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HIT THE ROAD

From the Ground Up

Clark Gardens Botanical Park spotlights hands-in-the-dirt work of two visionaries

Clark Gardens Botanical Park is a remote oasis with an address in Weatherford but a physical location just three miles east of Mineral Wells. I took Interstate 20 west from Fort Worth and then jogged north on the Main Street exit to Weatherford. It’s a treat just to circle the ornate Parker County courthouse before heading west again on U.S. Highway 180. Before Mineral Wells, signs announce Maddux Road and direct you for a mile or so to the entrance of the 35-acre garden.

Max and Billie Clark purchased the property in the late 1960s, built a house there in 1972 and enthusiastically began to convert a mesquite-strewn field into a very personal paradise. Carol Clark Montgomery, one of the couple’s two children, is now director of the park, which is run by the Clarks’ nonprofit foundation. It’s open to the public every day of the year.

The gardens’ Spring Festival this year is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 31, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 1. It will feature live music, Texas wine and cheese, art, and education stations with information about plants and conservation.

“When we moved here, it was a fallow piece of land,” Montgomery said. She remembers a visitor to Clark Gardens Botanical Park telling her father, “God gave you a lovely place to work.” His response: “Pardon me, ma’am, but before I got here God wasn’t doing much with it.”

The couple had the wealth, energy and ingenuity to think big. Max’s adaptation of a big-toothed rock saw virtually replaced the jackhammer in digging trenches for coaxial cable and other underground lines. When they weren’t working at their contracting company, they were planning the gardens.

Over the years, Max and Billie imported thousands of truckloads of topsoil and compost to improve the thin soil. The gardens are not irrigated. During the summer drought, water collected in artificial lakes was used to hand-water stressed plants. The gardens lost some young trees, but most of the plantings survived.

The gardens have also benefited from the efforts of full-time general contractor John Holder as well as groundskeepers and talented craftsmen.

This is a personal and endearing vision. On top of an artificial hill with a waterfall is a bronze casting of Max working in the garden with a trowel in his hand, as one of his chocolate Labrador retrievers keeps him company. Next to a pavilion used for family weenie roasts is a statue of Billie and her youngest grandchild, Molly. Part of the installation is an old, red Radio Flyer wagon.

Billie, 78, now lives in a residential care facility in Wichita Falls, but Max, 84, still has his hands in the dirt about 50 hours a week.

In addition to providing cart tours ($10 a person by reservation or on first-come, first-served basis) or tickets to stroll the gardens ($7 for adults, $5 for children and seniors, 4 and younger free), the facility caters weddings and other special events. There are splashing fountains, a chapel, a formal English garden and lagoons.

The Clarks’ iris garden of 1,500 varieties will be one of the Master Plantings Gardens for newly developed irises during the 2013 American Iris Society Convention. There also is an extensive collection of heirloom roses, a stunning variety of day lilies, herb and grass collections, and a historic tree trail where offspring of famous American trees from locations such as the Gettysburg battlefield and the Alamo are planted.

My favorite feature are the G-scale trains that run through a structure called Clark Station and continues outside on 1,200 feet of track, passing miniature replicas of the Parker County courthouse and the old, defunct Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. Leaving the building, the trains wind their way through ingeniously constructed tunnels, bridges and miniature scenes. Vintage toy cars and trucks are parked near tiny stores, and the root systems of tiny plants prevent erosion on hills and gullies of the rail route.

Clark Gardens is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. But the trains run on an abbreviated schedule, so check their seasonal operating times. (Go to www.clarkgardens.org, call (940) 682-4856 or email info@clarkgardens.org.)

Back in Weatherford, be sure to stop at the farmers market just east of the courthouse. You’ll find various varieties of jams, jellies, salsas and condiments, plus a great selection of unshelled nuts.

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Kaye Northcott is a retired editor of Texas Co-op Power.