SPRING HILL — Ruth the Golf Cart trundles visitors, if need be, from the Fantasy Garden to the Garden Railroad (with twin waterfalls) to the cow bones and cacti in the sunny Desert Scape, and straight into the delicious chill where kids love to run wild, the misty Tropical Rain Forest.
Ever-smiling Jim Erickson, 80, is driving today. His wife, Jeanne, 72, is leading a tour on foot, despite two painfully aging knees. She reels off plant IDs: camellias, native cedar, oakleaf hydrangea. Shop the nursery and you may be handing over your money to Janice Zacharkan, 69, who is in no way, shape or form a gardener.
"My favorite color's green for money," she says. "That's why I'm the treasurer."
Meet the members of the Spring Hill Garden Club, founders and maintainers of the Nature Coast Botanical Gardens — "Hernando County's best-kept secret," as they, and in-the-know locals, like to say.
"If I'm in town, I come here two to three times a month. And any time I get company, I bring 'em here to take a look," says visitor Mary Kay Sandell, 62, who has lived in Spring Hill for a decade.
"I know there are a lot of people who don't realize it's here, and I try to get the word out. But really, I don't want it to get crowded. It's so peaceful."
Nature Coast Botanical Gardens, 3 1/2 acres plus a 1-acre nursery and plant shop, is a testament to many things:
• The capabilities of volunteers with a vision and a passion for sharing.
• The invincibility of determination.
• The creative possibilities when individuals are given a canvas and invited to paint a picture for a public gallery.
Nature Coast Botanical Gardens is a delight. And a feat. Of the garden club's 75 members, 20 or so do all the planting, weeding, watering, fretting and fundraising. ("The others did it before us," notes Shirley Jacques, 66, second vice president, publicity director and nongardener. "They're not able to do the gardening like they used to.")
Club members — most are in their 60s, 70s and 80s — are cheerful, dedicated and desperately seeking young muscle and money for improvements. Top of the list? Paved paths.
"So many people here are handicapped, or nearly handicapped, or will be handicapped before long," says Doug Brainard, 65, club president and creator of the G-scale Railroad Garden. "We're old!"
More than a third of Spring Hill's 98,000 residents are 65 or older and many of them get around with wheelchairs and walkers. They don't get far on the soft mulch paths, Doug says, and Ruth isn't always available to help — the gardens are open all day every day but staffed only 9 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Money's an issue. The all-volunteer garden operates on $3,500 a year, raised mostly through plant sales and a donations box. That revenue must now stretch to cover maintenance of Spring Hill's splashy waterfall gateway on U.S. 19 — the 44-year-old community's only historic landmark. The county handed it over to the club in January 2011 because of budget cuts.
"The county said, 'It's yours.' We thought, 'Holy cow!' It cost the county $12,000 a year to maintain! They came in and turned off the waterfall and took down the three flags," Shirley says. "There were so many problems. The pump broke, there were leaks, the electrical box went wacko. It needed landscaping."
Residents and local businesses rushed to help, and they averted disaster — the highway oasis is restored. But that's part of the problem.
"Now that it's running again, everyone thinks everything's okay; that we don't need any more help," Shirley says. "It's ongoing. We need help."
The club's first order of business is the botanical gardens, which dates back to 1994. That's when the county offered to lease the land for $1 a year in exchange for a small parcel the club was using. Members envisioned a botanical gardens and set to work clearing the scrub from beneath a canopy of live oaks. Grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District helped get things rolling.
As sections were cleared, members volunteered to create individual themed gardens.
"We had people who said, 'I like bromeliads; I'll make a bromeliad garden.' And, 'My daughter died. I'm going to develop a fantasy garden in her memory,' " Shirley says.
Today, there are 21 themed gardens including the Orchard, with peach, apple and pear trees, among others, and the Rose and Asian gardens, both popular spots for weddings at $150.
The plants are all natives and Florida-friendly varieties — a great learning tool for a community that's easily 75 percent Northern transplants.
"They're not familiar with these plants," says Sue Walsh, 66, first vice president, gamely taking a walking tour balanced on two canes. "We don't amend the soil. We think it's better for the public to see things that grow in the natural environment."
The backbone of garden maintenance is tireless manager Jeanne Erickson, who's here pretty much every day planting, weeding, mulching and overseeing the labors of 15 to 20 club members, the Mondays-Wednesdays-Saturdays "staff."
Jeanne gets a big assist from husband, Jim, and daughters Kathie, 52, and Merry, 51, the babies of the club. A couple times a year, volunteers flock in for a Weed and Feed, a major cleanup powered by a club-served lunch.
They make it work, these creative gardeners who find ways over, under and around every obstacle. They'll give till it hurts — and then some.
What motivates a bunch of aging gardeners with aching backs and worn-out knees to bend, dig and write grant applications?
"I think it's pride," says Shirley. "The members are just so proud of what we're involved in."
Visitor Marcia Raba, 72, a local who drops by to walk the gardens, buy plants and ask questions of the knowledgeable volunteers, has her own opinion.
"It's all love, and it's all from the heart," she says.
"They're people who love gardening and making things nice."
Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Read more gardening stories at digginfladirt.com, or join other local gardeners chatting on the Diggin Florida Dirt page on Facebook.