2009-11-05 / Top News

A collusion of brilliance

How art, science, engineering and visionaries created the new Naples Botanical Garden

I F A GARDEN IS ONLY A CULTIVATED SEED, AND A SEED is merely a few million years of botanic design, then that should be enough. But for greatness, it isn’t.


The new butterfly house, top, and the Children's Garden, above The new butterfly house, top, and the Children's Garden, above A great garden requires the seeds, the

human cultivators and the deep pockets of

money growers. And even that isn’t enough.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, the new Naples Botanical Garden will open its gates for the first time in a spectacular exhibition of what is enough. It carries all three penultimate engines, but it also demonstrates the ultimate requirement of a great garden: a collusion of brilliance.

“Typically in a great garden you get one master planner,” says Brian Holley, executive director of the Garden. “But we decided to hire five landscape architects: one from Indonesia, one from California, one from Miami, one from Fort Collins (Colorado) and one from here.”

GOETZ GOETZ The result: 170 acres of seeming wizardry, springing not only from the ingenuity of master gardeners, but from philanthropists, visionaries and pragmatists; from volunteer and professional do-gooders; and from fiercely devoted botanists and restoration ecologists.

“For a while it was like herding cats, the most painful thing you can imagine,” recalls Ellin Goetz, a Naples resident and celebrated landscape architect who created the Garden’s master plan from old ideas and a series of charettes — informal brainstorming sessions. Vassar-educated in art and art history with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Massachusetts, Ms. Goetz participated as the region’s single representative to the international designer A-list. Along with the site plan, she designed one of the Garden’s five distinct pods, the Florida Garden. Joining her in the pantheon of creators are landscape architects who have served kingdoms, countries and celebrities (including Mick Jagger and Sylvester Stalone): Robert Truskowski (the Caribbean Garden); Raymond Jungles (the Brazilian Garden); Herb Shawl (the Children’s Garden); and Made Wijaya (the Asian Garden).

WILDER WILDER Architects and gardeners

Their stories are sometimes nearly as dazzling as their gardens.

Mr. Wijaya, for example, was born Michael White in Australia, where he once played professional tennis. He later jumped ship in a rainstorm, according to his on-line autobiography, and swam ashore at Bali to become a landscape architect and author of definitive books on Asian gardens.

“For the first time in my career,” he notes, “the Naples Botanical Garden allowed me to weave together all the decorative ‘magic’ of these far-flung (Asian) cultures, while telling a story of the significance, in the plant world, of crop plants of Southeast Asian origin.”

The Brazilian Garden, top, and Caribbean Garden at the Naples Botanical Garden The Brazilian Garden, top, and Caribbean Garden at the Naples Botanical Garden Golden-tongued as well as greenthumbed, he adds, “It has been a joy unparalleled working with the greats of the U.S. garden design world — Robert Truskowski and Raymond Jungles, Ellin Goetz and Brian Holley’s admirable team of project specialists.”

Those greats are not yet through working (neither is Mr. Wijawa, who will complete the Asia Garden next spring), and they’re looking for more than the sum of the parts.

“A garden can do a lot of things — produce food, provide aesthetic pleasure, be a repository of knowledge about plants,” says Mr. Holley. “But in my opinion,” he adds, “a great garden has to provide solace. When you go there, you feel complete.”

To help someday visitors find that completion more quickly, the Garden hired a preeminent architectural firm from San Antonio, Lake/Flato Architects, to put the master plan and the designs of the landscape architects into working order and then to supervise the phoenix-from-the-ashes construction, which some people here have taken to calling, “a six-month miracle.”

If the effect is astounding, it is also still in process.

A work in progress

“Our mark will be here long after we are gone,” notes Mr. Truskowski, designer of the Caribbean Garden.

“The gardens I design in Europe typically are never seen at maturity by those who design them, because clients want to leave a legacy for the future. American gardens are often designed for the generation constructing them. The Naples Botanical Garden goes far beyond that.”

Potted beauty at the Naples Botanical Garden Potted beauty at the Naples Botanical Garden How far beyond that is hard to tell, but it requires an ability to look back, too.

Mr. Jungles, who studied in Brazil with the late Roberto Burle Marx — perhaps the most important landscape designer of the 20th century, and a cousin of Karl Marx — created the Brazilian Garden in memory of his peerless teacher. “This is a tribute garden,” he says. “I was definitely trying to think as he would. His work was my inspiration — that and his love of plants, (here) abstractly organized by the different ecosystems in Brazil, almost all indigenous.”

