GreenFest — Tampa’s spring garden party

There’s more than one way to catch a pesky — OK, downright evil — garden-devouring pest. Dig for them!

the digging for nematodes game. three women dig in black plastic buckets filled packing peanuts using children's  toy garden tools in a race to find "nematodes" - actually Gummi worms. a game at GreenFest

At Tampa’s GreenFest this weekend, from left, Sally, B.C. Manion and Barb Wilkins dug their hearts out for the microscopic worms that love our sandy soil — and our plants’ roots. Although the “nematodes” they were racing to find were actually fat red and orange Gummi worms, digging through packing peanuts using kids’ plastic garden tools proved challenging.

But rewarding!

Barb won a container of Sunniland Nematode Control from Shell’s Feed & Garden Supply. Who knew there was something besides heaps of compost, oak leaves and peats to keep the little boogers at bay? Not me! But now I have some to try, too. It’s made from sesame oil and humic acid (which is what all that organic material produces as it breaks down, frying the nematodes, as the donor of our prizes, Shell’s Feed owner Greg Shell, told us.)

I had fun returning to GreenFest as a speaker after a year’s hiatus. Being completely unqualified to offer a real workshop (I’m just a journalist — my material comes from the backs of true experts), I tell stories and play games (love games!). This year was “The Hunger Games,” battling the bugs that want to eat your plants. The first was Blast Off — shooting aphids off your blooms with high-powered jet spray, a lesson I learned the hard way. (It really works!)

three people with squirt guns shooting at unseen targets (posters of flowers surrounded by "aphids" made from pumpkin seeds

From left, Ioan Fernandez, Camille D. and Dina Lott fire away at nasty, giant aphids threatening some beautiful blooms.

three white posters with flowers surrounded by "aphids" made from pumpkin seeds. Two people with backs to camera are armed to shoot them with squirt guns

Ioan Fernandez won a tub full of ladybugs, all in a cold-induced stupor until he decides to wake them up. While shooting aphids off your flowers with a hose nozzle set on “jet spray” is very effective, nature has an even better remedy — ladybugs. Greg Shell, who sells them at his feed store, explains to Ioan how to keep them alive, below. (They’re in the tubs he and Ioan are holding.)

two men holding small plastic containers full of ladybugs discussing how to wake them from their dormant state

Of course, no buggy Hunger Games is complete without the Eastern lubber grasshopper, my personal nemesis. They began hatching early this year — February — and I’m dedicated to telling people they should kill them. Starting with the cute little black baby lubbers! Lubber grasshoppers are prolific, voracious, and once they colonize in your yard, an annual plague!

They eat everything you love in your garden and they have just one natural predator, a little bird we don’t see much of  in the suburbs, the loggerhead shrike. It snatches them up, decapitates them, and impales them on thorns or barbed wire to bake out their toxins in the sun.

Birding photographer Reinhard Geisler of Oviedo, Fla., got this amazing shot of one at Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Brevard County.

bird called loggerhead shrike with gray head, black eye mask, white chest holding adult Eastern lubber grasshopper in beak. Grasshopper is red yellow and black. Close-up. Credit Reinhard Geisler

Alas, while Greg Shell sells a lot of hard-to-find, old-fashioned remedies at his feed store, he says they haven’t yet figured out how to put a bar code on a loggerhead shrike. So battling the lubbers is your job.

Sometimes they’ll sit still for you, but sometimes they’ll spit, hop away, and lead you on a chase. Hence, the Amazing Lubber Race.

three women at a card table, hands flat on the table, three little wind-up plastic grasshoppers in the center,  preparing for the lubber race.

From left, Andrea Butler, Debbie Peimcano, and Maryhelen Zopfi get in proper start position before winding up the little critters. (See them in the middle of the table?) The first to go over the edge was the winner. Trouble was, they kept turning and going in new directions just as they neared the edge. Oh, SO like their armored real-life counterparts!

Andrea won a season’s supply of Nolo Bait, a remedy I learned about 3 or 4 years ago from a reader. It’s non-toxic, won’t hurt your pets or plants, and eventually snuffs your lubber colony by either killing them outright or rendering them impotent. I’ve been using the stuff for two years, and I love it. While it hasn’t yet wiped them out, my manual lubber kills are shrinking by hops and bounds.

After the games, I had  a chance to roam the park and visit old-friend vendors. There were a lot! GreenFest has has space for only about 80 vendors, so they’re selective. This year, only old favorites returned. (And they’re my old favorites, too. Too many to list here and I would hate to leave someone out, so I won’t even try.)

However, I did run into one I hadn’t visited before. I LOVED Rusty Gate Gardens’ really creative repurposing of vintage household items. Linda Brueske turns them into absolutely delightful little succulent gardens.

vintage hand-crank silver colored meat grinder used as a container for succulents

forest green metal vintage tool box planted with a variety of succulents

If you missed GreenFest this year, be sure to catch it next March. It’s a great way to get your garden on, learn a lot (I think I’m the only non-expert speaker :) )  and pick up some great, hard-to-find plants. It’s a non-profit fundraiser to restore and maintain Tampa’s first public part, Plant Park, where it’s held, so it’s fun for a good cause!

