By Judy Jenkins
The once-beautiful gardens at Audubon Museum had become so shabby, overgrown and disorganized that the Audubon State Park staff figured anything they did would be a vast improvement.
Little did they suspect, however, just how much of an upgrade it would turn out to be.
Because they are dazzled and surprised at the outcome, they've concluded that it merits a public grand opening, complete with refreshments.
That's exactly what will happen, beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday -- the 224th birthday of famed wildlife artist John James Audubon, for whom the park and museum are named.
The event not only will showcase the garden area and the various locations that are considered ideal for weddings, but also will include free tours of the museum from 2-3:30 p.m. That 71-year-old facility holds the world's most extensive collection of Audubon art, his writings, and family mementos.
In addition, there'll be a dedication of the elaborate arbor constructed by late park volunteer Anthony Hazelwood, who completed the arched wooden structure shortly before his death in December last year at age 81.
Hazelwood, who was involved in numerous park projects over the years, was especially enthusiastic about the revamping of the gardens.
Mark Kellen, Audubon Park manager, said this week that when plans for the garden overhaul got underway last August with a $10,000 budget, it didn't appear that a great deal could be done.
"I never thought we'd be able to have so much planting, because plants cost so much and this is such a huge space," he said.
Thanks to the efforts of the park staff, volunteers, students, and inmates from the Henderson County Detention Center, as well as input from local garden center owner George Day and a garden committee headed by Dina Campbell and Carol Gatlin, the project took on a life of its own and its scope kept expanding.
Funds for the garden renewal were provided through two grants, each $5,000, from the Kentucky State Park Foundation and the local Friends of Audubon.
Kellen said the park's full-time maintenance staff of three worked particularly hard to make the vision a reality.
Taking the best of proposed (but never completed) garden designs that spanned some 50 years, the project leaders opted for a "French formal" garden with serpentine curves of small boxwoods, accompanied at various points with both spring and winter-blooming azaleas, rhododendron, and a compact variety of magnolias.
Bright annuals soon will accentuate the garden spaces with splashes of color and complement the vast center lawn of emerald green.
Kellen pointed out that a slope to the west of the museum and Nature Center is a wildflower garden that will be an education tool as well as an eye-appealing section.
It is hoped that the gardens will draw more tourists to the museum, and also host more weddings, for which there is an "affordable" fee.
On Sunday, A Complete Party Rental will demonstrate a "mini wedding" in the garden area, including cake and punch for the public. Kellen noted that the museum's tower will become a place for brides to don their gowns prior to weddings.
The park is counting on increased revenue to help with extensive needs, including improvements to existing facilities, playgrounds, and restoration of some museum pieces.
Kellen said the state's budget problems are making it necessary for individual parks to be more creative in generating revenue.
"We've got a long way to go," he said, "but with the Friends of Audubon and our staff and volunteers, it will be accomplished."