A sustainable, high-tech landscape

A young visitor to the Naples Botanical Garden uses a watering can to help out with the irrigation in the Children’s Garden.
Photos by Stacie Zinn.

Brian Galligan knows the maintenance history of every plant in his garden. Galligan is director of horticulture at the Naples Botanical Garden, a 170-acre facility in Naples, Fla., that officially opened in November 2009. With nearly 70 acres of manicured plants and turf, there’s too much information and too many individual specimens to keep in his memory. Instead, Galligan works with his staff to use an innovative computer system that combines a GIS (global information system) and GPS-style technology with database management to log every fertilization, mowing and pruning of each individual plant in the garden. This information is stored in perpetuity, for Galligan and his staff, as well as for the professionals who will maintain the garden in the future.

The main entrance to the Naples Botanical Garden is lushly landscaped.

The technology, Galligan said, “is great for budgeting,” because he knows exactly how much of each supply he actually needs instead of estimating.

The Naples Botanical Garden features six themed gardens that represent garden styles and plant specimens from tropical regions of Brazil, Asia, the Caribbean and Florida, plus a Childrens’ Garden and a Water Garden. Such a collection of warm-season plants is vulnerable to cold snaps, and last winter was one of the coldest on record for southwest Florida, with low temperatures of 28 degrees in the garden.

“Being a new garden, it was fairly difficult. Obviously, we had shade cloth on hand and we covered our most sensitive plants such as breadfruit, high-visibility groundcovers such as Burle Marx philodendron, and in the Children’s Garden we covered all of the annuals and vegetables. We also took about two dozen thermometers and placed them throughout the garden to learn where our cold zones were. Then, we actually went through for weeks after and documented every bit of plant material that was damaged. We put that into our database, and now we have a protocol for future freezes,” Galligan said.

Horticulturalist Jonathan Dube sits astride a bike outfitted as an irrigation tech’s rig at the maintenance facility for the Naples Botanical Garden.

“We also learned from it,” he continued. “Like when we covered our Burle Marx philodendron, there was contact with the frost cloth material. Well, when that material froze, it was touching foliage so it just froze right through it. We learned that next year we need to put stakes all throughout and elevate the frost cloth. We also learned other aspects, like when we do create a tent around a sensitive plant, we actually need to tack that all the way in and form a teepee, not just a frost barrier.”

Out of the thousands of specimens in the garden, Galligan said they only lost four trees: two coconut palm trees, a chocolate tree and a breadfruit tree. Other plants and trees were damaged, but did not die out.

“Being such a high-profile garden, we did have to pull plants out and put them in our growth center. We’ll wait for them to get back to a presentable state and then we’re going to bring them back to the garden,” Galligan said.

Jonathan Dube, a horticulturalist at the garden, said he learned a lot from the frost experience. “Up north you get freeze for a long duration and it gets into the ground. Here, it wasn’t long enough, it was just at night, so anything root or rhizome-oriented, even the turf, went almost dormant, but it came back,” Dube said.

The garden showcases four turfgrass varieties. In the Brazilian Garden, there is nearly an acre of zoysiagrass used for picnic tables and as a gathering space. In the Caribbean Garden, 10,000 square feet of Seashore Paspalum is used for lawn bowling. Another 10,000 square feet of St. Augustine turf is planted in the parking lot for overflow parking areas. And, in an area soon to be renovated into another themed garden, there is approximately 6 acres of bahiagrass.

The zoysiagrass is mowed at 3 inches once a week in the summer, every other week in the winter when growth slows. The Seashore Paspalum is mowed twice a week at .8 inch. The St. Augustine is mowed once a week at 3 inches. The Bahiagrass is mowed once a month at 4 inches.

The computer system is not the only innovative approach implemented at the garden. Efforts are in place throughout the property to save water and use sustainable practices to make the garden even more “green.”

The garden was awarded the 2009 Intelligent Use of Water Leadership Award from Rain Bird. All irrigation sources at the garden are surface water from one of the lakes on the property, and it is kept on the property through a system of retention ponds and swales. A small replica of the Florida Everglades River of Grass acts as a natural filtration system to clean the water before it is released into the property’s 90 acres of preserve. The primary irrigation system for the garden implements soil moisture detectors that direct water as needed through drip emitters. Littoral plants in the lake area encourage natural water filtration.

Galligan said all recharge pumps on the property are solar powered.

Anna Poortman, Children’s Garden assistant, hand-waters annuals in a whimsical display area of the Children’s Garden at Naples Botanical Garden.
Picnic tables placed on the zoysiagrass at the Naples Botanical Garden create a park-like setting.

Rather than hide what once would have been considered an unsightly mechanical system, “we show that to the public,” Galligan said, as part of the garden’s public education program.

The staff gets into the sustainability act by limiting the use of gas-powered carts in the garden. Instead, they ride bicycles outfitted with bins to transport equipment from one section to the other. The bicycles are quieter than gas-powered carts, and noise reduction is a real concern in a public garden setting.

Communications Manager Shannon Palmer says the garden is open seven days a week, 365 days a year. The projection for the garden’s first-year attendance was set at 80,000 visitors. By June, just two months shy of their fiscal year end, Palmer said the garden had already surpassed their first-year projections by 23 percent.

Galligan’s five-man crew arrives for work at 6 a.m., and the garden opens to the public at 9 a.m. Dube said they employ a “get ahead of the golfers” approach. They start early at the entrance to the garden—on what would be the first tee—and move outward. As the garden visitors enter, the crews are already out of earshot and out of sight in the further reaches of the property. In addition, man-powered equipment is used to cut down on noise and emissions. For example, brooms are used instead of blowers; shears instead of hedge trimmers.

As many of the garden spaces are interactive, designed to encourage visitors to touch the plants, sit in the grass or use water cans to water the annuals, Galligan said he tries to avoid pesticides when possible. Beneficial ladybugs to control aphids are encouraged in the garden, and lubber grasshoppers, a pervasive pest, are chased and stomped on rather than sprayed.

Though the garden opened in November 2009, the project itself has been in the planning stages since 1993. Paid for through philanthropic efforts, the garden survives on donations from the general public and visitors for its funding, and local golf courses have sold used mowers and equipment to the garden. One golf course even sharpens the mower blades for Galligan and his crew to help out. Galligan relies heavily on volunteers to round out his staff of five landscapers and horticulturalists. One volunteer, an 82-year-old man named Win Turner, has put in more than 5,000 hours at the garden. Galligan said, “He outworks all of us.”

For more information on the Naples Botanical Garden visit www.naplesgarden.org.

The author is a freelance writer and photographer based in Naples, Fla.