P.S. Thank you GreenFest volunteers Laura Barber, Laura Stevenson and all the other good people who work so hard to put this together. And thank you to my friends Janna Begole, Ginny Grimsley, Greg Shell and Marti Carlsen for being Hunger Games Gamemakers, Mentors and Prep Team. You’re awesome!

Nursing homes need plants, too. Select with care!

My mom, who’s 80, announced her newest project (my new assignment) a couple weeks ago.

“The patio at Nan’s nursing home is just … bleak,” she said. “There’s nothing. A concrete slab and a white fence. It needs color. I want to put some plants there, starting with a big pot with a little tree that has flowers.”

elderly man in wheelchair at Dunedin, Fla., nursing home, sitting at patio table with white umbrella surrounded by tall white privacy fence on concrete slab.

My mom, a registered nurse with an active license (and, ahem, a 2005 inductee in the Florida Nursing Hall of Fame)  really likes Cross Terrace Rehabilitation Center in Dunedin. The staff are loving and kind, and the care is good. But that patio really bothered her.

Mom’s little sister, my Aunt Nanette, moved to Cross Terrace a few months ago, despite her son’s best efforts to keep her at home. She has some chronic health problems, but the one that finally crashed his resolve was dementia. Her son, my cousin Tony, is quadriplegic, so he couldn’t really jump up and chase after her when she wandered out into the streets at night.

Aunt Nanette may have some dementia, but she’s still Nannie — very funny with a big, generous heart, and so sassy, always ready to break some rules.

Here she is in February, on a visit to Tony’s, with my niece, Melli.

NH nanny

Mom — a plant-loving non-gardener — enlisted my help to transform the patio, which is very open and sunny. I thought crape myrtle might be good for her small tree.

Last weekend we visited Duncheon’s Nursery in Land O’ Lakes to shop. It was darned cold, so a slow day, which meant we got owner Pat Duncheon’s  undivided attention for a good long time! (I love Duncheon’s because, even if you don’t get Pat, you get really knowledgeable, friendly & helpful staff. I’ve learned a lot at that nursery!)

Turns out Pat’s Mom has been living in an Alzheimer’s unit in the Midwest for about 10 years. Pat has tried to introduce plants there but, since some residents may try to eat them, you have to make sure they’re not poisonous.

Crape myrtle, he said, can be trickier in a container than you might expect. The dwarf varieties are particularly  vulnerable to pests. He recommended instead a grafted gardenia, which produces fragrant white blooms multiple times throughout the year. (Non-grafted bloom just once.)

grafted gardenia, no blooms, and arm planting a siign that says "Water Me Mon. Wed. Fri." in terra cotta colored container

We got this one, covered with buds, for $19.99. He also suggested adding a colorful annual to the bottom. Mom chose violet Calibrachoa, which should soon mound up and spill over the container sides a bit.

He told us it needs water every couple days for the first few weeks and should do fine with once-a-week watering after that.

Someone had tried to color up the patio with plants in the past. There were a few containers with dead and dying color. We found a stubborn Mexican petunia putting out new sprouts amidst lots of dead stuff in a broken pot. We put it in a new pot with fresh soil and WATER!

broken terra cotta pot, pot in back with Mexican petunia looking unhealthy and bag of Miracle-Gro potting soil

And, since I  just happened to have a couple little bare-root crape myrtles a friend had given me from their Arbor Day Foundation goodie bag, we figured we’d go ahead and give Mom’s original idea a try.

terra cotta planters clustered against a white fence on a nursing home patio. gardenia without blooms, small crape myrtle, unidentified small tree, small Mexican petunia

That’s the little crape myrtle in the big yellow pot. There was also a healthy looking small tree in a corner, so I added it to the group to make more of a focal point.

My plan is to add a bunch of larval and nectar butterfly plants and see if we can’t get a drama going on this patio! I asked Robert Bornstein, a horticultural therapist who works at nursing homes in Fort Lauderdale, for non-poisonous suggestions.

Here’s what he said:

“I don’t recommend poisonous plants due to the liability issues, but if you must use them — like scarlet milkweed, the only larval food for monarchs — you have to be sure  to place them in locations where casual visitors can’t easily reach them.”

Milkweed is easy to grow from seed, and inexpensive to buy.

“Keep the pot close enough for the residents to see the butterflies but far enough away so that they will not eat the plant. Or put them in an area where residents will visit only with supervision,” he says.

Same for lantana.

“I love the firebush. I also use native wild coffee but be cautious,” he adds. Wild coffee is another that should be in a supervised area.

He recommends this guide by the late plant guru Julia Morton.

