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Bok gardens on way back to glory days

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LAKE WALES -- The sound of chain saws buzz through Historic Bok Sanctuary's serenity, and as in a giant game of Pick Up Sticks at the Central Florida landmark, workers and volunteers pick up the pieces left by hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.

The sanctuary, revered for its beauty, lost about 200 trees and suffered damage to scores more. It remained closed for 36 days after Charley swept through Aug. 13.

"With Frances, we had an opening-of-the-gardens and closing-of-the-gardens meeting the same day," director of marketing Cindy Turner said.

Damage to structures and the irrigation system and cost of tree-debris removal is estimated at $1.5 million. Estimated loss of revenue from admissions and sales is $74,000.

The hurricanes' blasting through the sanctuary has had a profound effect on the gardens, but even with the destruction, there is hope. The defoliated trees will grow their canopies back and shade the gardens below. Fallen trees will provide an opportunity for new views and gardens that can withstand the Florida sun.

David Price, director of horticulture at the gardens, said within a year, most people wouldn't notice the hurricane damage. Within two years, the gardens should be where they were before Hurricane Charley.

When he first saw the gardens after Charley, Price said, it was shock and awe -- shock at the damage and awe at the power of nature.

It has been a grieving process to get through the storm's damage, he said. During 17 years at the sanctuary, he built up a collection of signature perennials. Some of the plants were damaged by the storms, including those lost when robbed of their shade and others damaged by heavy equipment brought in to remove trees.

"I remember when I got the plants and how I felt," Price said. "Some of the people that gave them to me are dead."

Price already has a plan to return the gardens to their previous beauty. About two more weeks of heavy cleanup remain. After that, four weeks of rehabilitation will include chipping the paths, weeding and pruning. For the remainder of the first year, restoration will continue: replanting the lawns and moving plants to suitable locations.

The final stage -- recovery -- will last until the second anniversary of Charley. The gardens should be as lush then as they were before the hurricanes.

Volunteers are working with sanctuary staff members to bring the gardens back. Turner said that about 350 volunteers from the community and organizations have joined with the 39 regular volunteers to donate more than 4,000 hours since Charley.

"If it had not been for Herculean efforts from our volunteers that allowed us to open sooner, the negative impact would have been worse," Turner said. "Busy season is still three or four weeks away."

Joe Wolf of Winter Haven is a regular volunteer at Bok.

"I wanted to cry," Wolf said, about seeing the place after Charley. "I had been here a week before, and it was so beautiful."

Cherie Hogan from Pennsylvania was visiting the gardens recently with a friend, Rochelle Moore, from Naples. Walking through the pathways with a guidebook in hand, they were identifying some of the remaining flowers and plants.

"It's amazing it's coming back so quick," Hogan said. "The Web site said it was bad, but not this bad."

The storms have opened the door to diversifying gardens, Price said. While the gardens had always been in deep shade, planners can now use pockets of sunlight and a different variety of plants.

Turner said guests are invited to visit during the restoration and take photos in their favorite areas to compare with the regrowth on their next visit. While they will see more sunlight areas and plantings, they will also notice more native plants in the landscape.

"The garden is a living thing," Turner said. "With all the devastation and damage, it has presented us with opportunities."

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