Mr. Jungles insisted his famous teacher contribute to the Garden, too, even from the grave. He retrieved the mosaic panel of tiles in reds, greens, blues, yellows and oranges that crowns the Brazilian Garden from Venezuela. Created by Mr. Burle Marx, the rectangular piece stretching some 18 feet above an obsidian-black pool where giant Amazon water lilies seem to bleed their color from the art itself, as if painting themselves onto the water’s surface.

SPROUL SPROUL It represents the only work of Mr. Burle Marx on display in North America.

Beauty is everywhere a common quality here, but so is whimsy, along with intense botanical and logistical discipline, a sense

of risk-taking and fun, hard science and a tremendous research potential.

Professor emeritus George Wilder, for example, a botanist quietly collecting plant species native from the Panhandle to the Keys, has more than 30,000 North American specimens maintained in the Garden’s herbarium. Some hail from as far away as Alaska, but more than 14,000 come from Florida, many from as close as the Fakahatchee Strand in southeastern Collier County. The money story

HOLLEY HOLLEY In a compass so wide, the Garden requires great rivers of cash — $36 million to date, says Mr. Holley. The goal to complete the Garden before establishing major reserves is $50 million.

Some of that money has come from the Kapnick family — the late Harvey Kapnick and his son and daughter-inlaw, Scott and Kathleen Kapnick, who keep homes in New York City and Naples.

The elder Mr. Kapnick found the land and bought it. From his collusion with educators arises the Garden’s most prominent new building, the Harvey Kapnick Education and Research Center for environmental biology, landscape architecture and plant research, a joint project with Florida Gulf Coast University.

“My father felt that we all benefited from living in towns and cities where early planners had the foresight to protect key areas from development and to create great public spaces, such as Central Park in New York or the lakefront in Chicago,” Scott Kapnick says. “He also believed that Naples was in need of protecting some of its open spaces from development, and that the community had a huge opportunity to create a world-class tropical botanical garden.”

KAPNICK KAPNICK That vision came from a man who grew up on a farm in Michigan, Mr. Kapnick explains — a man who wanted children to know “where plants came from, how they develop and how they can be used.”

When his father died, Mr. Kapnick adds, “Kathleen and I made the decision to help the organization, which really might have collapsed without our support at that time.” A couple of years later, the couple anchored the Garden with a major gift.

“I call the Naples Botanical Garden ‘Harvey’s Dream,’ because he was the visionary,” notes Juliet (Judy) Sproul, a daughter of Barron Collier Jr. and the current chairman of the board at the Garden.

The late Mr. Kapnick recruited many Neapolitans to his cause. In the case of Mrs. Sproul, he gave her a tour of the Chicago Botanic Garden one day, where he had been an instrumental force.

“I sat and listened to him, and when we were finished I thought, ‘This is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met or known,’” she says. From him Mrs. Sproul learned how to grow donors and supporters, and to push a cause she came to believe in deeply, she says — and so did others.

One of them is Jane Berger, a board member and one of the organizers of the high-profile annual soiree known as Hats In The Garden (coming up Wednesday, Nov. 11, as part of the Garden’s grand opening celebration).

Mrs. Berger picks up the story of a money trail marked by extraordinary generosity and vision.

“In 2003 or 2004, Scott and Kathleen Kapnick kicked off this campaign with a $12 million gift,” she says. “There were other big gifts, and we found Brian Holley who came in and organized this, and then very soon after we started Hats In The Garden.

“My husband was asked to come on the board, and then he became chairman for four or five years.”

Her husband, Chuck Berger, died late last year. The family had lived all over the world when he worked for the H.J. Heinz Company — “it was that or live in Pittsburgh, where the company is headquartered,” Mrs. Berger says. That gave them a taste for high culture, including botanical gardens, if not for gardening itself.

great gardens of the world

• Naples Botanical Garden – 170 acres, opening Nov. 14

• Kew Gardens, London – 300 acres, 250 years old

• The New York Botanical Garden – 250 acres, 118 years old

• The Singapore Botanic Gardens – 15 acres, 150 years old

• Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (South Africa) – 1,305 acres, 96 years old

• The Royal Botanical Gardens, Toronto – 2,700 acres, 68 years old

• Reid’s Palace, Madeira (off the coast of Africa) – 10 acres, 118 years old (In this garden Winston Churchill mused over his memoirs, and George Bernard Shaw learned to dance the tango.)

opening festivities


The public is invited and encouraged to help celebrate the new Naples Botanical Garden on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14-15.

