The Blooming of Bok Tower Gardens
By Donna Kelly

The hills of Iron Mountain are still alive with the sound of Bok Tower’s carillon bells, but these days they also ring with classic rock songs, children’s laughter, and sizzling culinary creations.

Seven years into the Bok Tower Gardens’ 2011 Twenty-year master plan designed to guide the growth of Edward Bok’s 1929 gift of peace and tranquility to the American people, nearly two of its three phases have been completed. Repeat visitors will note the addition of Hammock Hollow, the children’s garden; the Wild Garden; the Kitchen Garden containing edible plants; wide accessible paths, a renewed interpretive display, tower restoration, and open land preservation.

As phases of the plan are completed, the Gardens’ schedule of events grows and becomes more varied. March and April programming offers a variety of experiences, including Cooking with Wine, Holistic Stress Management, and Yoga. March brings a Family Camping Adventure, a Farm to Table Dinner with Chef Amy Freeze, and Digital Camera School and Photo Safari.

“We have made the entire gardens kid friendly, offered more relevant programming that appeals to families and younger audience, make the garden more accessible to wheelchairs and strollers, and created Hammock Hollow,” says David Price, president of Bok Tower Gardens.”

Spring Sensations: Peak Bloom and Live Music

“Spring at Bok Tower is a special time for families to enjoy everything that Mother Nature brings to the table as our azaleas and camellias will be in full bloom. We’ll have our flowering annuals,” says Erica Smith, director of marketing and public relations. “We’re trying to thread some of that beautiful bloom through our Pinewood Estate. We’re bringing the outside in by highlighting flowering arrangements and plants inside the estate.”

Peak Bloom, the attraction’s most colorful time of year, continues through March when each week will feature a different flower arrangement and blooming plant throughout the home.

“Now is peak bloom for our camellias and I encourage visitors to get off the trails and walk across the lawns to discover the more than 200 varieties of camellias we have growing,” says Price.   

Peak Bloom also means live carillon music one might not expect to hear from The Singing Tower. Two Bok after Dark events will be held in March, and each spotlights the carillon in a different way.

First, Bok after Dark: An Epic Fantasy will be held at 7 p.m. on March 15 and will feature “everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Sci Fi – the big block buster silver screen movie anthems,” says Smith.

The evening will likely include a tribute to John Williams, an Academy Award-winning composer who wrote such notable film scores as the themes from, “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” and “Schindler’s List.”

The Bok after Dark season will close on March 29 with “Rock the Bok,” a classic rock concert offering well-loved classic rock anthems by groups from ACDC to Journey.

“We’re trying to introduce a new generation to what we’re doing here at Bok Tower Gardens and we’re doing that by embracing our past, but showcasing it in a different way,” Smith says. “You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard Geert D’hollander do the Batman theme on the carillon.”

Hammock Hollow: Creative Play and Learning

Armed with an annual membership, Rachelle and Ben Selser of Winter Haven head to Bok Tower with their 7-year-old daughter, River, at least once a month – sometimes three times a week – to unplug and enjoy outdoor fun. They particularly enjoy Hammock Hollow, trails, the tower, ponds full of fish and the Blue Palmetto Café.  Often they’ll bring one of River’s friends with them.

While the Selsers enjoy all of the attraction’s areas, many times they spend the entire visit within the whimsical world of Hammock Hollow.

Selser says River’s favorite area is River Walk, a system of limestone rocks with fossils and caves that include fountains, misters, foggers and spray jets of water. The youngster also has fun hunting for shark teeth along the gravel trails of gravel material brought in from Mosaic, climbing and hanging on a giant spider web, performing on the Sabal Stage in beautiful costumes provided, and working the vintage water hand pump in the Back-in-time Garden.

“I enjoy watching River explore the natural elements of water, earth, air — and fire on days when there might be a controlled burn in the natural areas surrounding Bok. We take off our shoes and get grounded to the Earth during our visits,” says Selser. “Hammock Hollow is a wonderful children’s garden to realign your priorities, gain perspective and delight in the simplicity of getting back to basics with your family, friends and children”

The Selsers aren’t the only adults mesmerized by Hammock Hollow.

“When we built Hammock Hollow, we were really thinking about kids,” says Smith. “But what we’ve learned in the last year-and-a-half is that Hammock Hollow is just as exciting for adults as it is for children.”

She attributes this in part to the area’s higher elevation and pockets of shade that create a cooler, more comfortable environment to enjoy watching children at play.

Wildlife inhabiting the area, particularly birds and butterflies, also draws adults to Hammock Hollow.

“The rock formations we have in Hammock Hollow have become a natural space for monarch butterflies. We are seeing so many of them spinning their jade green chrysalis in the rock formations,” she explains, adding that the manmade rock offers protection from the elements while lush butterfly plants provide food.

“We wanted kids to get their fingers in the dirt. We wanted them to touch and feel and experience and really embrace nature,” says Smith. “We’re seeing that every day.”

For families like the Selsers, Hammock Hollow offers a wholesome, low-key environment for leisure time.

“It is such a welcomed departure from the “big box” theme parks while appealing to children of all ages on an elemental level,” says Selser.

Outdoor Kitchen and Kitchen Garden

After visiting Bok Tower sporadically throughout her life, Winter Haven resident Laura Griffith became a member about five years ago after her work hours dwindled and her children were grown and on their own.

“I finally had the time to visit and I really appreciate how well everything is maintained,” she says. “The paths are very peaceful and the gardens are beautiful any time of year.”

 She makes her way to Bok Tower about six times a month to attend food and music events, enjoy nighttime programs, and “just to get away.”

The Outdoor Kitchen and Kitchen Garden, where visitors can both learn and dine, are two of her favorite areas. Last fall, she attended a cooking program, “Everything Pumpkin,” which she described as a “wonderful, fun, and fact-filled time.”

The demonstrations, says Griffith, included preparation of a pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin pie. Wine, beer, soft drinks, and water were served along with ample samples of the soup, bread, and pie. Nuts and sunflower seeds were on each table, and after the soup, a walnut chicken was served on a bed of greens. The meal also included bread. Coffee and pie were served after the pie demonstration.

“We had plenty of time for Q&A during this very relaxed day. The Blue Palmetto’s Chef Matthew is very personable and took us through all that makes baking and cooking with fresh pumpkin so great,” Griffith says. “I love that the edible Garden is so close to the children’s area and that the food chain can be so readily seen — makes it that more delicious.”

Recently, a group of elementary students sat in the outdoor kitchen pavilion and learned about fractions as the teacher cut a banana in half, and then into fourths. Later, as the students filed into Hammock Hollow, a boy rubbed his hands together, his eyes dancing with anticipation. “I love Bok Tower,” he said to his buddy.

Selser agrees. “Through the eyes of the children, Hammock Hollow couldn’t be topped. But then, a stroll down the garden path continues to reveal the secrets of Bok Tower Gardens and discovery awaits!”

For more info visit BokTowerGardens.org.