University of North Florida's New Botanical Garden is FNGLA's Newest Test Location

August 10, 2021

The University of North Florida's botanical garden has become FNGLA’s newest Northeast Florida Certification test site. 

The journey to create the botanical garden, which spans throughout the campus, began in 2005 when UNF hired Chuck Hubbuch, former director of plant collections at Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami, to oversee design and management of landscaping, gardens and natural areas, according to Rhonda Gracie, FCHP, horticulturalist and landscape designer at UNF.

In 2013, Gracie explained that Hubbuch hired her, and encouraged her vision to turn UNF into a registered botanical garden. Over a six-year-period, Gracie and her team documented, labeled and inventoried more than 1,850 plants on campus. 

When Hubbuch retired in 2019, Gracie said she simply carried the torch. 

“I didn’t want to see this vision go away,” she explained,

So, Gracie proposed the idea to Assistant Director of Physical Facilities Landscaping and Grounds Division, Will Smith, who was hired to replace Hubbuch.

“With full support of the department, we made sure the botanical garden designation goal was included in the university’s new 10-year master plan,” Gracie said. 

The new location will now serve as a test site for the FNGLA certification program for both FNGLA’s Certified Landscape Technician (FCLT) and Certified Landscape Maintenance Technician (FCLMT) professional certifications. 

“In promoting our certification program in the North Florida area, UNF is the perfect location to serve as a test site for certification opportunities in landscape and irrigation,” said Gary Weitermann, certifications manager at FNGLA. “Rhonda and her staff have helped a lot with conducting FNGLA’s landscape certifications, along with Craig Reed from North Florida Irrigation for the irrigation pieces.” 

In addition to joining the American Public Gardens Association Institutional (APGAI) in the fall of 2020, UNF worked to meet the following criteria:

  • The garden is open to the public on at least a part-time basis.
  • The garden functions as an aesthetic display, educational display and/or site research.
  • The garden maintains plant records.
  • The garden has at least one professional staff member (paid or unpaid).
  • Garden visitors can identify plants through labels, guide maps or other interpretive materials 

However, the journey has not been without its own challenges due to attrition within the labor pool due to other rising competitive wages which began prior to COVID, to budget shortfalls and the desire by upper management to convert some garden displays back to turf as a means of tackling the labor shortages. To avoid losing garden displays in the middle of COVID, more than 25 volunteers from UF/IFAS Duval County Extension have made an impact of over $75,000 to date.

Growth continues with the UNF grounds department now working to modify and add new gardens, botanic displays and collections, according to Gracie. Future offerings include the President’s Healing Garden and First Lady’s Therapeutic Rose Garden, a Bio-Swale, palm garden, cycad display and a Floating Wetland Island Study using Vetiver Grass donated by FNGLA member Jerry Stageman, with Sunset Specialty Groundcover. Gracie added.

 “We are currently working on guide maps and interpretive materials,” explained Gracie. “This aspect of the garden has probably been the most challenging since our garden displays are a part of the campus core with no entry or exit point. Directional signage to the gardens cannot cause confusion with directions to campus classrooms.”

UNF is planning a grand opening celebration for the botanical garden in the spring of 2022 to coincide with UNF’s 50-year Anniversary which is slated to include an outdoor art exhibit, according to Gracie.

For more information on the University of North Florida Botanical Gardens, contact Rhonda Gracie at

To learn more about FNGLA’s professional certification designations, please visit the professional association’s website.

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