The official ribbon-cutting will be at 11 a.m., Saturday, followed by activities and entertainment both days for the entire family. Admission is $9.95 for adults, $4.95 for children ages 4-14, and free for children 3 and younger.

The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company is the presenting sponsor for the grand opening festivities. For more information, visit www. naplesgarden.org.

“He was not a gardener,” Mrs. Berger recalls with a laugh. “He was not interested in gardens. After Heinz, he ran the Scott’s Miracle-Gro Company and turned it around, which is ironic considering he didn’t garden. But he was a businessman, a manager — and that was his gift.

“This takes horticulturists, it takes landscape gardeners, it takes managers, it takes the team. This has been the work of so many people — like the volunteers who come out religiously.”

Mrs. Berger, who grew up in Arkansas, does keep a garden or two herself, she says — but not at the Garden itself. “Honey, I don’t put my hands in the dirt there,” she admits. “I just talk a lot.”

It takes that, too.

Whimsy, science and engineering

Back at the Children’s Garden, there’s a great deal of talking, inspired by waterfalls, caves, growing edibles and tree houses, all around a massive strangler fig that Mr. Holley and his workers saved and moved.

Just as they rescued many plants here from roadsides or parking lots or demolition-bound buildings, the team took painstaking care with the tree, using two front-end loaders to accommodate both the trunk and its 20-foot root ball.

Among the other whimsies: a towering royal poinciana tree named Chuck, for Mr. Berger, who always wore colorful striped socks with his tuxedos. The great tree has six or seven painted circles around its trunk, in celebration of Mr. Berger’s charmingly stylish eccentricity.

There is also an eye-catching “clogged” toilet, turquoise blue and topped by a pair of porcelain clogsprouting flowers of various hues, along with blooming gold bags, basketball shoes and ribbons of small, playful mosaics created by the Italian artist and designer Roberto de Angelis, a Neapolitan whose young daughter even contributed work.

“Herb Shawl taught me that we should design botanical gardens the same way for adults as for children… a garden should engage them in the same way,” says Ms. Goetz. “The Children’s Garden really does that, and I guess the excuse for all the adults who will wander in and be delighted is that it’s engaging the children.”

Children are not forgotten elsewhere in the Garden, either.

“I intended the Garden to be a destination to reach shade and water. I wanted the children to have a place to be able to rest and play — steel drums, soccer, whatever else,” says Mr. Truskowski, referring to a long rectangle of flawless green lawn.

“And I wanted the adults to have a place to see the evolution of the garden from pre-Colombian to current times.”

Not far away, the breathtaking fall blooms of silk floss trees form clouds of lavender against the blue sky, anchoring the Asian Garden, which will reach completion next year. Hard trails and boardwalks thread it all — or at least the 60 or so acres that serve up long lake and wetland views that nose into the belly of 90 acres of preserved and restored wild lands.

Eagles and kestrels, otters and humans, native ducks and turtles and gopher tortoises (55 of them, according to the Garden’s gopher tortoise management plan) have alighted here together among the seemingly incongruous but enchanting notes of other botanical worlds — and some 7,000 plants tracked by the Garden’s sophisticated database.

For Chad Washburn, the Garden’s restoration ecologist and a native species expert, it’s a happy conflict.

“We have a hardwood hammock on site created near a picnic area, for example,” says Mr. Washburn. “And to put that together, to sit those plants together so it looks like a natural hammock — to find the right species so it looks wild — that’s different than the work of landscape architects.

“But I’m surrounded by them, and I’ve learned a lot from them. As humans, we have this thought process — we want to organize things,” Mr. Washburn adds. “I have to try and step away from that and make it less organized and more natural. But even so, I still find myself enjoying the organization.”

And all of that organization hides something just as significant as the visual palette. Beneath the Garden, mostly out of sight, lies the engineering.

What lies beneath

To create the system — and to meet the arduous, many-year permitting requirements for water control imposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District — contractors moved 250,000 cubic yards of soil, notes Mr. Holley.

A single loaded dump truck can move about 20 cubic yards.

They re-sculpted the site, established an underground irrigation system and even incorporated the parking lots into the entire green design.

“The water sheets across the parking lots to be captured in the bio swales,” Ms. Goetz explains.

