Rebirth of an heirloom gardening legacy

Sims Garden resident caretaker Laura Rogers, Homewood City Council President Allyn Holladay and Southern Environmental Center Director Roald Hazelhoff were all instrumental in bringing the Edgewood community garden back to life. Photos by Madoline Markham.

By RICK WATSON

For decades, heirloom shrubs and flowers with standout roses lined five lots at 908 Highland Road.

Thanks to new efforts, the legacy of Catherine Sims, the “Plant Lady of Homewood,” is living on in her Edgewood home’s garden. The lots are now filled with heirloom plants you might have found in a garden half a century ago.

“Of all the projects I’ve done for the city, this is one that I’m really proud of because it can go on forever,” City Council President Allyn Holladay said. “It’s a quiet place in the neighborhood where people can take their children in the afternoon and show them plants they won’t see just anywhere.”

In her will, Sims offered the property to the City of Homewood, but there was a catch – the city had to utilize the property as a botanical gardens.
City leaders weren’t initially excited about the gift because they weren’t sure how to manage and maintain it, so from 2006 when she passed away until last year, the property fell into disrepair.

The Sims property and a few other properties in the neighborhood had been eyesores for the neighbors in the area, according to Mary Ellen Snell, president of the East Edgewood Neighborhood Watch (EENW).

Residents and members of EENW pushed for development of the city-owned Sims property.

Change came when Holladay, who helped bring Patriot Park into fruition, got involved behind the scenes with the help of fellow council members David Hooks and Tony Smith to cobble together a partnership between the City of Homewood, the Community Foundation, and Birmingham-Southern College’s Southern Environmental Center (SEC).

The Sims Garden became one of several “EcoScapes” the SEC manages in the area. The Center serves as a platform for the Urban Environmental Studies program on campus and is the only program of its kind in Alabama.

Together the group developed a plan that wouldn’t cost the city a lot of money. To bring the garden back to life, the city would put up the initial $30,000 to renovate the house and make it livable, and the SEC role would be to develop a plan to help manage the property.

“We’ve gone to great lengths to save what was already there and to find other similar plants,” said Roald Hazelhoff, director of the SEC.

“We see this as an outdoor classroom, so in that way we can work with local scout groups, garden clubs and neighbors in the community who might want to learn about things like composting, rainwater harvesting, etc.,” said Hazelhoff.

The Sims Garden has a lot more than just pretty flowers according to landscape contractor Arnold Rutkis, owner of StoneShovel landscaping.

“There are a lot of edible things like muscadines, figs, Japanese persimmons, plums, peaches, mayhaw, rosemary and thyme,” he said.

The garden is also distinctly Homewood; limestone salvaged from the old Homewood City Hall lines its paths.

“The old city hall was built in 1926,” said Holladay, “and we couldn’t bring ourselves to toss it. I’m sure Catherine would be proud that we used remnants of city hall in her garden.”

The lower lots of the garden are covered with native grasses, plants and heirloom roses. The upper garden includes a brick patio, moss rock seating wall, a bamboo fence and a tool shed, which showcases a green roof and rainwater collection system.

Hazelhoff said that the Sims Garden is still in transition and that it’s taken a lot of work to bring the property back to life.

The neighborhood involvement has been phenomenal, according to Holladay. On work weekends 25 to 30 people showed up to help landscape.

“The city was convinced that with minimal outlays, they could have maximum benefit, and also honor one of our citizens who wanted to honor us by leaving us this property,” said Holladay.

AmeriCorps volunteer Laura Rogers is resident caretaker of the Sims Botanical Garden and coordinates the EcoScape program.

The garden officially opened in April for groups by appointment. The facility is also available for special functions.

Everyone is invited to the Sims Garden’s official opening May 4 from 2 to 4 p.m.

To keep up with the latest happenings in the Sims Garden, visit www.facebook.com/SimsEcoscape. Community work days are held Fridays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Call 226-4934 if you are interested in volunteering

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