Nancy preserves a Secret Garden

Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden sits on a one-acre lot at the end of FreeSchool Lane off Simonton Street. Forrester purchased the lot in 1969 and has worked over the years to transform it into a lush, rainforest-like environment, complete with a variety of tropical birds.

Forrester says what's now the garden was once a sinkhole that was used as a garbage dump.

"It was an undesignated city dump," she says. "There was a lot of refuse on top of the ground. Everybody was lazy and threw their stuff in there."

Once Forrester took ownership, she worked with friends and family to remove the garbage and was pleasantly surprised to find that she had acquired a nice, arable plot complete with several large Spanish lime and Sapodilla trees.

Forrester used the existing tree canopy to build a lower and mid-level garden with lots of plants that thrive in shade to create a rainforest feel amidst the hustle and bustle of Old Town Key West.

The garden was opened to the public in December 1994 and began to take on a life of its own. "We just lived well on the land and the paths started to evolve," says Forrester.

A $10 admission fee is charged as a way to offset cost-of-living increases and an increase in property taxes. Now, Forrester is working with the local nonprofit Mana Project -- mana is a Polynesian word meaning "positive creative force" -- to preserve the garden for future generations to enjoy.

"I've recently turned 70," Forrester said, "and I'm in good health, but I can't really fine-tune it [the garden]."

Forrester wants Mana Project to lease the land from her, with an option to buy, so that the garden won't be converted into residential housing.

With the property's zoning designation as residential-historic, nine residences could be built on the property, says Forrester. "I'm in my elder years now and I want the property to never be developed and always be open to the public."

Forrester uses an annual Rare and Exotic Palm Sale as a sort of membership drive and to raise awareness about her vision for the future of the garden. She works with horticulturist and palm expert Jeff Searle, who is based in the Fort Lauderdale area, to offer unique varieties of ornamental and landscaping palms for sale to Keys residents and visitors.

The garden is on FreeSchool Lane, off Simonton Street, between Southard and Fleming streets.

In addition to the many beautiful plants, the garden is home to 22 parrots. At one point, Forrester said she was caring for more than 100 birds but had to give some away. "We can only have as many birds as we can evacuate (during hurricane season)," she said.

Forrester has long been a parrot fan. "I just didn't have any idea how social and intelligent they are," she said. And although she can only house a limited number of birds, she does match individuals trying to get rid of their parrots with people who want to adopt.

Mana Project even has an initiative called the "I Love Parrots Program" that gives people the opportunity to sponsor a feathered friend. For $75 a year, anyone can provide one of the resident parrots with food, toys and medical care. Sponsors even receive a biography and painting of their bird.

More information of Mana Project is available online at

Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden is on the web at and can by reached by phone at 294-0015. The garden is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.