Patrick Garvey’s attorney advised him not to buy a dilapidated, overgrown fruit grove in the Florida Keys.
Garvey drained his life savings, bought it anyway and went to work restoring Grimal Grove and making it into a community garden for low-income families on Big Pine Key, about 30 miles northeast of Key West. By the summer of 2017, it looked like his against-the-odds effort was going to bear fruit, so to speak.
But on September 10, Hurricane Irma blasted the Keys with savage winds and a storm surge that reached 16 feet in some places.
Grimal Grove “looked like a bomb had hit it,” Garvey recalled. “I was kind of numb, you know.”
The hurricane—the worst to strike the Keys since Hurricane Donna in 1960—shredded Garvey’s vision of restoring the unique fruit grove.
Garvey, an affable Canadian of Irish descent, doesn’t give up easily, however. On a recent spring-like day in the Keys, he was working with about 20 young women from Howard University who’d volunteered to spend their spring break working to bring Grimal Grove back to life. The students dumped wheelbarrows of mulch and soil and spread it around the trees.
The grove still had a ragged look to it, but Garvey noted that its appearance was greatly improved from six months earlier. Even better, about 90 percent of the original trees are still alive, and Garvey hopes they’ll all be producing fruit soon.
Still, it’s disheartening for him to recall how close he was to success before the hurricane.
“Right before the storm, we were just starting to get that momentum,” he said.
Grimal Grove was created in the 1950s by Adolf Grimal, an engineer who came south from Michigan to the Keys to study underwater photography. Grimal has often been described as a reclusive eccentric. Once in the Keys, his interests shifted from underwater photography to growing tropical fruits.
He bought 2½ acres on Big Pine Key, built planting pits, hauled in topsoil, and began accumulating rare fruit trees from around the world. Eventually he’d created one of the world’s most unusual fruit groves. But after Grimal died in 1997, the grove became overgrown. Worse, it became a dumping ground for old tires and other refuse. Drug users went there to smoke crack.
Garvey, a former investigator for the Florida Department of Children and Family Services, started the effort to restore Grimal Grove with a modest $5,000 grant from Volunteer Florida.
He established a non-profit organization called Growing Hope Initiative. By the summer of 2017, Garvey and his volunteers had opened a roadside tropical fruit store on Big Pine. Ten days before Irma’s landfall, when the storm was still far away at sea and its path uncertain, Garvey was in Key West for a showing of a brief documentary film about Grimal Grove and his work to restore it. More than 100 people attended the movie, and Garvey felt “there was this excitement” about the restoration effort.
He knew a bad hurricane had formed, but he wasn’t too alarmed.
“In the back of my mind there was this little, possible storm,” Garvey said. “But I’ve been living down here 15 years, and it’s hard to take too much thought to (a hurricane) when it’s so far out.”
A few days later, “the air in the Keys started to change,” Garvey said. “And people were starting to get a little worried about the whole thing.”
Garvey’s wife and daughters were visiting family in Brazil. People started evacuating from the islands, and friends asked Garvey to come with them. He stayed. Then a friend in the US Coast Guard told him to “get the hell out of there, man.”
Garvey started packing, changed his mind, and as Irma approached landfall went with his dog to a nearby school that was opened as a pet friendly shelter. There were “about 50 people and 200 animals,” Garvey said. “It felt like Noah’s Ark.”
Hurricane Irma raked Big Pine Key with 130-mph winds. The storm also sent saltwater surging across the island. When the winds finally died down and the water drained away, Grimal Grove was a mess.
After six months of work, the storm debris has been cleared and trees have been restored to upright positions. Garvey said he’s used “a combination of book knowledge and my own instincts” to bring Grimal Grove back to health. He’s also created a GoFundMe page for contributions.
Garvey admits that he’s gotten discouraged. But he’s not ready to quit.
“For me to take on a project like this, with all its pitfalls and obstacles, you gotta be a little obsessed with the story,” Garvey said. “Otherwise, you’re not going to complete it.”
Tax deductible donations to help with the Grimal Grove restoration can be sent to Growing Hope Foundation, PO Box 420924, Summerland Key, FL 33042.
Listen to IPPY Award-winning author Willie Drye talk about his latest book, For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold an Impossible Dream in Florida, on NPR affiliates WUNC, Chapel Hill and WLRN, Miami. Visit his blog, Drye Goods, now in its 11th year. Follow him on Facebook