In Florida, early spring flowers join winter’s wonders

Azaleas are one of Florida’s signature spring bloomers, and for good reason. They burst into heaps of pinks, purples — even whites – when our “winter” gives way to spring.

But … spring doesn’t officially start till March 20. This year, the azaleas, and lots of our other spring bloomers, are making an early appearance.

lavender blooms on shrubs about 5 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter, azalea, spring florida azalea bloom

I found these beauties growing at a house near Memorial Highway in western Hillsborough County. Old neighborhoods like this one, with landscape plants that may be decades old and are often heirlooms, are my favorites for drive-by gardening.

If you’re falling in love with all the azaleas in bloom and itching to get your hands on some, keep in mind, they require just the right conditions to survive and thrive. They like filtered light and acidic soil, so they do best in yards with oak trees. They’re not drought-tolerant, so they’ll need water when it’s dry. Most bloom only once a year — they’re green shrubs the rest of the time — but some varieties (the Encore series) will re-bloom.

Bougainvilleas are also strutting their stuff!
crimson bougainvillea blooms with palm frond in background. close-up of red flowers blooming in february in tampa florida

Bogies are wonderful color for Florida gardens nearly year-round. Plant where they’ll get lots of sun and have plenty of room to sprawl or you’ll be cutting them back more often than you care to. (I can always tell when someone’s been trimming their bougainvillea — their arms are covered with scratches from the thorns.)  This beauty was covering a wall in another old Tampa neighborhood, Palma Ceia.

A few blocks from this home, on South Brookline Street,  you’ll see a rare sight around these parts: A bed of blooming tulips! (But move quickly, because they won’t last long. Or check back next February.)

bl spring tulips

Tampa gardener Janice Straske plants tulips each year, as does her mother and a couple friends. They’re the only local gardeners I know who have mastered the tricky horticultural feat of tulip beds this far south. If you want to try it, you’ll need a spare refrigerator. Learn how Janice does it by clicking here.

You might have better luck with the easy-to-grow Hong Kong orchid tree. I found this and several others blooming along Elliott Drive, off Memorial Highway. I wasn’t surprised to see several neighbors with the same tree — they’re easy to propagate from seed and tend to produce lots of volunteers.  To avoid that problem and the mess of seed pods raining down on your yard,  get the hybrid variety, which doesn’t produce seeds.

bl spring hong kong

These are beautiful trees, which are just as pretty when they’re not in bloom. They have rounded leaves on branches that tend to have a weeping form, which forms an attractive canopy as the tree matures. Like azaleas, they prefer acidic soil. If you have lots of decomposing oak leaves, you likely have acidic soil, but you can always get it tested for just a couple bucks at your local University of Florida Extension.

If you’ve got room for a seriously fast-growing, vigorous vine, you’ll love this one for gorgeous winter and spring color.

bl spring flame vine

Florida  flame vine  is popular for covering walls and fences in Central and South Florida. At this time of year, you can see it blooming along Interstate 4 — which tells you something about how hardy and drought-tolerant it is. But be warned: If you don’t have a big area to let it go nuts, you’ll have a big headache trying to contain it!

I found this one at Sprout, the garden complement to Relic home furnishings in South Tampa. No, I didn’t buy it. I’ve finally learned there’s room for only one or two “vigorous” vines in my small garden!

Remember, before you plant anything, be sure you know how big it will get and plant in a space with that in mind. Even drought-tolerant plants require regular watering when they’re first planted so they can establish a good root system. The rule of thumb is water new plants every other day the first week; every couple days for the next two weeks; and at least once a week for the next couple months. During the rainy season,  that’s not a problem.

What’s a kumquat — and WHY does it have a festival?

When I told a friend earlier this week that I went to the Kumquat Festival over the weekend, her reaction surprised me.

“KOOMquat? My baby was a koomquat! It freaked me out!”

Four years ago, she had signed up at BabyCenter, where pregnant moms can get alerts as their fetuses reach milestones. At 10 weeks,  it notified her that Mason-to-be  was “almost the size of a kumquat.”

Rachel was offended. She didn’t know what a kumquat (pronounced “kum-quat”) was, but it didn’t sound good.

I understand. I knew kumquats and I wasn’t a fan. The little citrus fruits, eaten skin and all, were too tarty-grapefruit for my tastes.

And then I tried a chocolate-dipped kumquat at Betty Cakes.


small orange oval citrus fruit half covered with chocolate

Betty Cakes co-owner David West was enthusiastically hawking the two-for-$1 treats outside his shop during the Jan. 26 Kumquat Festival. I witnessed  lots of newbie reactions while waiting for my friend, Sherri, to return from Betty Cakes’ very popular bathroom line.

This one was typical.

blonde 8-year-old with a chocolate covered kumquat in one hand and a lollipop in the other. Bowl of chocolate covered kumquats in foreground. At the 2013 Kumquat Festival in Dade City, Florida

Dade City, population about 6,000, is a quaint, old-Florida city. Come Kumquat Festival, businesses go kumquat crazy. Every window display is an ode to sweet-bitter tang.

storefront in dade city florida during the kumquat festival. orange kumquats in crystal glasses.

