ST. PETERSBURG — Sunken Gardens supervisor Bill O'Grady didn't try to hide his excitement as the toy train decorated with cheeky flamingos chugged around the Christmas tree in the Oak Pavilion.
It reminded him of his childhood, he said. It seemed fitting that the LGB Garden train, a gift from Old Northeast residents Lou and Linda Santoro, would be in place in time for the annual Jingle Mingle fundraiser.
After all, the event, organized by the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation, was one of the organization's ongoing efforts to raise money for a Children's Educational Garden that would have a spot in the cool, shady oasis at 1825 Fourth St. N.
It's to be where children will learn about the source of the food they eat, be able to pick up eggs from laying hens, see earthworms go about their work and even grow a plant or two.
"There are so many children out there, the smaller children, who don't really understand where their food comes from," said Robin Reed, president of the Sunken Gardens Forever Foundation. What many children see, she added, is that their food "comes from the grocery store, nicely packaged, all wrapped up."
O'Grady wants to change that. The garden has been his dream since taking his post-retirement job at Sunken Gardens in 2000.
"I've been collecting things for a children's garden. I just kept collecting pictures and pictures," he said. "I just kept them in a file. I also collected a lot of artifacts."
Most of those ideas have been captured in a concept displayed in the lobby at Sunken Gardens.
Plans call for hens, edible plants, herbs and flowers. There will be places for children to clamber. They will learn about composting. A rain barrel will provide water for a raised vegetable bed. And young gardeners will get to try their hands at old-fashioned water pumps.
"We hope to have a potting bench where children can actually plant some seeds...and talk about the energy that we get from the wind," Reed said.
"I think it is important for children to know where their food comes from," said O'Grady, who reminisced about spending summers in Nova Scotia, where his father was born, and helping with the hens and canning of food.
He envisions children planting pole beans and cherry tomatoes in the new garden.
"I'm hoping that it will inspire future horticulturalists,'' he said. "It's nice to have people that have a passion for plants and animals," he said.
The garden, being planned for children as young as toddlers to those about 9 or 10 years old, is expected to cost about $100,000, though that's not firm, Reed said, adding that the foundation has raised a little more than $25,000 towards its goal.
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"Besides having fundraisers and similar events, we would like to identify some people who have a particular interest in children's education and gardening and the environment, who might be able to help out in a particular way," she said.
O'Grady said he can't "even put it in words" how grateful he is that the foundation is working to make the children's garden a reality. But then, some of those same people associated with it were responsible for helping to fulfill his wish to restock the flamingos at Sunken Gardens.
"It makes me teary-eyed," he said.
The foundation, Reed said, "is a direct result of the success of the Flamingos Forever project, which raised over $40,000 to 'restock the flock' at the gardens."
Now there is the Santoros' train, donated, said Lou Santoro, because their grandchildren are getting older and they wanted people to enjoy it.
O'Grady said additional cars and tracks were donated by HR Trains and Toys in Pinellas Park and the artwork of wreaths, reindeer and flamingos was done by longtime Sunken Gardens volunteer and local artist, Susan Wiley.
The highlight has been the reaction of a little boy, he said. "He couldn't have been more than 3. He started yelling, 'It's coming. It's coming.' He called me over and said, "Look, look, it's coming.'"
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.