An Island of Heritage

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 19, 2008

It has been 47 years since Donald Morgan arrived in Washington from Jamaica, but stroll around his garden and it quickly becomes clear where this expat's heart remains. With topiary, concrete and elbow grease, Morgan has fashioned a three-dimensional garden map of the botanical paradise he left in 1961 in pursuit of education and professional opportunities in the United States.

Morgan went on to a career teaching sociology at Howard University and later at Bowie State University. He and his wife, Ruby, live in a two-story Tudor house in the Northwest Washington community of Shepherd Park. Its front yard is a 56- by 14-foot simulation of Jamaica's rugged shoreline, imposing mountains, fast-moving rivers, underground lakes, mineral baths, waterfalls and white-sand beaches. Models of hotels and villas dot the resort areas of Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio. An electric water pump keeps a two-foot-tall version of Dunn's River Falls surging.

Except in winter, when he cuts it back and takes it inside, a banana tree sits in the middle of the winding roads, while an electric train (temporarily out of service during a recent visit due to track repairs) connects industrial areas, towns and villages.

The garden -- its perimeter painted in black, gold and green, the colors of the Jamaican flag, includes nandina, juniper, blue cedar and a camellia. During spring and summer, in addition to the banana tree, the island is enhanced with geraniums and marigolds.

Morgan, 78 and now retired, did all the work himself. He estimates that the project took about a year to complete.

"I have no background in sculpting, but I'm a handyman. I do a lot around the house," Morgan said.

Save for the occasional train derailment and a little weeding here and there, the garden is low-maintenance. "It's made of concrete. I don't do much repairs," he said.

He began carving out this ultimate personalization in 1980 because he was distressed that Americans were forsaking vacations in Jamaica due to then-Prime Minister Michael Manley's socialist leanings.

"U.S. tourism is a very important part of the Jamaican economy, and many U.S. tourists ceased visiting. I was very concerned. I thought, what could I do to change this perception? I'll create a replica of Jamaica, and it will help," Morgan said.

He doesn't advertise, and he hasn't kept any records, but Morgan said he knows his artistic bent and green thumb have boosted Jamaica's coffers.

"Over the years, hundreds have come here and as a result have gone to Jamaica, and then returned and told me how much they enjoyed it," he said.

Morgan spends most days tweaking his creation and giving impromptu tours to whoever shows up, indulging his love of teaching.

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