More than 400 vendors line the streets selling everything from handcrafted jewelry to puppets. I focused on kumquats. How many ways can this sassy citrus sweeten my life? I was surprised.

Lotions! Yup. Lather up. Quirky Kumquat lotion is “home-crafted” by  Sharon Guild,

bottle of kumquat body lotion, white

Cindy at Heavenly Scent Soap had beautiful, translucent handmade soaps made with kumquats and other natural ingredients, like olive oil.

bars of handmade soaps, yellow, orange, red, made with kumquats and olive oil and mica, and honey. Lined up in a display tray

She was also pretty darned proud of her kumquats, which she gets from a Florida grower farther south. Hers put the little freebies provided by one of the event’s sponsors to shame!

(Actually, the sponsor probably provided Nagami kumquats, which are smaller and a little more tart. Hers are more likely Meiwa, which are bigger and a bit sweeter. Both grow well in Florida.)

bl kum size

You haven’t lived till you’ve sampled a tiny spoonful of Queen Kathleen kumquat fusion honey, made with orange blossom honey and kumquat puree. So good! (I learned at this stand that the locals aren’t really big on growing kumquats. Nearby St. Joseph is the “Kumquat Capital of the World” thanks to commercial growers.)

Here’s Queen Kathleen. You can buy her honeys at a self-service stand in Dade City. Check the link above. They start at $5 for 6 ounces, and they’re GOOD!

Queen Kathleen of Dade City, blonde woman in t-shirt standing behind containers of her home-brewed honeys

After all the sampling, we got thirsty. Thank goodness Queen Kathleen also offers Gourmet Kumquat Soda. It has a mild grapefruit undertone that I actually found refreshing.

For dessert, a slice of the very popular kumquat cake, back at Betty Cakes. (I’m starting to figure it out — just add sugar and kumquats can be my new favorite fruit!)

slice of kumquat cake in plastic container. White frosting with swirls and yellow cake. from betty cakes in dade city florida

Of course, once you fall in love with the fruits, you’ll want to grow the little trees. They’re cold hardy in Florida and are easy to grow in the ground or in containers, according to the agriculture specialists at the University of Florida.  They get up to 10 feet tall and produce fruits after two years, from November to April. They’re heavy feeders, so be ready to fertilize!

Billie and Paul of Brandon left the fest ready for kumquat heaven — they paid $30 for this nice-sized tree.

elderly woman in wheelchair holding a bushy, 3-foot kumquat treat loaded with little orange, plum-sized  fruits. elderly man pushing wheelchair.

For the record, Rachel’s little kumquat, now 4 years old, got some sugar along the way. Perhaps his mom’s love of jelly doughnuts? (Not judging, Rachel!) He’s super sweet!


January ‘gardening’ at Ybor City’s Saturday Market

Would you pay $60 for this mosquito?

mosquito scupture, silver, made from silver plate, outdoor lamp casing, stainless steel forks, faucet strains, outdoor art, fun sculpture, bug-eyed mosquito

I did. (Yikes!) He’s now holding court in my living room, although artist Herbert Friedmann assures me he’ll survive the elements in my garden. (I’ll move him out there, I’m sure, as soon as the price tag fades).

Felix, as Herbert dubbed him, was just one of our great finds at the Ybor City Saturday Market in Tampa.

We Floridians are blessed to garden year-round, but January’s a downer. Weeding, cutting back rose bushes, and adding compost — it all sounds too like delayed-gratification work.

So I hit the Ybor City market  on Saturday with my friend Janna. It was our first visit,  and  we were surprised by both the variety of vendors and the quality of their unusual, mostly hand-crafted wares. Here’s another by Herbert, who lives in Holiday and paints murals in addition to his metal art. He doesn’t have a website, but he’s a regular at the Saturday market. Or call him at (727) 940-2038.

bl bug

While Felix was a splurge for me, we also found plenty to love at budget prices. I got handmade beaded earrings for $2. Janna and I  snagged sterling silver necklace chains for $8. And we both fell in love with with Ben’s Hot and Cold.

bl sign

Ben Kroesen is a Tampa-area retiree who has teamed up with his wife and a half-dozen friends around the country to supply photos and frames for these create-your-own art pieces. You choose from dozens of photos that represent letters and he puts them together in clever frames that he builds. (The friends take pictures and share them, and Ben’s son, a high school art teacher in Indiana, offers his students the opportunity to shoot letters and sell them, so there are lots of choices.)

bl ben

He charges $5 per letter, plus $5 for the frame. And piecing together your masterpiece is a whole lot of crafty fun. Janna and I were thrilled with our little masterpieces, which I can’t show you because — shhhh — they’re birthday gifts.

