Finally, in 2009, a local entrepreneur loaned the society $350,000. With that and $100,000 it had raised, the society bought what was left of Palm Cottage Garden: 5.9 acres; a house more than 100 years old; and a neglected greenhouse from a later era, with many of its glass panels broken or missing.
But buying the property did not solve the financial problems. Withers said the group’s biggest challenge is raising money to pay off that $350,000 loan, which doesn’t carry the cachet of donating money for a specific project — like converting the unfinished garage into an education wing — that the donor’s name could be attached to. The society is already doing other things or has plans to: offer classes for a fee; rent out the property for events; sell plant sponsorships; partner with a nursery to develop and sell Nehrling-branded seeds and plants.
The society took possession in May 2010 and began organizing volunteers — Boy Scouts; Girl Scouts; garden clubs; service clubs; arborists; middle and high school students; plumbers and roofers; Disney employees; church groups; even German studies students from Rollins College, where Nehrling taught.
“We have had unbelievable help from the community,” said Schretzmann-Myers.
They worked almost year-round, taking a break in the summer. For protection, they wore long pants and long sleeves, the kind of clothing that is unbearable after a few minutes working outdoors in Florida’s heat and humidity. They ripped up invasive plants — kudzu, dog fennel, cat’s claw, Brazilian pepper and air potato, the latter the very species Nehrling had warned in his writings not to bring into Florida. They pruned desirable plants and planted Florida native species in the newly cleared ground by Lake Nally at the back of the property.
As they did, they discovered some of Nehrling’s original plants, mostly trees and bamboos, still living. “These are plants that have survived with benign neglect for a long, long time,” Withers said.
And they found junk. In one spot, long ago overrun by plants, they found an old still used to make moonshine from orange juice. Cleaned up, it sits in the garage now.
“It’s exciting. Every time we do a clean-up, we find something else,” Schretzmann-Myers said. “There’s living history here on the property.”
As the restoration continued, neighbors came forward with cuttings or seeds from plants that originated in Nehrling’s garden. The group replanted Nehrling’s amaryllis garden at the front of the house with bulbs rescued from a nearby abandoned garden, almost 700 bulbs that were descendants of plants Nehrling had introduced. They planted a big bed of caladiums, too.
Right behind the house, they created a “pollinator garden” with thyme, blue sage, coreopsis, passion vine, milkweed and other plants to attract bees, butterflies and moths.
While most volunteers worked on the grounds, others worked on the house. They spent the first two years making the property safe, rebuilding stairs that had rotted through, building supports under the sagging back porch, replacing railings and screens. The society uses part of the house as an office, part for exhibits and part to sell Nehrling’s and other garden books.
The property is zoned for agricultural use. Unless it is rezoned, the society can give only private tours by appointment; it cannot set regular hours that the gardens are open. That is one of the society’s goals, which they hope to achieve in the next 12 to 18 months, but with the property set in the middle of a residential neighborhood, they must win over the neighbors.
So the Nehrling Society continues to work on that bridge between past and present, between the research that Nehrling did and the plants that go into Florida gardens today. They have done much but still have work to do — the constant battle against invasive plants, cataloging the plants they uncover, digging, cutting, clearing, planting, pruning. And perhaps most important, educating.
“The beauty of a place like this is it’s a place where you can get your hands dirty,” Withers said. “You go to these immaculate gardens and say, ‘Isn’t that lovely.’ We want to show people how they get that way. Very rarely do people understand the joy that comes from growing a plant from start to finish.”