While the rest of the city was waking up Saturday morning, a group of about 25 volunteers gathered inside the Brooksville Cemetery, in work clothes, ready to clean up sites.
Volunteers, however, did more than clean up garbage and weed raised garden beds. They swapped gardening tips, and pointed out native species you see all the time but don’t know the name of. They swapped stories of Brooksville past — a rail station duel rumored to be the last in Florida, the ghosts that live in Howell Avenue houses constructed before the turn of the 20th century.
Iced tea and muffins were waiting outside the cemetery’s nursery for participants on a surprisingly cool morning. Scott Renz passed out brown-bag lunches he and his wife, Cindy, made for everyone who showed up to help get the city is top shape for both Earth Day and the upcoming Florida Blueberry Festival, May 4 and 5.
“Municipal employees leaning on shovels — that doesn’t happen here,” said Rich Howard, sexton of the Brooksville Cemetery. “This city would be gray if not for the volunteers.”
The cemetery’s nursery is something of a city secret. Jamie Miller, who began volunteering there about four years ago, explained that most of the lush plants growing in pots were started from cuttings. This propagation method has helped start plants including hollies, crape myrtles, azaleas, viburnums and ligustrums, many of which are now planted on city properties.
“We’re ‘practically green’,” Howard said, explaining how staff turns fallen leaves into new soil by composting it and that several community members heat their homes in the winter with fallen firewood collected in the cemetery.
Howard said Walmart donates less desirable plants and ripped bags of soil and mulch.
“They have helped us more than anyone else,” Howard said.
Lara Bradburn explained that when more space on her family’s plot was needed, cemetery staff cut and propagated a portacorpus planted by her great-grandparents instead of just digging up the plant to make room.
“This is a place of compassion,” Bradburn said.
The planter is full of debris and overgrown with weeds and Mexican petunias, an exotic, invasive plant with purple flowers. About half an hour later, the planter is revived with grasses and succulent plants.
A short time later, Morris and Cindy Renz walk the Good Neighbor Trail in South Brooksville, picking up trash as Scott Renz cuts back weeds along Russell and Main streets.
“Eventually, you’ll be able to run to Inverness,” Morris said, explaining the trail is slowly being expanded toward the Withlacoochee State Trail. “Lara (Bradburn) wants people to discover it now.”
Morris, an ecologist with Florida Forest Services, points out overgrown areas just off the pavement where houses used to stand, and an old railroad switch — still padlocked — that the crew discovered while clearing the trail.
Throughout the morning, Howard swings by the work sites in his white pickup with a bed full of brush, checking up on volunteers and making sure everyone is hydrated.
The walk around the short Good Neighbor Trail loop takes visitors past old boulders, rumored to be part of the old high school, and a long-forgotten boarding house.
“I have a new appreciation,” Cindy Renz said. “It’s lovely.”