Ben’s Hot and Cold is also a regular at the Saturday Market, but if you’d like to contact him, call (813) 667-6692 or email

We also met Rita and her daughter Barbara who, along with others in the family, enjoy hanging out on Mom’s porch in Riverview creating art from trash.

bl lightning

These “lighten-ing bug” garden stakes sell for  about $2.

I picked up a “Grow dammit!” sign for my mom’s flowerbed — $5. (Her bed can use the help.)

bl signs

This talented family has all kinds of unusual creations, including 3D picture frames filled with colored glass that glow in the sun.  “We don’t have a lot of overhead; it’s all trash,” Barbara says. “We just like getting together and making things.”

bl rita

I loved their artfully decorated windows — above with Rita. Their enterprise is called Our Stuff. Reach them at or call (813) 651-1424.

They Ybor City Saturday Market is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, October through April, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May through September. Before you pay to park (like Janna and I did) check the signs. A lot of the city lots don’t charge during the day.

If you don’t eat at the market, check out Acropolis Greek Taverna just around the corner at 1833 E. 7th Ave. Sitting outside enjoying the scrumptious saganaki appetizer was a perfect Saturday afternoon top off.

Busch Gardens’ Christmas Town — wild about plants

orchids, bromeliads, crotons and poinsettias, a bed of red purple green and yellow at Busch Gardens - Tampa Bay's new Christmas Town attraction

This isn’t one of the huge displays getting brags at Busch Gardens-Tampa Bay’s Christmas Town, a new nighttime attraction that is to Christmas what Busch’s Howl-O-Scream is to Halloween. But I love it! I found this colorful mix of orchids, crotons, bromeliads and poinsettias outside Sultan’s Sweets in Nature’s Kingdom.

Christmas Town is an extravaganza of lights, snow, special shows and poinsettias — thousands and thousands of poinsettias — live hollies, and even a fresh, evergreen scent that comes from mulched Christmas trees.

I visited before the official opening on Nov. 30 and talked to BG’s fun horticulture director, Joe Parr. (You can read about his plant choices, all selected for their pop and suitability for our climate, in the Tampa Bay Times.

zebra pulling red santa sleigh, red poinsettias, busch gardens tampa bay, christmas town

Joe started selecting the plants for this extravaganza last spring. Of  course, he had to a lot of  red poinsettias — he chose the Freedom series for their eye-popping color. But he also wanted some unusual varieties. He settled on two that have color he loves and a tolerance for our unpredictable winter highs and lows.

One was Ice Princess (available locally at Duncheon’s Nursery in Land O’ Lakes.) A rep for the grower said these are so tough, they can travel in her trunk all day and still look perky and pretty in the evening.

pink and salmon colored poinsettias, ice princess, busch gardens, non-traditional poinsettias

The other is Glitter, a deep red variety with sparkly splashes of white. (Remember, Florida gardeners, when the holidays are over, your potted poinsettias can go right into the landscape. Depending on conditions in your garden, they can become huge shrubs.)

Everything at Christmas Town is decorated in keeping with the themes of the area, for instance, Flamingo Way is wrapped in twinkling pink lights. I liked this Christmas tree on the edge of “Africa,” near the cheetahs. Feathers as ornaments? Great idea!

christmas tree with africa decorations, large brown and white feather

My favorite surprise, however, (sorry, Joe!) was the little plant shop just before the gates as you exit the park. It has great, hard-to-find Florida-friendly and native plants, including blue butterfly clerodendrum and gorgeous pitcher plants.

garden shop at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, sign, display of plants

Busch Gardens-Tampa Bay Christmas Town is open 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays through Sundays at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, 10165 N McKinley Drive, Tampa. Admission is $14.99 for ages 3 to 9; $39.99 for all others (discounts available for online, advance purchases). Forget trying to get the Facebook promotion code for dollars off. Instead, try hitting Chick Fil-A or Fantastic Sam’s for coupons.

Downside: You also have to pay to park. Upside: Some rides will be open, and there’s a big area to play in sort-of-real snow. (Your kids will get wet in there, so mittens and dry socks are a good idea.)

Field trip! We’re off to a Water-Wise, dollar-smart garden

Last week, I wrote about Maryhelen Zopfi’s garden for the Tampa Bay Times. The North Tampa gardener recently won the 2012 Water-Wise Award for Hillsborough County — a testament to her creative efforts at conservation.

But her creativity and careful marshaling of resources transcend plant zen. Maryhelen “shops” curbside discards for shelves and other helpful garden hardscape. She turns her unused whatnots (including an in-ground swimming pool!) into yard art, and she hasn’t met a plant she can’t propagate — I think.

The Times was able to run just three photos with my column, so I promised to share more here. Seeing is inspiration!

