Within the downtown area of the tiny town of Eden, just two blocks south of the intersection of Hwy 87 and fronting on Hwy 83, is the Garden of Eden. Sounds like an obvious choice of names for a park, but stop for a visit and you’ll see a little piece of paradise.
Not long ago, this one-acre plot was covered with weeds, brush, and a dilapidated old house. But thanks to the efforts of several key people, a vision became a reality and source of pride which continues to thrive, supported by townspeople and visitors alike.
The City of Eden may be tinytown USA, but it’s a mighty mite full of people who may look like ordinary folks, but they are 0% selfishness and 100% heart, filled with pride of community, compassion for others, and an old-fashioned can-do attitude of determination.
Even though the sign says otherwise, this is a town of about 1,200 - heck, a lot of people were in graduating classes larger than that. There are at least six parks and a golf course. Do the math - these folks love their outdoor spaces, so it’s no wonder that Eden’s motto is “Where Business Success Meets Personal Serenity”.
Nowhere is personal serenity more evident than the Garden of Eden. If you’re travelling through, pause and take a walk as a respite from a long drive. It’s not a quick “walk-through”, but a series of nature trails, beautiful ponds and other water features, numerous shaded resting places, and picnic tables, all handicapped-accessible.
If you’re a flower gardener, you’ll find inspiration; if you love butterflies, there are clouds of them. It’s a photographer’s dream in the daytime and truly enchanting when the lamp lights glow after dark.
The garden, lush with mature plants bursting with color, appears to have been here for decades. But the initial idea was proposed in 2007 and the garden was officially dedicated at Eden’s 2009 Fall Fest when a marker bearing the names of those instrumental in the garden’s construction was placed at one of the entrances. Although it is always changing and growing, in two years flat, start to finish, the Garden of Eden became a reality. That in itself is amazing!
Even in small towns, here’s how it usually happens: someone has a great idea. Have meetings. Find a bunch of money. Hire some outsiders to do a study. Find a bunch of money. Have meetings. Hire some outsiders to engineer a big design plan. More meetings. Repeat process above. By the time there’s a groundbreaking, locals are tired of the whole thing and that original, good idea falls apart. Sound familiar?
Well, bureaucrats, doubting Thomases, and naysayers, sharpen your pencils and take note!
According to Celina Hemmeter, City Administrator/Secretary for the City of Eden, the garden originally was the idea of Linda Markham, whose husband was a city councilman at the time. As with most towns, many lots within the city were eyesores, covered with junk and old structures which had fallen into disrepair beyond saving. Through Eden’s Beautification Organization (EBO), there was a big push within the city for cleanup of these areas. Because it was in default, the City was able to acquire the Hwy 83 property.
Hemmeter contacted the Texas National Guard and through their Operation Crackdown, began a major cleanup. Operation Crackdown, funded entirely by drug seizure money, is used for training Guard personnel in the use of heavy equipment for readiness in the event of emergencies and national disasters. The Guard not only cleaned up the future park site, but took down a total of 50 unsafe structures throughout the city. Some of the rock used at the garden was recycled from one of the other demolition areas.
“Then we got a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) for beautification of small cities,” Hemmeter continued.
“We got the schoolkids involved. The 4-H Service Learning Group (which is made up of older youth) had received a grant to benefit the elderly and their thought was to do a walking trail with benches for resting,” she explained. “We are trying more and more to engage our youth in community projects, so they will have a feeling of sense of community. They can come back in 20 years and know they were a part of it,” she said.
A Texas Forestry Service representative was invited, and he offered sound advice and input after examining existing trees and plants on the site. And as with the Guard’s services, his input was free of charge.
“The EBO thought it might take years, but once we got the TDA grant”, a city crew finished cleanup of the site, decorative lampposts and benches, picnic tables were ordered, and “we got a grant from AEP for installing electricity,” Hemmeter said.
Local landscaper Vincent Mullins volunteered his talents, as did Glen Gainer, who provided his heavy equipment and operating skills and hauled in tons of rock from his family ranch. Together, Mullins and Gainer designed and built a garden filled with native plants highlighted with beautiful ponds and other water features. Benches, tables, and numerous resting places are all accessed by a series of winding trails, which take you on a circuitous journey through the garden. It rivals any magazine layout or HGTV design.
“Vincent and Glen installed everything and did it all completely as volunteers,” Hemmeter explained, giving praise not only for their beautiful designs, but noting that the garden as it is today would not have been possible without their free labor of love.
“I have to give Glen credit for the layout and design”, Mullins said. “To be honest, we winged it,” he laughed, although it is obvious that Mullins and Gainer already had the motivation, talent and energy - they just needed a place to work.
“We knew Celina was really serious when she got the grants. So I got some white spray paint and laid out the paths. I told Glen, ‘just build me some flower beds’,” Mullins said.
