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‘Walk through history’: New garden highlights North Florida’s horticultural heritage

  • Visitors are welcome at the Gardens of the Big Bend, 11 free themed gardens on the campus of the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center, 155 Research Road in Quincy.
  • The newest garden is a heritage garden that celebrates plants that have been historically important to the region. Phase 1 is complete, with more features to be added in the future

QUINCY, Fla. — The Robert and Elaine Woodward Heritage Garden celebrated its groundbreaking May 14 at the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) in Quincy.

The new space on the campus joins its 10 other themed gardens, which are collectively known as the Gardens of the Big Bend. The gardens are maintained collaboratively by environmental horticulture faculty and staff at the NFREC and an independent non-profit volunteer organization, Gardening Friends of the Big Bend. The ceremony also falls during the yearlong 100th anniversary celebration of the center.

All of the gardens are free and open to the public daily, from dawn to dusk, including outside of normal business hours when the drive-through gate is closed. A small parking area just outside the gate leads visitors through an entry point to a map that explains the different themed areas.

“Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Bob and Ms. Elaine, this space will help future generations learn and celebrate the horticultural heritage of the area,” said Gary Knox, professor of environmental horticulture at NFREC. “It contains the plants that were important to the people of Gadsden County and the greater Big Bend area over the past 300 years. By taking a walk through the garden, we’re hoping visitors may see it as taking a walk through history.”

Although the heritage garden’s namesakes were unable to be part of the ceremony – Elaine died in 2020 and Bob was not well enough to travel to the event – several family members attended on their behalf, cutting a ribbon with garden shears and planting an Ashe magnolia, an endangered small flowering tree found only in the Florida Panhandle.

Katherine Woodward, Bob’s daughter, spoke at the ceremony and shared about the couple’s connection to the garden: “Elaine Tully Woodward loved beautiful things, and gardens, especially. As an agronomist and farmer, Dad loves to see things grow. Elaine would tell him what to grow and he grew it! She had the artist’s vision and he was the implementer. I am amazed by their generosity and desire to showcase Florida’s tough and beautiful plants.”

The garden will not only highlight the plants that were so important to the region, but also some artifacts and architecture related to the area’s history, Knox added.

This silky camellia was specially selected for the heritage garden by Bob Woodward, Gary Knox shared. It will soon be planted. (photos by Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS)

He said the present status of the garden is in Phase 1. It currently includes a freshly poured patio, meant to mimic the floorplan of an ancient homestead, where commemorative bricks will later be laid as its foundation and chimney. Next to the patio is an area that will eventually be filled with herbs and fruiting shrubs for the “kitchen garden,” and just beyond is the already-constructed gazebo meant to resemble a tobacco barn, one of the area’s historic crops. Newly planted ornamental shrubs and trees also demarcate the perimeter of the future space, which will later encompass sections of fruit trees, a medicinal garden, a shade garden and more.

“The idea is to represent the different areas of horticulture that were historically important through low-maintenance plantings,” Knox said. “We worked with Cowles Landscape Architecture, and he crafted a plan that is practical as well as beautiful, and representative of the history of the area.”

Glen Aiken, director of the NFREC, shared at the ceremony that Bob Woodward’s footprint on the garden was more than just monetary. The longtime owner of the Woodward Family Tree Farm would regularly join meetings with Knox and the landscape architect to give his input as the garden plans took shape.

For Howard Andrews, president of Gardening Friends of the Big Bend, the opening of the heritage garden represents a continuation of the group’s mission.

“We believe the gardens have become a place of learning, understanding and remembrance, for the young and old alike,” Andrews said at the ceremony. “Adding to the gardens at any time is a special moment. The Robert and Elaine Woodward Heritage Garden will become a beautiful asset of historical significance in the Gadsden County and North Florida community for years to come.”

Those interested in contributing to the garden by purchasing a commemorative brick can visit tinyurl.com/GFBBbrick. Learn more about the gardens, including membership opportunities, plant sales and other information from the Gardening Friends of the Big Bend at my-site-gfbb.square.site.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.
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