Here’s a great idea for attractive hanging baskets with super drainage: enameled metal colanders. Maryhelen finds hers at thrift stores.

decorative metal enameled colander used as hanging baskets peace plants green foliage white bloom filtered light

All that Noritake china Maryhelen just had to have when she and Simon married 40 years ago has been gathering dust. So, when they replaced their aging gazebo a few months ago, she borrowed from her collection to create a candelabra.

china teacups and saucers used to create candelabra saucers turned upside down five teacups  decorative chandelier from recycled china

(Note: The saucers are turned upside-down so the decoration is visible to those seated below. Also, for the record, the old gazebo became a trellis and shelves.)

Maryhelen was surprised — and pleased — when a cardinal took up residence in one of the teacups.

female cardinal nesting in Noritake china teacup, part of a hand-crafted candelabra in an outdoor gazebo

In September, her husband spotted eggs. And then … baby cardinals!

newly hatched cardinals in a teacup nest, part of a hand-crafted candelabra

The baby birds have since flown off to their new lives, so now Maryhelen and Simon are empty-nesters — for the second time. Their yard, like mine, was all about the kids for years — turf, swingsets and (for Maryhelen and Simon) a swimming pool.

What can you do with a pool when you’re no longer hosting screaming kids at birthday parties?

in-ground swimming pool converted to koi pond. owner feeds koi cheerios from a bucket

Koi! They’re so much quieter. And a good pump and filtration system keeps this pond crystal clear. (Thank you, Simon!)

I absolutely love Maryhelen’s tool storage idea. It’s handy, waterproof, and keeps her pruners, trowels and other necessities just where she needs them. In the front yard, they’re in a traditional mailbox on a post in the center of the garden.

In the backyard, they’re kept in a convenient, wall-hung letter box.

black, wall-hung mailbox used for garden tools. pruners visible

Of course, hard-core recyclers don’t stick with just the man-made stuff. Maryhelen’s garden is full of plants from others’ gardens. Those of us who love pass-alongs appreciate not only the frugality of plant-sharing, but the memories they bring with them. When you get a cutting or seed from a friend or loved one, you always think of them when you see it.

These beautiful pinecone gingers are from Maryhelen’s dad’s garden.

bright red floresence of pinecone ginger in bloom

Her 4-o’clocks (“I call them 6 o’clocks!” Maryhelen says) came from a friend. These are shrubs that like filtered light and open their blooms at 4 o’ clock — or 6 o’clock!

fuchsia four-o'clock 4 o clock blooms open late in the afternoon. 2 open fuchsia blooms

Those of us who love low-maintenance plants are big fans of canna lilies. They do  have their downsides. Fading blooms will dangle forever, looking brown and bedraggled, until you snip them. And some, like India Shot, will take over if you don’t lay down the law.

Maryhelen reins in her canna in a beautifully artistic — and recycled — way.

canna lilies, no blooms, india shot, in claw-foot bathtub

Yes, that’s a claw-foot bathtub!

Finally, just to establish Maryhelen’s credentials — and perhaps entice you to shoot for your own Water-Wise Award — here’s Maryhelen with her custom-made steppingstone.

maryhelen zopfi holds hillsborough county 2012 water-wise award steppingstone mosaic


After the desert, no more complaining about my sunny, sandy Florida garden (maybe)

banana yucca, sand, red brown cliffs, red rock canyon, las vegas nevada, desert

I’m tempted to vow that I’ll never again complain about the harsh conditions in my Tampa, Fla., garden. (Not!)

But if they can grow this … heck, you can grow that!

I took my first trek into a desert this week and I was amazed by what grows in sand. This is Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert, about 20 miles west of Las Vegas. (If you head to the Strip, know that even my husband loved this respite from the black jack tables). I saw lots more vegetation than I expected — and stumped two rangers at the Visitors Center, who whipped out reference books as we tried to ID the  plants I’d shot.

We do know the spiky stuff in the foreground, above, is banana yucca (Yucca baccata). The Indians who lived here ate the seeds, flowers and fruits. They made soap from the roots and used the leaves’ fibers to weave baskets and make twine. They were rich — this stuff is ALL over the place.

red rock canyon, prickly pear cactus, round green sections, cholla cactus, branches about 1 inch diameter, green, banana yucca, spiky green leaves, sandstone

180 million years ago, Red Rock Canyon was sand dunes. Now those dunes are rocks — and yet, stuff grows! In the foreground, prickly pear cactus (that grows here in Florida, too, and it’s good to eat); behind it to the right, a variety of cholla cactus (I love those branches!), and to the left, banana yucca (I think).

The rangers said Red Rock Canyon is looking particularly colorful right now because they’ve had an unusual amount of rain since August. These neon blooms, rabbit brush, were a hit with the butterflies.

bright yellow hassle blooms, mojave desert, red rock canyon, green lance-shaped leaves, butterfly attractor

On the 13-mile driving loop through the canyon, there are many places to park and hop out to look or hike. I took a hike on the Children’s Discovery Trail while my hub relaxed with the rental car. What could be hard about a children’s 1-mile trail?? Long story short, if you take a hike, carry water and a cell phone — even if you think a “children’s” trail is a no-brainer. I got lost, thought I saw a guy tying his shoe (thank God!!) but it was a mirage (!!), thought about all the Death Valley westerns I’ve watched, freaked, and high-tailed it back the way I’d come.

