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Botanical park project taking root

The gardens are expected to be completed in 2001, but one part of the facility will be ready on Sept. 18.

Imagine strolling through a lush, tropical garden filled with bromeliads, orchids and ferns, then entering a spacious art museum before visiting a turn-of-the-century village.

Planting starts this week for the Florida Botanical Gardens, a $25-million county park being built adjacent to Heritage Village and the new Gulf Coast Museum of Art. The gardens are expected to be completed in 2001.

All three projects, on 182 acres, will be called the Pinewood Cultural Park, and all will be open to the public.

"This is not going to be a theme park," said Judy Yates, director of the Pinellas County Extension Service in Largo and overseer of the project. "It's going to be a beautiful learning experience and probably not like any other park in the nation. It will combine art, history and the environment."

Eventually, four foot bridges will connect Heritage Village, the Gulf Coast Museum and the Gardens.

Most of the $25-million for the botanical gardens will come from the 1-cent Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenues, although about $8-million or $9-million will be raised through private donations, Yates said.

The art museum moved from Belleair to mid Pinellas, opening its administrative wing July 26. The museum will open to the public Sept. 18. Work will continue on a 100-seat teaching auditorium, studio classrooms, a house for artists-in-residence, a kiln house and a cafe.

To prepare the gardens for planting, McKay Creek, which runs through the middle of the site, was dredged and re-routed.

"'The creek has been returned to a meandering, natural state like it used to be," Yates said.

Workers also cleared 40 acres of overgrown grapevines, potato vines and Brazilian peppers _ plants that have choked out most of the native Florida plants.

There will be four major gardens. One will be a tropical garden, including the types of trees that grow in the immediate area such as saw palmettos, various other palms, pine trees and more. "We'll also have some very lush flowers such as gingers, orchids and seasonal flowers," said Vernon Bryant, a Pinellas County horticulturist and extension agent.

"And we're going to do some experimentation in this location," he added. "'Some things may even die, but this will be a garden we can show to county residents who might like to try planting some of these things in their own yards."

Another garden will be a wedding garden.

"It will have lots of petunias, marigolds, impatiens, plenty of roses and even some vine-covered trellises. It will also contain a number of smaller gardens," Bryant said.

Yates said a sensory garden, specially designed for people with physical disabilities including blindness, and a shade garden, a butterfly garden, a bird rookery, raised boardwalks and several educational centers are also planned.

Part of the master plan had to be altered in the fall when an eagle's nest was discovered on the northwest corner of the site. The plans changed, but the nest remains.

Eventually, there also will be connecting links between the Pinewood Cultural Park and Pinellas Trail on the east side of 119th Street N and with Walsingham Park across the street from the art museum on Walsingham Road.

Violet Dumanowski, founder of the Safety Harbor Garden Club and a 40-year gardener, thinks the botanical gardens will be a great addition to the area.

"This will be wonderful, because it's so centralized," said Dumanowski, 87. "And like myself, people from the North will get lots of good ideas and practical tips on how to grow things in this climate."

_ Information from Times files used in this report.

Gardens at a glance

Cost: $25-million

Opens: First phase, Sept. 18

Admission: Free

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