A New Natural Classroom: Harry P. Leu Gardens

Green garden with a metal arch covered in vines and a rusted mailbox to the left.

As summer vacation soon ends and the regular back-to-school season begins, educators and students are exploring the rich, diverse learning environments that extend beyond the classroom walls. One such locale is the enchanting 50-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens sanctuary. 

As we navigate the winding paths of this botanical haven, we’ll unearth the team’s vision for the upcoming year, the enriching new programs set to launch, and how schools and the broader community can partner with this vibrant education hub.

Origins, Mission, Leadership, Vision

Each garden is designed to further the Garden’s mission to “inspire visitors to appreciate and understand plants.” The garden and historical home were deeded to the City of Orlando in 1961 by Mr. Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane. 

Under the leadership of its new Executive Director, Jennifer D’hollander, and the relentless efforts of Education Program Manager Sandra Linn, Harry P. Leu Gardens is continuing the legacy by offering unique, hands-on learning experiences designed to engage and inspire both the young and the young-at-heart.

An Orlando native, D’hollander was appointed as Executive Director in May 2023. During her first 90 days, she looks forward to carrying on the legacy of her predecessors and enhancing the beautiful work of art that is Harry P. Leu Gardens, including immediate past executive director Robert Bowden who retired after 30 years. 

“So far, everything has been incredible. I am so excited and honored to have been selected for this opportunity. This is my dream job; I get to work in an incredibly beautiful environment with an incredible staff,” D’hollander says. 

D’hollander has a background in museums, previously having served as the executive director of the Lake Wales History Museum and the Sample-McDougald House and the Director of Visitor Services & Programs at Bok Tower Gardens. Her immediate growth area at Harry P. Leu Gardens is focused on connectivity and community engagement and balancing being a botanical garden and an events venue that enhance each other. 

Educational Opportunities and New Experiences

A group of school children looking through colorful binoculars in green and pink gardens.

Tours occur daily at the gardens, and the goal is to make each visit impactful for all involved at an affordable cost. D’hollander explains that the Gardens incorporate appropriate teaching standards on all field trips and visits. Linn echoes that sentiment, encouraging schools who have never visited Harry P. Leu Gardens to reach out and set up a field trip. It is a place to be inspired to go back to learn more at school. 

“We have many opportunities,” Linn says. “We have a lot of different field trips; you can have guided field trips, self-guided field trips, or we have field trips that you can add some different programs to. We’ll create the experience they need and want to have here.”

Speaking of new experiences, the Gardens is introducing a new field trip for third, fourth, and fifth graders this fall. Called the Birds Around the World Tour, the program will allow students to visit birdhouses near interesting trees worldwide. Students will learn about the trees and birds native to those regions that rely on the trees, with the challenge of finding the continents on a blow-up globe. 

Their guide will also have photos and links to the vocalizations of native birds that frequent the Gardens, which they might spot through their binoculars. The field trip includes a follow-up teacher booklet for educators to teach kids how to attract native birds to their yards. The program is limited to 40 students per day for $8.00 per student. One adult per every seven students is free, with tours beginning at 10 a.m. and lasting approximately an hour and a half. 

Linn is also happy to reveal the schedule of the brand-new Girl Scout Badge programs opening in the fall. Girl Scout leaders can register their entire troop, or girls can register separately. Tickets are available for sale starting this month. 

Nature’s Secret CodeShapes in NatureJunior & BrownieSeptember 3010:00am-12:00pm
Teas with Ms. DaisySocial ButterflyJuniorOctober 2810:00am-12:00pm
One Scout, One VoteInside GovernmentJuniorNovember 510:00am-12:00pm
Living, Breathing MathDesign with NatureBrownieJanuary 610:00am-12:00pm

Fostering Environmental Stewardship

Linn emphasizes that such experiences can inspire kids to engage with nature in their own yards, creating habitats for creatures like butterflies. She stresses the importance of direct interaction with nature in childhood, encouraging kids to overcome fears and misunderstandings about the natural world. D’hollander echoes those sentiments, explaining how these outdoor experiences can create lasting memories. This interaction with nature is crucial in fostering a love for the environment and raising environmental awareness. 

 “We all know that our natural world resources are limited, and we must respect them and maintain bits and pieces of our natural world as we grow,” D’hollander says. “So, that’s my hope. We can be this beautiful oasis in a built city that reminds people at any age that we’re connected to this world.”

So, as we’ve explored, Harry P. Leu Gardens enchants visitors with its natural beauty and fosters an enriching educational environment that encourages learning, growth, and curiosity. With its passionate leadership and exciting new programs on the horizon, the Gardens promise to cultivate a fertile ground of knowledge that can inspire, inform, and ignite a love for learning for all, especially the youth. 

“The most rewarding thing I get to see working here doing what I do is when kids get to be kids, outside enjoying nature and discovering something that they had never seen or experienced before,” D’hollander says.

To learn more about how you can get involved, visit https://www.leugardens.org/ 


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Written by Alexis George

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