And build he did. “Glen hauled in tons of rock from his ranch and he did all the dirtwork,” building berms for raised beds, pathways, and areas for the ponds and other water features. According to Mullins, he and Gainer would often just sit and talk about a design idea. “I’d come back and Glen would have something built or another area ready for me to plant. I was amazed by his work,” he said.
“People say I have a green thumb,” said Mullins, who is an independent lawncare contractor. “But I don’t think so. I just know where plants need to go,” he said, displaying the same modestly as everyone else involved. “I’ve just always done this, even in my own personal yard.”
“And he has one of the most beautiful yards in Eden,” said Esther Gryniewicz, who has been part of EBO for four years and is its current treasurer. In addition, she is the City’s Utility Billing Clerk and Hemmeter appreciates her as the “go-to” person for all sorts of community projects.
“I love flowers - I just love flowers!” Gryniewicz exclaimed. “I’ve lived in Eden forever and there were so many old condemned homes. When we started talking about a butterfly garden, I pictured it just like this,” she said as we sat under an arbor’s shady canopy. “It’s exactly the kind of place I wanted and how I pictured it!” she noted, adding that she couldn’t be more pleased with the results. “As part of Eden’s beautification committee, we’re supposed to do this... so we just thank God that we have Vincent and Glen,” she said in praising their talents.
Lantana bushes are a riot of hot color in yellow, orange, and the brightest red. Huge jimson weed (datura) bushes are thick with dark green plate-sized foliage graced with gigantic blooms in the morning hours. The landscape is punctuated by tall Esperanza (Texas Yellowbell) and even taller Desert Bird of Paradise. A very large clump of Mexican petunia blooms purple, while here and there pops of red autumn sage and hazy cenizo catch the eye. Even though there is a drip watering system, “The plants are drought tolerant, mostly native. We water them to keep them blooming,” Mullins said. Purple fountain grass, its bushy plumes swaying in the wind, is the perfect complement to thick plantings and is one of the few annuals grown in the garden.
An antique metal milkcan spills water into a small pond where water lilies bloom during the heat of the day. Another large pond has huge stands of cattails and other water plants, many of which Mullins collected from local creeks, with Gainer’s boulders and rockwork creating a natural setting. Elsewhere, shallow waters lap over gravel rock and plants are allowed to grow into and along the water’s edge.
Everywhere you look, there’s something special to see or hear. And when you think you’ve seen it all, chances are you’ll hear another water sound and realize there’s yet another path around the bend. Or just when you think you’ve found the perfect spot to sit - oh, wait, look at that other bench over there. One metal park bench is enclosed on three sides by a sweet little arched arbor. Gainer built it from ordinary wire panels, but it’s like an ingenious work of art. Then Mullins added his touch, and in only about three weeks’ time, it was covered with thick dark green vines, now almost like sitting in a cozy nest - maybe the best seat in the house.
Mullins quarterbacked this team to victory and Gainer played the wide receiver who never missed a catch - together they achieved goal after goal, with winning results. It was a team effort all the way - and those who weren’t playing, cheered.
“The city budgets each year for beautification projects, but that money is shared by all the park sites and organizations in town,” Hemmeter said. “The city has a chipper and when we have cleanups, we try to give Vincent the mulch that’s generated. And other people really help out. They’ve brought seeds, plants, birdhouses and water plants - all kinds of things for us to use.”
Mullins has now added a wildflower section, gathering seeds from its first year’s growth, which he will sow to enlarge the area. He continues to volunteer taking care of the garden. “I come here every day,” he said. And because he’s here so often, “I’ve met people from Switzerland, Germany, Israel and other places - and they’ve told me how much they like it. My pay is to watch people come and use the garden.”
There are no fences, but for some reason, the deer and rabbits do not play havoc with this garden (although they ravaged the tomato plants Mullins tried to grow in a hidden spot), so this garden seems to be protected, and it remains an oasis even in a time of extreme drought.
Hummingbirds and other birds, bees, butterflies and wildlife share the park with visitors. And even though there were lots of flutter-bys in July, “the butterflies really move in during August and September,” Mullins said. And almost in unison, Hemmeter, Mullins and Gryniewicz exclaimed over the Monarchs that arrive in October. It’s a phenomenon that occurs every year. The trees and shrubs are literally covered and drip with them. Obviously, The Garden of Eden is a piece of heaven for these angel wings who stay about two weeks before continuing their migration.
This is not a static place. There is movement and life - perhaps from the energy of those whose talents helped create it. It seems meant to grow and prosper.
But for all its vibrancy, The Garden of Eden remains a place of calm. Despite its quietness, it shouts with inspiration. Thoreau said of Nature, it is a Sanctum Sanctorum. Indeed. Many visitors certainly use the garden for reflection and contemplation and perhaps some of the peace they receive lingers for the next visitor.
The Garden of Eden... it’s well worth a visit and nothing short of a miracle.