Holiday Lights in the Gardens

Magical holiday lights transform gardens into a winter wonderland.

January 28, 2022

The Florida Botanical Gardens is an oasis of green in one of the state’s most densely populated counties. Managed by the Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources Department, the Gardens are free and open to the public year-round. Located just minutes from several beaches, the Gardens are a popular spot for local residents and visitors alike.

To learn more about the Gardens and how they have fared during these trying times, we spoke with Vernon Bryant, the executive director of the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation. The Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to create an environment at the Gardens that allows the community to come together for education, inspiration, and enjoyment. Their efforts are focused on fundraising and programming at the Gardens. Since 2020, DipJar has worked with the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation to support its fundraising efforts.

Bryant, who has been with the Gardens for more than 20 years, is a horticulturist by training and experience. He imagined that he would work with plants, instead, he’s working with people to help them understand and appreciate the rich native flora of Florida. The community the Gardens serves is large and diverse, with people from the region, around the country, and around the world. Bryant likes to joke that they know it’s fall when the license plates begin to change.

Since the 1980s, the land grant university extension for Pinellas County has been on the site of the Gardens. The Gardens continues that educational mission through a series of demonstration gardens that are designed to help people new to gardening understand and appreciate the special conditions of the Florida ecosystem. This type of information is especially important for transplants to the area.

“The focus is on educating people about the growing environment,” explained Bryant, “and doing it in a sustainable way. Our relationship with the environment is important, especially in a state like Florida.”

People flock to the Gardens to learn, be inspired, or simply to relax and unwind. The busy season, which runs from October to April, sees several thousand people every day. Even in the off-season, nearly 1,000 come to spend time in the Gardens. But the Gardens aren’t the only draw, it shares a campus with several other organizations: a heritage village, an art museum, the Extension services, as well as the county parks department.

There is no cost for enjoying the Gardens, but there are costs for its operations and programming, and this is where the Foundation comes in. Fundraising has taken many forms. The Foundation is a membership organization with a small but growing member base. It also operates a small gift shop. Bricks and benches are available to remember loved ones or show support. The Foundation also works with corporate sponsors around specific exhibits. A large part of the organization's fund, however, comes from direct donations.

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Hops Night at the Holiday Lights 2021 - Florida Botanical Gardens[/caption]

One of the most effective fundraising opportunities is the Gardens’ annual Holiday Lights event. Each year, more than a million colorful LEDs festoon the Gardens and its exhibits. It has proven to be popular for young and old. Because there is no gate to the Gardens, this event, too, is free to the public.

In the past, the Foundation would solicit cash donations during the event, but over time, people began asking about using credit or debit cards. Adding an ATM helped, but not as well as hoped. And then the Foundation discovered DipJar. Now, DipJars are set up throughout the Gardens during the event, to the point it has become one of the Gardens' major revenue sources. In fact, in 2021, the three DipJars used during the Holiday Lights event collected more than $62,000 in donations.

The DipJars have been put to other uses as well. At fee-based events, for example, the devices make it easy to accept credit card payments. They are also stationed beside cash donation boxes dotted around the grounds on other occasions. And any time Gardens staff participate in events in the community, the DipJars come along. That way they can always provide people with a way to support the Gardens.

And how will that support be used? Bryant described two projects he’s excited about for 2022. The first is renovations to a building that will allow the gift shop to be moved to the center of the Gardens, something he hopes will increase sales and donations. The second is the creation of the Majeed Discovery Garden for children. This two-acre space, which will break ground this spring and which should be open in the fall, will provide a new way to engage kids with nature.

“2020 was a hard year, we began to recover - and then some - in 2021,” said Bryant, “and looking out into 2022, I am hopeful that we’ll grow and support our community in new and wonderful ways.” We certainly share that hope and are pleased to play a role in moving the Foundation forward.


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