Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tallahassee wildflower garden wins award from Florida Native Plant Society

FWF board members and friends (above) pick up an award for a wildflower garden during the Florida Native Plant Society's annual conference in Palmetto. The Tallahassee garden (top) was designed by Jeff Caster, a FWF board member and FDOT landscape architect, and landscape architect Marc Vidal.

By Barry Glenn
FWF Volunteer

Along Tallahassee’s Lafayette Street, sandwiched between a concrete edifice of government and a busy strip of blacktop, Mother Nature has put down some colorful roots.

She had some help with this dazzling display of wildflowers, mainly from landscape architect Jeff Caster. His work on the garden beside the Haydon Burns Building recently won a top 2008 Landscape Award from the Florida Native Plant Society.

Caster, who works for the Florida Department of Transportation, and Marc Vidal, a former landscape design student of his at Florida A&M University, joined forces four years ago to spruce up the half-acre slope on the north side of the Burns Building, which houses the FDOT. Caster’s goal was to generate interest in and enthusiasm for wildflowers by planting a bed that would feature subspecies found only in Florida.

“This garden is a true Florida native,'' says Caster, who is also a board member of the Florida Wildflower Foundation.

Today, instead of the previous spread of garden-variety centipede grass that once covered the area, passers-by can enjoy a selection of native Florida wildflowers -- blanket flower, phlox and two kinds of coreopsis.

The project began in 2004, when Caster and Vidal met with wildflower experts and members of the Magnolia Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society to discuss planting the garden outside the Burns Building, which would provide a highly visible site near the center of state government. This wouldn’t be a matter of casting seed and waiting for it to grow. Hardy varieties of live plants would be used to increase the likelihood of rapid success, reduce competition from weeds and provide some instant beauty.

Through a grant from Florida Wildflower Foundation providing funding through sales of a wildflower license plate, the Wildflower Seed and Plant Growers Association Inc. was contracted to grow the four species, which Caster says he believes was the first successful attempt to “contract grow’’ such native flowers. “We took real Florida seed and hired them to grow it,’’ he says.

By April 2005, the plants were ready for pickup from the Salter Tree and Herb Farm in Madison. All Pro Landscaping, a Tallahassee-area contractor, completed installation of the 1,841 plants and a few native shrubs in early May.

Since then, volunteers from the FDOT and the Magnolia chapter of the Native Plant Society have cared for the garden. Caster, who works in the Burns Building, also tends it regularly, even if it’s just to pick up some nearby litter or do a bit of weeding.

Indeed, the weeds remain the only major challenge to this team effort. Amazingly, the irrigation system has been needed only four times since the plants were established. The garden has continued to reseed and rejuvenate all by itself.

Moreover, Caster’s goal of spurring interest in native wildflowers has been realized. The garden has been featured in various state and local magazines, and FSU officials visited the site before establishing a wildflower project of their own. FAMU students find the garden a perfect place to identify a sampling of local native plants that can be incorporated into urban landscapes. And in May, the Florida Native Plant Society named Caster, Vidal, FDOT and the Florida Wildflower Foundation as recipients of its 2008 landscape award for wildflower and butterfly gardens.

Perhaps the most satisfying sights around the garden are these: Riders waiting for a bus at a nearby stop bending down to admire the blooms and seedlings. State employees taking a break from staring at a computer screen to marvel at an explosion of color. Kids who have tagged along with Mom or Dad on Take Your Children to Work Day reaching into the beds to gather seed to plant at home and thereby spread the joy.

All in living color.

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