsite demonstration gardens, education programs and conservation outreach, the partnership may be able support interns from UF and other universities. UF/IFAS, a federal-state-county partnership with offices in all 67 Florida counties, is a resource for information about agriculture, human and natural resources, and life sciences.

Bok Tower Gardens is a National Historic Landmark dedicated in 1929 by Bok, a Pulitzer-prize winning author and peace advocate. The gardens feature a 60-bell carillon in a 205-foot art deco marble tower. It includes nearly 700 acres of groves, a historic landscape garden designed by the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and conservation lands.

The partnership is enabling Bok Tower Gardens to fast track and enhance some of the projects in its long-range master plan that preserves the central historic core while opening up a children’s gardening area, Outdoor Kitchen and orientation area located near the Visitor Center.


article by CHERYL ROGERS
event photos by CHELSEA WALDMAN

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