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Azaleas Mistreated, Park Devotee Says

Also, she says the sand used to fill in stump holes has “messed up” everything. “Grass won’t grow on sand,” she says.

The North Side resident has volunteered in the azalea garden as much as six days a week for nine years, pulling weeds and trimming back bushes. The Richmond Sheriff’s Office provides her a crew of inmates for its maintenance. Even with their help, she says it takes her a year to work her way through the seven beds that hold more than 5,000 azaleas and span the 262-acre park.

Jennings is in the process of finding some replacement azaleas. She says she has $150 left over from what the city gave her last year, plus an additional $100 she says a person in the parks department gave her after she bitterly complained. She estimates it will cost $2,000 to bring the azalea garden “up to par with where I had it” and could take a year to mend.

In 1950, the Norfolk Botanical Gardens donated 5,000 azaleas to the city of Richmond. The shrubs were planted at Forest Hill Park. But the soil wasn’t conducive to azaleas. So in 1952, the city began planting the bushes at Bryan Park. They thrived. By 1968, the gardens flourished so much that 388,000 people drove or walked through the park to see them in springtime.

J.P. Vaughan, senior architect with the city’s parks department, says he empathizes with Jennings, but says the city is doing all it can to respond to damage Isabel caused throughout the city. He says the city’s urban forestry manager has assessed the garden and determined the damage done by its contractors has not been unduly severe.

The fact is, Vaughan says, cleaning up after Isabel continues. “We’ve still got trees on houses. Parks are kind of low on the totem pole right now,” he says. “We will do the best we can to make it right, make it better and report it to FEMA.”

Jennings says that’s not good enough. She wants the city to acknowledge that the damage to the azaleas is significant and unnecessary, and then give her the $2,000 to buy more azaleas and much-needed peat moss and topsoil.

“It once was a beautiful place — in the springtime it was heaven,” Jennings recalls. “Now it’s a barren land.” — Brandon Walters

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