Tree Hill Nature Center, Old Arlington, Jacksonville, FL, photo by Fran Ruchalski


“Follow the trail. It is well marked. The alligator will be on your right and the black goats on your left.” These were the intriguing instructions I received on my quest for the Arlington Community Garden at Tree Hill Nature Center on Arlington’s Lone Star Road. I liked Tree Hill instantly when I saw a sign offering free compost at the front gate. I also liked the fact a staghorn fern roughly the size of a golf cart graced the entrance. Well-marked trails led to the office and to the helpful man who provided the garden location instructions.

Because the trails close at 4pm, and it was 3:45, I ran past the alligator pen, glanced at the ebony goats, jogged up a new boardwalk, turned at the graceful amphitheater and, up on the hill, found the garden.

A gated, black metal picket fence enclosed the 35 plots. Many of the plots had wooden signs saying the produce was being grown for the Food Pantry. Later, I found out that the Pantry is part of Arlington Community Services. The garden is the Pantry’s sole source of fresh produce and is managed by volunteers who “adopt” a plot for the Pantry. The garden provides basic ingredients: the raised beds, drip irrigation, seedlings, soil amendments, and tools. Volunteers provide the smiles and the perspiration.

photos by Fran Ruchalski

The winter plots were overflowing with greens. Collards and broccoli were the everywhere, some of them left to blossom for pollinators. There were some mustard greens and some kale. According to the garden’s internet site, the garden is entirely organic. As so many urban dwellers are unfamiliar with cooking fresh veggies, the gardeners increase the desirability of the produce by offering easy and healthy recipes to clients at the Food Pantry. Since the inception of the garden in 2010, the plots have produced over 2,684 pounds of Whole Foods’ level produce.

Besides Tree Hill itself, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville is the chief partner and sponsor of the garden. By providing management and funding, the church walks its talk in the arena of environmental justice. Another partner in the project is Jacksonville University, where Dr. Nisse Goldberg’s students grow heirloom seedlings and create education kits.

For folks who might want some info on starting their own community garden adventure, information is abundant at the University of Florida’s IFAS site or closer to home at Mary Puckett is the Garden Guru at the IFAS office on McDuff. Her email is [email protected].

photos by Fran Ruchalski

For non-gardeners— those folks who have thrown in the trowel or who refer to soil as dirt— there are other adventures to be had on Tree Hill’s multi-ecosystem, fifty-plus acres. There are three walking trails, a hands-on kids’ museum featuring Florida’s natural history, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, a seasonal live butterfly exhibit, chickens, turtles, gopher tortoises, snakes, a barred owl, possums and, of course, the alligator and the goats I sped by on my way to find the community garden.

Field trips, troop meetings, individual and family visits are encouraged. If Professor E.O.Wilson of Harvard University is correct about the need of the human to contact the natural world in order to stay healthy, then Tree Hill is medicinal as well as magical.

The 2015 Joseph A. Strasser Butterfly Festival will be held on Saturday, April 25th from 10am to 4pm. You don’t want to miss this fun and educational event for adults and children of all ages.

Nestled in the bosom of Old Arlington, Tree Hill is open Monday-Saturday, located at 7152 Lone Star Road, is just five minutes from Downtown. Look for the giant pyramid. The entrance fee is Adult $4, seniors and Military $3, kids (3-17) $2.

About Victoria Freeman