I’ve always had a fondness for gardening, beginning with my teen years in the backyard of my Connecticut home. While most kids my age were out playing hoops or a neighborhood soccer game, I was busy tending to my family’s vegetable garden and planting flowers in any available spot with soil that I could find.
The land surrounding my parents’ home was previously my great-grandfather’s vineyard, where old vines still grow today. I marveled at the thick crannied vines winding up towering trees while listening to my elderly neighbor’s treasured stories about him and his love of winemaking.
As a Florida Keys resident, I can now garden year-round while enjoying the island’s lush, beautiful plants and flowers (and growing loads of basil for my favorite pesto sauce).
Many Key West homes have fabulous outdoor living spaces with vibrant gardens and fragrant plantings. However, if local friends don’t invite you for a tour of their place, there are two special locales on the island where you can view acres of gorgeous subtropical flora.
First, it’s a joy to delve into the 15-acre Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, a rare and protected habitat located at 5210 College Road. The sprawling preserve, established 86 years ago, is now famed as the only frost-free subtropical moist forest and garden in the continental United States.
Visitors can explore the native garden and forest on 6-to-10-foot-wide boardwalks and nature trails. The property shelters many threatened and endangered species of both flora and fauna, showcasing plant life native to South Florida, Cuba and the Caribbean.
Rich in biodiversity, it features two wetland habitats, national and state champion trees, two butterfly gardens, seasonal flowers and many other attractions for nature enthusiasts to discover. The venue is open free of charge from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except major holidays.
Another treasure trove of natural beauty is the Key West Garden Club’s headquarters at West Martello Tower, nestled beside the Atlantic Ocean at 1100 Atlantic Blvd. It’s certainly one of my favorite “chill spots” on the island, with its tranquil and picturesque setting accompanied by pleasant ocean breezes.
Since the 1950s, the not-for-profit Key West Garden Club has maintained and planted a garden in the ruins of the Civil War-era fort called West Martello, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All plants are donated and cared for by club members and volunteers. (A big THANKS to all the volunteers across the island that keep our not-for-profits running smoothly!)
Today the fort is the backdrop for spectacular orchids and bromeliads, mature fruit trees, indigenous plants, a colorful butterfly garden, a prehistoric garden and a peace park and labyrinth — among other attractions. Its winding brick pathways lead through secluded courtyards brimming with colorful foliage, all sheltered by the ruins of the historic fort, and the oceanfront gazebo offers a special sense of serenity.
West Martello is open free of charge from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except for major holidays. Guided tours of the fort and gardens are offered on Monday mornings for $25 per person (please note that advance reservations are required).
Come wander off the beaten path and explore Key West’s gardens — and experience our island’s unique horticulture and foliage, hidden natural beauty and unique ecosystems showcasing Mother Nature at her best.
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