Justin Heath has a dream that someday the sign on Heart Island will read: Boldt Castle & Formal Gardens. For some, the gardens are already the highlight of a visit to Heart Island.
This past August, I brought my cousin, Darlene, to visit Boldt Castle. While she loved the castle, it was the gardens she oohhed and awed over. She loved the peppers in the Italian Garden. She marveled at the cannas. She’d never seen variegated leaves on cannas before and the blooms were such an interesting shade of orange. She really wanted to know what kind they were. Darlene, like many in my family, is a garden lover.
Darlene was jealous to learn that on a dazzling day last September, I spent two hours touring the castle grounds with Justin Heath, year-round horticulturalist of Boldt Castle. I had not expected anyone so young to be in charge of something so vast, so special. I was even more stunned to learn that he’s been planting and maintaining flowers at Boldt Castle, for the past nine years.
Justin is a hometown guy. His first horticultural class was at high school, but his first gardening experience came way before that. Justin’s mother and grandmother both had huge gardens. Justin was the last child and when his siblings went off to school, Justin stayed behind and got another kind of schooling as he helped his mother and grandmother in their gardens. However, his maternal side shouldn’t get all the credit. It seems both sides of Justin’s family had green thumbs. Justin’s grandfather, Jerome Heath, served as landscaper for Singer Castle for ten years back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
After studying horticulture in college and opening a landscaping business of his own, Justin learned that the horticulture position for the T. I. Bridge Authority had opened up. At the tender age of 25, Justin interviewed for the position and got the job. He had mighty big shoes to step into, the two head landscapers before him had set high standards.
Maintaining the gardens at Boldt Castle is only part of what he does. Justin is in charge of all the landscaping for the Bridge Authority, which includes 7 gardens sprinkled between the American and the Canadian side of the river. He has help during the summer months, but Justin is the only year-round employee. Right now, I would guess that Justin is busy in the Bridge Authority Green Houses, preparing for spring.
No one knows what the gardens would have looked like, if George Boldt had completed the castle for his wife, Louise. The plans only showed the location of one garden, the Italian Gardens. As the castle was nearing completion in January, 1904, no doubt a landscape architect would have been hired to plan and install the gardens. Justin does know one thing. The gardens like the castle itself would have been extravagant. During the Gilded Age, lavish gardens filled with bright blossoms were status symbols.
Justin and his staff work hard to live up to that standard. They currently plant and maintain 10,000 bright annuals in various flowerbeds around Heart Island. Justin has an eye for combining the bright blossoms into dazzling displays. As he took me around the garden pointing out and rattling off names of varieties his enthusiasm was palpable, as bright and plentiful as the flowers. But everywhere Justin looks, he sees the potential for more flowers, more pots, more beds.
One of my personal favorite flowerbeds is near the boat dock entrance. I love the well-manicured hearts of gray Santolina. I had imagined that they were planted once and overwintered, but was surprised to learn that Justin and his team take cuttings each fall, replant them in the greenhouse, nurture them through the winter and replant them again in the spring. What I found even more amazing is that, after planting they have to be meticulously maintained. Every 10 days, two guys with tiny pruning shears spend three hours trimming the iconic hearts.
Near Alster Tower, Justin showed me the project he had created for the 2014 Boldt Castle Family Fun Day. During the day-long event, kids were allowed to get their hands dirty, by helping plant a flower bed with two words, “Create” and “Inspire,” with a heart between the two. These are words that Justin seems to live by - as he plans, plants and maintains the lush castle grounds with a whole lot of heart thrown in.
While the Bridge Authority is Justin’s official boss, as we walked around Heart Island, I got the feeling that Justin is trying to please the island’s original owner as well. During our tour, he shared what he knew about the man who had created Boldt Castle. While doing research for this article, I ran across something George Boldt’s granddaughter, Clover Boldt Baird, had said back in 1988. In an interview for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Clover recalled how much her grandfather loved flowers. She described how he would walk with her through his gardens with a gold-tipped cane and point to the dying flowers for the gardener to pluck out and replant with healthy ones. When I visualize that description, I see Boldt looking dapper in his elegant suit, and a smiling Justin eager to fulfill his request. I think George Boldt himself might approve of Justin’s dream to see the sign on his heart-shaped island, changed to Boldt Castle & Formal Gardens.
Can’t wait to see what Justin will add for 2015. I don’t have long to wait. Opening day for Boldt Castle is right around the corner, on May 9th at 10 am. Family Fun Day is slated for June 20th.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 70+ articles here – as she helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing and walk with nature. During summer 2014, Lynn researched a number of new topics that she is sharing throughout the winter… Enjoy.