Over 160 varieties of annual and perennial plants can be found in Warsaw’s Central Park Gardens, which was made possible by a donation creating an endowment at the Kosciusko County Community Foundation in 1996.
Now, with Toshiko Gunter, 65, deciding she will retire from maintaining the gardens after many years, the Central Park Gardens Advisory Committee is looking for her eventual replacement.
Community Foundation CEO Stephanie Overbey, who also is a member of the advisory committee, said Toshiko has served as the gardens’ gardener for many years. Before her, Rae Hilliard, who now serves on the advisory committee, was the longtime gardener.
“The Central Park Gardens is the gated flower gardens that is part of Central Park, but all of the brick pathways, the pond, the flowers, the gardening that actually happens there is all paid for out of a fund here at the Community Foundation that was endowed,” Overbey said.
The Gardens of Central Park are on the corner of Canal and Detroit streets behind the Detroit Street McDonald’s.
The name of the endowment is Warsaw’s Central Park Gardens Endowment. Robert and Roma Maish, former owners of Little Crow Foods, were the donors.
A butterfly lands on an orange flower in The Gardens of Central Park in Warsaw Monday afternoon. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union
Toshiko said this is her 14th year being the gardener. The amount of time she puts into the garden depends on the season.
“I love plants and so I take good care of a lot. I just love my job and doing my job,” she said, agreeing that she has a passion for gardening.
Central Park wasn’t always what it is today. At one point in its history, it was an eyesore.
“Mr. Maish loved gardens. He visited places in his travels that had really beautiful, public gardens for people to enjoy, and he wanted that for people in Warsaw to enjoy - visitors, residents. And he wanted it to be something that was done by a gardener ... who really knew what they were doing,” Overbey said.
To accomplish what he wanted, Maish created the Central Parks Gardens Endowment Fund at the Community Foundation in 1996. “And the beautiful part of an endowment is that it will be here forever. So the principal of the gift is still here and it is still invested and earning. So, income, made available from that, supports the maintenance of the gardens every year - the plants, any repairs that need to be done to any of the infrastructure of the garden and then the gardener,” she said.
The gardener is not an employee of the Community Foundation, but is someone the Foundation contracts with for the gardens annually.
“Toshiko has let us know that she would like to retire from the gardening, and so we are looking for a new gardener. And, again, it is not an employee but it is a paid contractor,” Overbey said.
Toshiko said this past spring she had a little knee issue and she couldn’t bend down or bend over. “I physically felt my age and difficulties every year. So I would like to have somebody help with those busy times of the season, and then maybe that person will take over the next stage of the garden. That’s my ideal hope,” she said.
Toshiko is willing to mentor the new gardener for all of 2024, if they would like her to do that, Overbey said. The annual gardener contract goes from January to December.
“So she would be willing, to either continue gardening herself next year and then retire after that, or mentor somebody who might be interested in taking over that contract,” Overbey said.
Hilliard and Toshiko are Master Gardeners. A person does not have to be a Master Gardener to contract with the Community Foundation to be the next gardener for the gardens, but Overbey said they need to be physically able to do the gardening and not just the planting but also the weeding and fall cleanup.
“It’s a year-long contract. Obviously, there are some times of the year that are more intense than others,” Overbey said.
Toshiko even checks on the gardens throughout the winter to make sure everything is OK and nothing has been broken or vandalized.
“She really is our go-to person,” Overbey said. “We have a really fantastic relationship with the city of Warsaw, and specifically with the Parks Department. In fact, the way the fund agreement is written, is that the mayor of Warsaw appoints a person to the Gardens Advisory Committee, and that committee is the one that makes decisions on the contract every year - how much do we need to set aside for flowers, how much do we need to pay the gardener.”
The advisory committee also makes decisions on unexpected expenses like the installation of video surveillance this year.
Most people might assume the gardens is part of the parks and part of the city’s budget to plant all the plants and pay for the gardener, but it’s not. “It’s philanthropy funding that,” she said.
The flowers in the Gardens of Central Park come in a variety of colors. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union
Shaun Gardner, maintenance director with the Warsaw Parks and Recreation Department, is the mayor’s appointee to the advisory committee. Along with Gardner, Overbey and Hilliard, the other committee member is Kim Fuller.
“They have to have a passion for gardening, not just know it,” Gardner said of what qualifications the next gardener should have. “That’s a labor of love over there. They’ve been lucky to have Toshiko for a lot of years. They had Rae Hilliard before that. Rae was great at it. So they’ve got some big shoes to fill, whoever does take that spot.”
He said the person should be personable with the public as well because there will be many people in the gardens asking questions, maybe looking for hints on how to take care of their own plants at home.
“Just a people person that loves flowers I think would be the right fit.”
Toshiko said the gardner should be a person who loves nature and especially plants. “It’s more TLC than money and time, I guess,” she said.
When deciding which plants to put in the garden, she said personally she likes bulbs and tender perennials which have to be taken inside for the winter. She also buys the annuals from local nurseries.
“Of course, if I think it’s new or interesting plant, then I always pick it up. It’s kind of like a display to everybody for more colors in the garden. So colorful is my key issue, too,” Toshiko stated.
She’d like to plant more plants native to the area, but they don’t always cooperate all seasons. “You have to balance those things when you plan,” she advised.
Gardner said the gardens and the Parks Department benefit each other, so whenever the Parks Department can help they try to do so.
“We have some pretty good staff on hand, so from irrigation to putting a roof on their building five to 10 years ago, little stuff like that we’re able to help with. If it’s something we’re not able to help with, we just tell them we can’t help and they call somebody,” Gardner said.
Overbey said sometimes it’s something as simple as the Parks Department giving them advice on vendors.
She said the Parks Department is great to work with. “While the endowment fund pays for the expenses, they are really great about offering a lot of in-king things to the gardens because they recognize it benefits the park,” she said.
“Between the Biblical Gardens and the Maish gardens around Central Park, they draw a huge crowd. A lot of times there will be people who come to tour one gardens, and they will check out the other. Or they’ll just be in the park and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, there’s beautiful flowers over there, let’s check it out,’” Gardner stated. “We get a lot of compliments about the gardens.”
He said Toshiko is the sweetest lady.
“Her knowledge in flowers and plants, I could only dream to one day know half as much as she does. She’s done it a long time and she’s very good at it. It’s going to be sad to see her retire, but she’s earned it. She deserves to retire,” Gardner said.
Toshiko said she will miss being the gardener. She said she also took care of the Biblical Gardens from 1997 to 2009. Her husband, Pardee, has been taking care of the Biblical Gardens for the past 12 years.
“I love to work and I can volunteer or help anytime if my physical body cooperates,” she said. “I love to get my hands and knees on the soil.”
If anyone is interested in being the next gardener, they can email Overbey at [email protected].
She said they would love to know if someone is interested by the end of the year so they know if there will be someone Toshiko can mentor in 2024.
“We’re looking for the next phenomenal gardener to take care of this beautiful gem,” she said.