Lush oasis offers respite from Key West crowds

Keys Living contributorMay 9, 2008 

A brilliantly colored cockatoo cried out somewhere in the jungly tangle of Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden and temporarily shattered the quiet of a late-September morning.

“That’s Dulce,” Forrester said, sitting on the porch of her house at the back of the garden. “I try to keep her screaming to a minimum — don’t want to annoy the neighbors.”

The aptly named longtime environmental artist doesn’t often sit on her porch because she is too busy running the garden or trying to find ways to raise money to ensure that the last fragile acre of undeveloped wooded land in Old Town Key West will stay that way.

“It always surprises me how wonderful and beautiful this place is,” she said. “It’s my passion. I don’t go anywhere. Oh, look at that beautiful bird out there, black with orange wings.”

With no directing signs, the garden unfolds somewhat secretly at the end of gravelly Free School Lane, a road accessed from the 500 block of Simonton Street. Forrester has owned it since 1969 when the land was part of an artists’ compound. She opened to the public ($6 admission charge) in 1993.

Visitors — never enough — stroll along winding paths beneath a canopy of giant palms and towering ancient Spanish lime trees. “It’s like walking into a dream,” a guest from England once said.

There are orchids, ferns, fruit trees and thousands of tropical plants. Dulce and the other cockatoos, parrots and macaws are in cages. There are picnic tables.

“A woodland garden most reminiscent of a rain forest,” Forrester said.

There was an influx of rare plants from the rain forest collection of Jerry Kranz in Marathon. Every Sunday for four months, Forrester rented a van to drive up and bring back more.

“I don’t get paid for any of this,” she said. “I present this wonderful place, trying to save it for the next generation. I vowed I would never develop it, and it’s never been for sale. I cherish the plants and animals here.”

Forrester — 68 with long gray hair cinched in a ponytail and a preference for jeans and T-shirts — has cherished nature since she was a child in mountainous Lock Haven, Pa. The family moved to the Keys when she was 11.

“My parents were environmentally conscious,” she said. “Every animal was sort of a wonderment.”

The Pennsylvania wilderness of her youth, though, had been raped. She tearfully recalled strip mining, atrophied creeks, rivers rife with acid and sewage. “I remember the pollution and ... I’m sorry ... it’s really upsetting,” she said.

Forrester, who has a degree in design from the University of Michigan, painted pictures of living systems in her early years in Key West, but wasn’t able to reach enough people with her environmental messages.

“So I switched media [in the mid-’90s] and used the land in my back yard,” she said. People would come in to glimpse her daily garden routines as she tried to instill in them her beliefs. “Fusing life and art,” she said. “It was like reality TV. I did that until I was 65.”

Forrester said the garden is not about “just coming in and seeing a pretty bird feather.” She wants visitors to realize that it is a unique place, but that it’s in a high-residential zoning district and that some day it may be gone.

“I’m trying to save this for the next generation,” she said. “The tensions between high-density development and open space here are extreme. We need to counter and stop the beast at the gate that wants to pave this place and the planet. That would be a shame. I’d like to have my ashes spread here.”

Forrester, who has refinanced her house over and over to keep the garden going, is getting help from the Mana Project, a nonprofit group formed in 2000 to save the garden.

Since the project’s inception, garden tours and brochures have been added, as have lectures, plant sales, garden memberships and a horticultural internship program. If a grant is forthcoming, all the plants will eventually be catalogued on a horticultural Web site.

Shafts of sun shot down through the green canopy on that recent morning. Birds cried out. The rest of the world seemed far way, but the garden lady knew it was lurking.

Originally published in the Fall 2006 edition of Keys Living.

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