BUT, since I wasn’t carrying much, I had little to lose. Unlike my fellow hikers.

At the head of almost every trail we ran across was a lost item very kindly retrieved and “posted” by a fellow hiker at the trail head. (How sweet, right?)

car key stuck in post at head of calico hills trail red rock canyon

sneaker tennis shoe on rock at head of trail at red rock canyon mountains in distance

blue hair bow on sandstone rock at head of trail red rock canyon nevada

One more surprise: evergreens! I was stunned to find this pine tree — sorry, can’t tell you the cultivar.

evergreen, pine cones, red rock canyon, mojave desert

Supposedly, we should also have seen wild burros and horses, tortoises and roadrunners, among other desert wildlife. We saw some lizards that look a lot like our Cuban invasives here in Tampa, butterflies, and two chipmunks with wide silver stripes down their backs. Also, a strange man, all dressed up in a yellow pullover sweater and slacks, who seemed to be hiding in a rock crevice. For wildlife, he was our most exciting sighting.

This is a “You Can Grow That!” post — an effort by garden bloggers all over the country (maybe the world?) to make it easy for anyone to get growing. Find more You Can Grow That! posts at Folks – the official You Can Grow That Site .











When summer and fall collide — beauty (You can grow that!)

purple mexican sage, yellow thryallis, yellow allamanda, blue to purple plumbago, blue birdbath, single bloom of belinda's dream rose bush

This is the time I wait for all year – when summer’s crazy blooms overlap with fall’s first show-offs. (I take pictures so I can fondly remember this come January.)

All of the plants in this corner of my garden (OK — pretty much all of my plants!) are tough guys that do well in full sun, somewhat sandy soil, and no fertilizer — except for the roses. I amend my sand with compost, and this is the oldest part of my garden, so the dirt has had a good 12 years of cow manure, kitchen scraps and dead leaves from the neighbor’s oak tree. My backyard faces east, but that same neighbor’s oak tree blocks the sun all morning in this spot. The plants appreciate it! They take a big, hot hit all afternoon.

In the background, from left to right, the plants are: yellow thryallis, huge purple salvia (I wish I knew the variety because it grows much bigger than I expected and is a bit of a pain!), pale blue flowers behind are plumbago trained to grow up the fence, double pink Knock Out roses, more thryallis (small yellow blooms), allamanda (large yellow blooms), Belinda’s Dream rose (a single bloom in the photo — a dream of an easy rose bush!)

Behind the birdbath is purple Mexican sage, and the little yellow/orange flowers in the foreground are orange cosmos. I’ve also got some pink confetti lantana to the right, and oh! There’s some pretty pink, well-behaved salvia coccinea to the left.

My “fall” bloomer is the Mexican sage, which has actually been blooming for months. This outburst, however, is particularly outrageous.

purple flowers, mounding shrub, mexican sage, lance-shaped green leaves, silvery stems

I love Mexican sage! The blooms have a woolly, velvety texture and such a beautiful lavender color. Even my husband notices them (which is saying something.) The first hummingbird I ever spotted in my garden was drawn to this plant.

Mexican sage is easy to grow. Don’t be afraid to whack back the leggy stems as the blooms fade. New stems will quickly replace the old. If you water it well after first planting (to establish the roots) it’s very drought-tolerant. Mine always dies back in the winter and faithfully reappears in the spring.

small, pale pink flowers, yellow stamens, jatropha, pink princess, jatropha integerima

My little pink jatropha is no show-stopper — yet. Jatropha Integerima ‘Pink Princess’ gets knocked back every winter and is slow to come back, unlike her livelier, scarlet cousin, spicy Jatropha. I’ve got several of the red variety and they’re huge. Small trees! This one’s only about 3 feet tall, though it’s a couple years old. Hmmm, that could be because I didn’t get the roots well-established. The reds grow fine in fairly sandy soil and take lots of sun. While the red Jatropha bloom year-round, this is the first big flush of flowers I’ve seen from Princess.

yellow chinese hat plant, small cup and saucer shaped bloom, bright yellow, dark green leaves, oval, pointed

Always my first sign of fall — Chinese hat plant’s first bloom! This one is teeny tiny (compare it to the wine-bottle opening to the left.) The blooms get larger and create a bright, frothy display. The yellow Chinese hat is less common than the pale orange-colored variety, but they all do well here. The wonderful plant vendor from whom I bought this (er, its mother — this one I started from a cutting) told me to cut it back by a third in August and fertilize for best bloomage.

small oval green leaves, tree 6 feet tall, mooring

The little tree in the foreground is Moringa oleifera — the most nutritious tree on the planet! (To the right is the little pink jatropha and the bright red blooms below left are red firespike.)

