by ALINE CLEMENT
Most gardeners I know love to visit other people’s gardens. It’s inspiring to walk through and observe the handiwork of someone who loves gardening as much as you do. Jacksonville is blessed with many beautiful gardens, offering a wide variety of plant material in outdoor spaces that beckon visitors to stop and smell the roses.
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is one of Jacksonville’s treasures! Nestled among office buildings on Riverside Avenue near the downtown area, the Cummer property offers spectacular views of the St. Johns River and the Southbank. While the paintings, sculptures, and other artistic media inside the museum are exceptional, the gardens provide a quiet retreat into days gone by.
In past visits to the Cummer’s Italian and English gardens, I was often curious about a gate at the north end of the property. Reminiscent of the novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the gate provided a glimpse into another garden, overgrown and closed to the public. It was designed in the early 1930s by the Olmstead Brothers for Waldo and Clara Cummer but was partially destroyed in the 1960s when the museum was built. The garden was not maintained, and it quickly reverted back to nature.
Last year a restoration project was begun using old plans, photographs, and other available documentation. Now we can see the Olmstead Gardens as they looked over 50 years ago. And, we’ll be able to observe the gardens as they mature in the years to come.
The lower gardens along the river are divided into several “rooms,” each with its own distinctive feel and framed by a massive stone wall along the northern side. The first room features an expansive grassy area bordered by azaleas, pittosporum, agapanthus, roses, palms and crape myrtle. It also contains a garden shed used to house tools and supplies.
The second room features the original pergola, restored to its former glory as a support for two massive wisteria vines, which are just starting to recover from the major pruning required to repair the pergola. Azaleas, hydrangeas, coontie palms and hollies overlook the central area where a statue of Mercury keeps watch. The statue was given away when the gardens were dismantled, but its owner donated it back to the museum to enhance the restoration.
The third garden room is shadier, due in large part to the massive oak and podocarpus trees which were part of the original garden. Paths invite you to see the oleander, plumbago and agapanthus in bloom. A grotto built into the stone wall at the back of the gardens features various water plants.
Original steps take you up to the overlook area, which provides a spectacular view of the gardens below and the majestic St. Johns River. Sit on the bench under the old oak tree and imagine you are Waldo or Clara Cummer, enjoying an idyllic, spring day in your lovely gardens.
Refer to www.cummer.org/gardens-history for more information on the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Admission is free on Tuesdays from 4 pm until 9 pm, and on the first Saturday of each month.
Strolling through a beautiful garden designed by a landscape professional can be almost as satisfying as growing your own.
Grow Your Own – June 2013
by ALINE CLEMENT