A flowering festival

Though the USF Botanical Gardens rarely see hustle and bustle, the 20th Annual Spring Plant Festival, starting Saturday, is expected to be flooded with green-thumbed students and people.

Attendants have the chance to purchase plants and learn how to care and maintain them from experts. More than 70 vendors will sell plants, organic products and food.

“This is our highlight of the year. Bringing in new plants, fun vendors and clubs — it is just an exciting weekend for us,” said Kimberly Hutton, special events coordinator for the Botanical Gardens. “Not to mention, this is what keeps our gates open.”

Diane Harshbarger, a senior majoring in biology, is planning to participate at the festival for her third time as a volunteer.

“I never get tired of walking around and admiring all of the amazing plants,” she said. “The Spring Festival is much larger than the Fall (Festival) and, as you can imagine, all of the flowers are in bloom and it is absolutely beautiful.”

Many students are unaware that the gardens are right in their backyard. Harshbarger said she happened upon the gardens one day as she drove by them before applying to the University.

“I have always loved the outdoors and a change for peace and quiet while studying, so I was immediately attracted (to the gardens),” she said. “The next day, I decided to visit the garden and fell in love with it. It may be possible that the gardens influenced my decision to attend USF.”

The gardens consist of seven acres of landscape displays and habitat types through which visitors can stroll. Upon entering the gardens, it’s hard not to notice the lush landscape — fruit trees, palms, bamboos, flowers, carnivorous plants, shade plants, bromeliad plants, flowering trees and animal species.

“I recommend that everybody go there at least once because it’s really beautiful and unique,” Harshbarger said. “It’s not like other places on campus. There is lots of stuff besides just plants.”

However, the gardens haven’t always been able to attract students. In 2002, they lost funding from USF because of state budget cuts and became self-supporting through plant sales, workshops, volunteering, donations and memberships, said Laurie Walker, director of the Botanical Gardens. The gardens are still suffering from a lack of funds, without which no advertising can be funded to bring in more visitors.

“We tried to put advertising out there the best way we can without a lot of money because we cannot buy ads,” Walker said. “We depend on the Internet, our Web site and anything less expensive.”

As much as Walker wants visitors to experience nature, she tries to get more people to come to help raise funds. She said she wants people to know about the gardens, but getting the information out to students is a difficult task.

“The USF Botanical Gardens is really a gem, but I hate to say that it is a hidden gem because I don’t want it to be hidden,” Walker said. “It’s a beautiful place and an incredible resource that the University has. Not many universities have botanical gardens, especially in the state of Florida. It’s hard to imagine an urban setting like this — one with something as lush and rich as a botanical garden.”

Admission to the Spring Plant Festival is $5 for the general public and free for children under 12 and members of the USF Botanical Gardens. General admission is free and open to the public every day, except major holidays.

For more information, visit www.cas.usf.edu/garden.