Claude Monet believed his greatest masterpiece was his garden, and like the great artist, others have created magical wonderlands that have become living legacies for the public to enjoy. If you are looking for gardening inspiration, you don’t have to travel as far as Monet’s garden. These two Southern gardens delight visitors all year long, and you might even learn a thing or two about gardening in your own backyard.
STORY: Mary Ann Desantis
PHOTOS: Mary Ann Desantis+Courtesy of Bellingrath Gardens
POLASEK SCULPTURE GARDENS
One of Central Florida’s best-kept secrets, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens is a cultural gem in the heart of Winter Park. I’ve talked to people in the Orlando area who didn’t even know it existed, much less its history as the home of artist and sculptor Albin Polasek. Polasek was the head of the Art Institute of Chicago’s sculpture department for 30 years before retiring to Winter Park in 1950.
The gardens are not large — less than 3 1/2 acres — but the peaceful serenity visitors achieve is immeasurable.
“A lot of people say they feel their blood pressure drop when they walk through the gardens,” says director Debbie Komanski. “There is a true sense of tranquility here.”
The paved walkways wind throughout the property and overlook Lake Osceola. The array of seasonal annuals keeps the grounds in color all year, but it’s the 50 outdoor sculptures that make the garden unique. Most are freestanding and architectural sculptures by Polasek himself while a few others are by 20th century sculptors.
Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Polasek moved to the U.S. in 1901 at the age of 22. Much of the art throughout the home reflects his heritage, including a chapel dedicated to his mother. He married late in life — at age 71 — and had no children. Following the death of his first wife, Ruth, he married Emily Kubat nine years later and together they set up the Albin Polasek Foundation to share his works in his gallery, chapel and gardens. Following Emily Polasek’s death in 1988, the Polasek residence was opened to the public and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to Komanski, 40 percent of the 25,000 annual visitors to Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens are foreign tourists. The facility even offers tours in French and German upon request but most people like to walk though and enjoy the quiet.
“A lot of people come after they have tired of the theme parks,” says Komanski. “This is the non-tourist thing to do.”
Another non-tourist thing to do is to participate in the hands-on gardening workshops Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:30 to noon. The Polasek is a nonprofit organization and relies on donations and volunteers. The twice-weekly demonstrations and informal talks cover a range of topics, but participants come dressed to work as well.
“It’s surprising how far away people live but they come for the camaraderie as much as anything,” says Komanski. “They realize we are a small nonprofit organization, and we rely heavily on our ‘Garden Gang’ volunteers. It’s amazing to see the impact they have.”
BELLINGRATH GARDENS & HOME
“Look what a wife will do to a perfectly good fishing camp,” Walter D. Bellingrath said after his wife, Bessie Morse Bellingrath, transplanted a few azaleas to his beloved “Belle Camp” on the Fowl River just south of Mobile. She soon “dressed up” the place with camellias and roses and the Bellingraths eventually moved to the property full time in 1936.
Little did they know Bellingrath Gardens would become so popular, but they got their first inkling in 1932 when they opened the property to a Depression-weary public for a day of azalea gazing. The response was astounding as the road between Mobile and the gardens became clogged.
“We had to call the police to untangle the traffic jam that extended more than three miles. It’s been open ever since,” Bellingrath later said.
Often referred to as the “the charm spot of the Deep South,” the 65-acre Bellingrath Gardens is known for its 250,000 azalea bushes. I visited when more than 2,000 roses were in full bloom, and the first glimpse of the signature rose garden was a feast for the eyes — and the nose. In homage to Bellingrath’s civic pride, the layout has a familiar look.
“The rose garden layout is in the shape of a Rotary Club wagon wheel,” explains Leslie Schraeder, public relations director for Bellingrath. “There are 75 different varieties of roses filling the cogs of the circle.”
Beyond the rose garden is the “Great Lawn,” which stays green all year and has become one of Bellingrath’s iconic spots for photography and, of course, weddings. Seasonal flower beds, which are the largest in the gardens, border the vast open tract.
Tucked away in the cool forest of cultivated landscaping is the 10,500-square-foot Bellingrath home, which still contains its original furnishings, china, crystal and silver. Bellingrath, Mobile’s first Coca-Cola bottler, lived in the home alone following Mrs. Bellingrath’s death in 1943. Although the couple did not have children, they frequently entertained their nieces and nephews, and their generosity was known throughout the area. At age 80, Bellingrath founded the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation to assure the continued existence of his and his late wife’s beloved gardens in perpetuity. He died in 1955 at 86.
Bellingrath Gardens also offers programs, called “Wonderful Wednesdays,” when visitors can learn more about gardening from horticulture experts. The facility is open year-around, and every season offers a spectacular array of colors. Bellingrath himself may have said it best: “The gardens are like a beautiful woman with a different dress for each week of the year.”