Black History—Naturalist Sheldon Fleming Is Cultivating A Gardening Revolution

For four decades, Fleming has been connecting Atlantans to nature and therapeutic gardening. Now he’s helping plan a new Botanical Gardens in Stonecrest.  
Growing Out Of Tragedy

Stonecrest’s Naturalist Coordinator Sheldon Fleming has spent most of his life in nature. “I’m originally from Anchorage, Alaska,” said Fleming. “I grew up walking on glaciers, literally. I have pictures of me on glaciers when I was five and seven years old. Go figure, here I am a naturalist. Full circle.”

A love of nature has helped Fleming through some difficult times. In February 1987, he lost his sister Kelly in a tragic robbing and murder that has remained unsolved to this day. That terrible loss left its mark on Fleming and his family, who owned a plant nursery, Fleming’s Tropical Gardens on Panola and Browns Mill Road where Kelly also worked. Sheldon had been running the business (which used to be Lyon Nursery owned by the Lyon Family) with his retired father Samuel since 1981. “We shut the nursery down after that,” said Fleming. “We had to move on.”

After doing some soul searching, Sheldon went on to work for the Urban Gardening Program with DeKalb County, where he taught low-income families how to grow their own vegetables. This led to a high-level position with the City of Atlanta as Horticulture Manager and later as Parks Maintenance Manager. At this job, Fleming first heard the phrase “therapeutic gardening,” also called horticultural therapy. “I realized just through doing what I do, I was engaging in therapy,” he said. The benefits of gardening and outdoor time have been well documented and include reduced stress and anxiety, a better sense of well-being, and faster recoveries. “My loss was recognizing that me being in nature was what kept me focused,” said Fleming about his late sister. “I wanted to be part of the solution to the violence that was going on in my community. Grief kills.” Fleming mentions his late mother, who passed away “a healthy woman” just a year after losing Kelly. 

Deep Community Roots

Sheldon Fleming hard at work at Everett Park in the Heritage Area.

So began Sheldon’s now-4-decade journey serving his community and spreading awareness about the healthy benefits of gardening and getting a regular dose of nature. After 7 years with the City of Atlanta, Fleming resigned to found Wonderland Gardens, a nonprofit designed to develop a self-sustaining, hands-on green space and community resource on Rainbow Drive near the South DeKalb Mall. Wonderland Gardens, which ran for nearly two decades from 1995 to 2014, proved such a hit during this time that Sheldon was selected to host a gardening show on TVONE called Can You Dig It.

Now in his 60s, Fleming still finds it difficult to talk about his late sister Kelly. The quiet lives of plants continue to bring him solace, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any in his mission to spread the benefits of therapeutic gardening to others. In 2019, Fleming joined the City of Stonecrest and in short time has worked his way up to Naturalist Coordinator. He smiles talking about the big projects he has coming up, including new trails and an overlook at Everett Park, partly financed by a $50,000 Bobcat Grant. (Stonecrest was one of only 5 cities in the nation to receive this grant.)

Fleming (second from left) with Stonecrest Mayor Jazzmin Cobble (center) and Arabia Alliance ED Revonda Cosby (far right) at the Bobcat Grant Groundbreaking Ceremony at Everett Park.

Fleming also created a design for a children’s garden with an outdoor classroom and (hopefully) a treehouse in the rear of the Browns Mill Recreation Center. That’s in addition to starting the Stonecrest Garden Club in July 2023, which in its first 6 months already has more than 20 members and won 5 awards at the Redbud District National Garden Club Standard Flower Show at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in September. The club also does landscaping, beautification, and volunteering and meets at 10am on the fourth Tuesday of each month at Browns Mill Recreation Center. 

Dreaming Of A Big Garden

Fleming with a member from the Stonecrest Garden Club.

Fleming’s big dream now is a new Stonecrest Botanical Garden off Panola Road. The city is still only in the planning stages for the garden, but Fleming is thinking ahead, hoping to put a bigger focus on agriculture. “Typically, in a botanical garden you’re going to have 95 percent horticulture, a visual experience,” he said. “I hope that we have somewhere in the range of 30 percent agriculture and 70 percent horticulture. We have too many young folks who unfortunately haven’t had the pleasure of tasting a just-picked tomato or carrot and the flavor of that. It’s an experience that you don’t forget.” 

Fleming is hopeful that Stonecrest will have a garden that allows folks to pick fresh vegetables, cultivating healthier, more localized diets. “My goal is that when we have the ribbon cutting for the Botanical Garden, we already have Stonecrest and others excited about its arrival,” said Fleming. “And it will be because of all this hard work we’ve already done.”