Guest essay: Connie Alsbrook ... Naples Botanical Garden

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Guest commentary

Sometimes you plant a seed and nothing happens and sometimes something glorious grows.

Twenty years ago, a group of plant-loving Neapolitans planted a wonderful seed and today it has grown into Naples Botanical Garden, a beautiful garden that our whole community can enjoy.

I have been privileged to be a part of this process and along the way I have learned patience, perseverance and a deep appreciation for what it takes to start a botanical garden.

Many wonderful people have given and are still giving their time, talents and treasure to build and maintain it.

It all began with a meeting of Dr. Rett Alsbrook (my husband) and Dr. Robert Read (retired curator at the Smithsonian), who were accessing a palm collection for possible transport to Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami. In passing, my husband said wouldn’t it be nice if we had a garden here that we could plant these in and Read said that he knew of some other people who shared the same desire.

And thus the idea grew.

An ad was placed in the Daily News for anyone interested in a botanical garden to attend a meeting at the downtown library. So on one fall afternoon in 1993, more than 50 passionate gardeners attended the meeting and a board of directors was formed.

A 501(c)(3) status was obtained in 1994 and Naples Botanical Garden was officially born — and the long search for land began. Finally in 1998, gifts from the Madeline Stabile Foundation, Dale Chlumsky and Patricia Stevens enabled the purchase of two properties on Bayshore Drive. However, after studies by professionals, the size and nature of the property were decided to not be conducive for a world-class garden.

At that time, a wonderful benefactor, Harvey Kapnick, came into the picture. He believed in the project and saw its potential for the area. The gift of $5 million from the Kapnick family and foundation allowed a talented group of board members to negotiate the purchase of 170 acres farther down Bayshore where the garden is today. So in 2000, the garden had found a permanent home.

The garden hired its first CEO, Sondra Quinn, in 2001 and began the process of building a garden out of a parking lot. Collier County staff members had to scratch their heads on that permit. Out of that grew the Mosaic Garden and Windstar Garden Room. Tragically, Kapnick passed away suddenly in 2002. His family, knowing how important this project was to him, have taken up and supported the project since his death.

In 2005, the garden hired our present executive director, Brian Holley. Brian had been the executive director at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and had spearheaded a remodel and expansion of that garden. He took on the job of raising money and overseeing the design and development of a world-class garden — no small task!

In designing the garden, requests were sent to some of the premier international landscape designers and architects; four of them accepted. If you are building world-class you need the best. By 2006, Made Wijaya, Robert Truskowski, Raymond Jungles and Herb Schaal had agreed to design the gardens in Phase I. Also, Ellin Goetz, an acclaimed local landscape architect, was selected to coordinate the Phase I designs. Later that year the award-winning architecture firm of Lake/Flato was retained to design the buildings.

Phase I of the garden opened to rave reviews in November 2009 and Phase II opened a year later, giving us the beautiful Naples Botanical Garden that we see today. Soon, after 20 years of hard work, NBG will open Phase III in November. This phase will include a visitor center, shop, exhibit hall and cafe.

For me this is a dream come true and I never tire of listening to the people when I am in the garden. I am so happy that it has become a place for people to enjoy the beauty of nature and the companionship of friends and fellow gardeners. I hope you will join me in celebrating this 20-year anniversary of such an important addition to our community and make it your garden too.

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