A Community Garden Blossoms
On a recent Sunday afternoon, weeks after the impact of Hurricane Ian, a team of volunteers from the Coral Gables Garden Club weathered another rainy day to continue their work on the newest pollinator garden in the historic MacFarlane District. I was one of them, announcing that “Rain or shine, it’s gardening time.” I managed to convince a few diehards to brave the weather, and we did what community does best – came together and got it done. We cleaned up wind damage, weeded garden beds, removed fallen tree debris, trimmed things back a bit, and replanted.
The idea for the project began in July of last year, when Garden Club President Susan Rodriguez was in the MacFarlane District to meet with Miss Prime, a home owner and pillar of this community who passed recently, to discuss expanding Project Canopy to add more trees. “The MacFarlane district does not have swales, so they lack the tree canopy we have,” says Rodriguez. “Then, as we were leaving, I asked Miss Prime who owned the lot across from her house. She told me it was Louis “Lou” Duncanson, an expert in bush medicine. I called him, saying ‘I’d love to put a pollinator garden in and get the whole neighborhood involved.’ He said he would love to do it.” His only request was that we dedicate the garden to Dr. Julia Morten, the late botanist and self-taught expert on medicinal plants and tropical fruits.
The MacFarlane Homestead Historic District is just across U.S. 1 from the massive Gables Station project. It’s named after Flora McFarlane, a female homesteader and teacher who, in 1925, sold her 19.6 acres to George Merrick, Coral Gables’ founding father. Merrick’s development company subsequently annexed it to the Gables. The “Mac” in the official district name was apparently an error. Ms. McFarlane might frown at this misspelling but would more likely be upset that the district bearing her name is now among the top 12 most threatened historic neighborhoods in the state.
Duncanson is best known for his company Green Garden Organics (founded in 1990), which runs a juice bar down the street from the garden. Here, they grow and cold-press wheatgrass, sunflower greens, and pea and buckwheat sprouts; they also supply herbs and sprouts to The Fresh Market and Milam’s Market.
As a child, Duncanson was taught the medicinal properties of plants by his grandmother, saying, “I was born at a time when we were so close to the earth. That is what I knew… Coming here at 18, seeing the fauna and everything, I was like ‘Whoa, all the trees are here.’ Coral Gables really is something so special here. They really respect the fauna, and a lot of that came from the people from the Bahamas and islands that were built for George Merrick.”
Duncanson knows all the historic trees in the neighborhood; lining the back of the garden are species like the moringa, sapodilla, longan, soursop, and red mulberry. “So much is seen here,” he says. “Like Bay Leaf trees responsible for old spice – or you put a few leaves in a bottle of rum for aches and pains… If [neighbors] need something they’ll say, ‘Lou, I need you. I’m coming down with the flu.’ I’ll tell them, ‘Meet me at the garden and I’ll chop some things up for you.’”
With the blessing of Duncanson and his wife Kim, the project to create a pollinator garden at his lot on Jefferson Street and Florida Avenue took actual root in November of last year. Volunteers from the Coral Gables Garden Club and the Coral Gables High School Garden Club, along with Duncanson, first cleared debris, fallen branches, and invasive species, then dug pathways and planting beds. Also assisting was Connect to Protect, a science program at Fairchild that enlists residents to plant natives from our original pine rocklands.
What they planted here, from native nurseries, was chosen for what it might attract: native milkweed for monarchs; firebush for numerous types of butterflies and bees; native salvia, Bahama strongbark, thoroughwort, and corkystem for Gulf fritillary, Julia butterfly, and zebra longwing; lignum vitae, wild lime, and Dutchman’s pipe vine for swallowtail; plumbago for Cassius blue; coontie for Atala butterfly; and some American beauty and wild coffee for birds. In March 2022, students painted and set up three rain barrels for watering.
“This kind of work changes lives,” says Duncanson. “It keeps every generation learning what we must protect.”The new Julia Morten Garden has already become a place where neighbors come by “to talk and disconnect,” he says. “The children are influenced knowing what’s important [and] the Garden Club is providing education in our community. We need it. And using this community garden, well, that’s really cool.”
Grace Carricarte is Coral Gables Magazine’s editor-at-large and an active member of the Coral Gables Garden Club. You can help identify and track local species of pollinators by using the iNaturalist app on your device; for more information visit coralgablesgardenclub.org