Those broad, wide channels dropped a yard below the asphalt are filled with native plants. “Water filters through those plants, then drains into pipes aimed at the front entrance, where we created a wetland,” she adds. The wetland filters the water again, before shooting it into the lakes. Elsewhere water drains from other parts of the garden through the several-acre river of grass, which effectively cleans it.

In all of this effort exists an “ethic,” to use Ms. Goetz’s word, or a “morality,” to use Mr. Holley’s.

“That is, to be as environmentally progressive as possible, which is different from the agendas of a lot of other projects driven by powerful market forces,” Ms. Goetz says.

Something else exits here, too, perhaps — something found only in a great garden: an aching human prayer.

It was once posed in a poem by William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

For many, that prayer is about to be answered in the Naples Botanical Garden. 



Juliet Sproul comes from the first family of Collier County, or at least from the most famous.

The daughter of Barron Collier Jr., she was raised in Connecticut and on Florida’s east coast and arrived in Naples almost 40 years ago as the young mother of three girls. Her husband had died suddenly, and that event, she says, “made me want to return to where my roots were — but I didn’t want to do it on the coattails of the Collier


Almost naturally, it seems, she became part of Barron Collier Enterprises, where she helped create and design Grey Oaks Country Club. She’s contributed to many community efforts, and her flair for organizing, designing landscapes and making something better than it was is probably most evident at the Naples Botanical Garden, say those who know her.

Her insights into the arduous process required to create the Garden are revealing. The hardest part was going through the permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, she says.

“A botanical garden was not a classification anybody knew how to do,” she explains. “We have different habitats, our property is environmentally sensitive, mangroves are bordering on the bay, and there are pineland habitats with gopher tortoises… Water management was a strong part of the permitting process. They’re very demanding, and properly so.”

It wasn’t like the old days, when her grandfather founded the county.

“We had to get not only the environmental permits, but permits for structures,” she says. “Even to put up a fence we have to have a permit.”

Once all the permits were in hand, they broke ground with a vengeance and replaced it with other ground, and seeds and plants and a system to keep all the water on site, including run-off.

“We worked like race horses all summer,” Mrs. Sproul says. “I don’t think anybody can believe what we’ve made of it.”

THE DIRECTOR: Brian Holley


Brian Holley is the right seed for the right garden, say his many admirers in Naples. He’s been with the Naples Botanical Garden for four years as executive director, following a much-celebrated 13-year tour as director of the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

A great bear of amiability and a native Canadian, Mr. Holley couples charisma with strategic vision, hard-nosed pragmatism and a broad scientific acumen. He holds a degree in forestry, and he once worked and homesteaded in the remote Rocky Mountains of British Columbia before shifting course and becoming a master of botanical gardening.

He took up the gardening life at the 2,700-acre Royal Botanical Garden near Toronto. Like the much smaller Naples Botanical Garden, that one also strived to be complete.

“It had a great library, it had conservation, it had a good science program with tremendous expertise in scientists, and it had horticultural therapy — that’s something we’re going to do here,” he says.

At the new Garden, Mr. Holley will soon unveil an enabling garden devoted to horticultural therapy, flanking an idea garden where anyone can learn what food plants can grow in the subtropics.

“I’ve been in many gardens in the world, and I admire many, but it’s rare to find that thing that seems present in only a few — I guess I’d call it solace,” he notes.

More than anything, that quality will define the Naples Botanical Garden under Mr. Holley’s guidance.



Scott Kapnick clearly loves his father, the late Harvey Kapnick, as well as his father’s causes, making them his own.

Born and raised on a Michigan farm, Harvey Kapnick cultivated in his son his own belief “in giving back to the community where he lived,” says Mr. Kapnick. “He supported the arts, education, and other causes which enrich people’s lives.”

So do his son and daughter-in-law, who live and work in New York— Mr. Kapnick maintains Highbridge Principal Strategies LLC, based in Manhattan — and own a home in Naples.

With four children and brothers and sisters on each side of the family, the Kapnicks are clear about their contributions in the world.

“Kathleen and I believe that the most important things one does in life are the things that continue beyond one’s lifetime,” he Mr. Kapnick says. “The Garden is a gift to the city of Naples — a place where all members of the community can enjoy themselves. There are tremendous educational benefits from having the Garden, but it is also a place where people can come to relax, enjoy nature and contemplate life.

“I think it will be a very important tourist attraction to this great community, too.”

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