Harry P. Leu Gardens

Orlando, Florida, is known primarily for.well, you know-a certain tourist attraction. Actually, millions of visitors come to the area each year for a variety of reasons. However, few know about, and fewer still will visit, one of Orlando's best kept secrets: Harry P. Leu Gardens.

This 50-acre property has a varied history that reaches back to the 19th century. Several historic buildings on the site attest to this past life. The Garden's namesake, Harry Leu, was an Orlando businessman who donated the property in 1961 to the city of Orlando. Leu was an avid plant collector, and his plantings established the framework for this botanical showplace.

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An initiative to upgrade the gardens lured Helen BeVier, previously the outdoor supervisor at Longwood Gardens (Philadelphia).

Turning things around What BeVier found at Leu Gardens was a plant collection in need of direction and improved maintenance. For example, the orchid house, in a state of disrepair, had received several donated collections. However, maintenance had been lax and no one really knew what was in the collection. The same was true of the azaleas and camellias, which form the backbone of Leu Gardens.

Therefore, BeVier's first order of business was to bring the existing plants up to par and catalog them. This would make it possible to identify duplications and develop goals for future additions and changes.

BeVier is upbeat about the garden's potential. "It has good bones," she says. That is obvious to any visitor. Huge laurel and live oaks create a towering overstory that provides a pleasant atmosphere for visitors and an ideal growing environment for the plants beneath.

Despite the garden's good "bones," BeVier has had to initiate some much-needed renovations. The oaks are not long-lived trees, and the existing stand is in decline. Identifying and trimming or removing hazardous trees has been a priority, along with planting replacements.

Defining a place in the community The gardens consist of several distinct collections. More than 2,000 camellias, many of them 50 to 70 years old, inhabit the understory along with numerous 'Formosa' azaleas. If a particular collection at Leu can be called its crown jewel, it is the camellias. Enthusiasts will be impressed not only with the variety, but also with the size of the plants, many of which are enormous.

You also can find a rose garden. BeVier admits that central Florida is not an ideal climate for one, but it will remain. "Mrs. Leu was a rose enthusiast, so the rose garden is really a part of the history of the place," explains BeVier.

Other theme gardens focus on herbs, butterflies, vines, annuals and palms, and a small but attractive conservatory houses a tropical collection.

Leu Gardens would be worth a visit for any tourist who enjoys such attractions. However, the gardens are essentially oriented towards local citizens. Therefore, BeVier likes to try species that are considered marginal for the local climate. This lets local gardeners evaluate the performance of plants that they might not have been willing to take a chance on.

Attendance is gradually increasing at Leu Gardens. In addition to visits from plant fanciers and those looking for a simple distraction, more than 30 garden clubs meet here. Wedding parties regularly use the gardens as a setting for photos. Although those visitors don't necessarily appreciate the botanical diversity of the gardens, BeVier recognizes that such activities raise attendance and help keep the garden financially solvent.

BeVier's staff consists of about 15 people, mostly full-timers. She has them specialize in plant types. Thus, one individual's primary responsibility might be annuals, palms, roses or some other collection. IPM and irrigation specialists also are on staff.

BeVier contracts with outside operators for mowing and turf pest control. The primary turf weed is dollar weed, which excessive irrigation has encouraged. This has spurred BeVier to pursue more careful water management, aided by a newly added irrigation technician.

BeVier considers the local soils poor, mainly because of their high sand content. With the high rainfall in Florida, fertilizer leaches out readily. A program to amend the soil with organic matter is aimed at increasing its nutrient-holding capacity.

With a 12-month growing season and ample precipitation, weeds at Leu Gardens are inevitable. The primary problems are volunteer golden rain and camphor tree seedlings, which emerge en masse. The staff hand-weeds as much as possible, but Roundup is a necessary weed-management tool.

For insect pests, BeVier prefers to rely as much as possible on insecticidal soaps and oils.

Though much remains for BeVier to do, she has accomplished a great deal. There are larger facilities and more extensive collections, to be sure, but Leu Gardens is still a worthwhile visit. Huge 70-year-old camellias growing beneath towering oaks create an idyllic atmosphere that plant lovers and casual recreators alike will enjoy.

More important, BeVier is helping Leu Gardens become not an international attraction-Orlando doesn't need more of those-but a quality community asset to serve local citizens.

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