A gardening reader gave me this little guy as a rooted cutting two or three years ago. It stayed in its too-small grow pot way too long — I didn’t know where to plant it! I finally found a spot last spring, and look how fast it has grown! Everything about moringa is nutritious; it’s hailed as a miracle plant. The leaves are loaded with vitamins; the seed pods (which give it its nickname, drumstick tree) are used in stews and are rich in vitamin C; and the roots taste like horseradish. Part of the reason for its “miracle” label is it grows SO easily in harsh conditions (i.e., my garden, India, South Africa and eastern Asian.)

I’m fully enjoying my summer/fall garden. And judging from the buds, there’s only more good to come.



In search of garden art treasure on U.S. 41 in Lutz, Fla.

I’m so lucky to have patient friends who love to explore! Sherri, Kathy and I spent Saturday afternoon trolling the stretch of U.S. 41 that runs north of Tampa through Lutz and Land O’ Lakes, our countrified northern neighbors.  U.S. 41 was a main artery through Florida back when Lucy, Desi, Ethel and Fred drove down for vacation in black and white (remember that one?). And it still has reminders of its mid-century heyday — old roadside motels, art deco signs, and … cool little vintage shops.

old undated plaster garden gnome 18 inches tall holding axe lantern red green

Our first stop, Deb’s Whistle Stop Depot, 100 NW 4th Ave., Lutz (despite the address, it’s on U.S. 41), is only 2 1/2 years old, but it’s housed a home much, much older. It has six or seven rooms, plus a big covered back porch, full of knickknacks, furniture, dishes, art — tons of old goodies. It also had the gnome pictured above (note the past tense.)

LOVE my creepy gnome!

I spotted this guy in the window as soon as we walked in. The $30 price tag thrilled me, and Laura — the helpful employee on duty — happily allowed me to talk her down. I got Creepy for $25. When I asked what she knew about him, she happily called the owner. (Laura was very nice.) I learned  he came from the estate of a woman who died at 98 and had hauled him around for years.

Other good stuff I didn’t buy: Old phone for $20 — how cool would that be by your Adirondack chair?

black hand-set phone rotary dial 1960s

Sherri said, “These old iron bedsteads would make nice trellises.” (Nice trellises, I’ve learned, are hard to appreciate after they’re swallowed by vines. So unless they’re SUPER cheap, I save my money.)

woman looks at old iron bed headboards, footboards painted white in antiques store

In Deb’s back yard is Annie’s Potting Shed , a place I’ve heard local gardeners rave about forever. And now I know why!

potting shed at annies potting shed lutz florida large brown purple shed with blue glazed containers

We found lots of plants, herbs, containers and garden art in an area designed for a relaxing visit. Patti Schaefer is the owner — Annie was her grandmother. A big draw here, Patti says, is Helen, the Scottish gardener who creates stunning containers. (I’ve been to Scotland. They’re big on great containers!)

They had lots of plants I’m familiar with and — better yet –surprises. Among them, Australian violet ($5.50 for an 8-inch-or so pot).

small white purple blossoms on low growing plants ground cover Australia

Never saw this before! Patti says it’s a sturdy ground-cover for part sun to full shade. It needs rich, well-draining soil

She also had some cool garden art made from what looks like welded railroad spikes by How cool would this be for Halloween? And the spider plant in the spider? Cute!! (Sorry — I couldn’t find a price tag.)

spider plant container karyns art iron spikes giant

Patti says she has something special happening once a month — free workshops on container gardening, herbs, whatever you’re into. If you want to create a spectacular container, bring your stuff and play around on shade-covered picnic tables. Want a fairy garden? She’s got the cutest stuff — from $2 for tiny terra cotta pots to $25 for a big fairy house.

fairy garden supplies, gazing ballsl, tables

A couple miles up the road at 2020 Land O’Lakes Blvd. , we found EspiWear Thrift Store in a strip shopping center. This is interesting! Entrepreneur Joe Espi says he had a men’s clothing business that tanked with the economy. While he couldn’t get men into his shop once things went sour, he did have a great international on-line clientele for his low-price men’s designer clothes.

So he turned the brick-and-mortar shop into a thrift store. He buys stuff from estate sales, auctions and unclaimed storage units, and sells them for cheap.

“I’m not a non-profit , so that hurts in some ways,” he says. BUT, he can be choosy about what he puts in his shop. “I don’t have to take all the stuff people want to donate.”

I can vouch for cheap prices — I don’t like to spend a lot for stuff I know will eventually disintegrate in the sun and rain. And he says the stuff moves so fast, there’s always something new.

I was really tempted by this great old drop-leaf table for $25 — much more picturesque than my current cuttings table. Can’t you see this covered with terra cotta pots sitting in colorful metal trays?

old scratched dropleaf table plank top thrift store

I was ready to head home by this time, but Sherri was tapping the spurs. “Just a little bit farther,” she said. “Don’t worry — you won’t get lost. Let’s find something out in the country!”

As usual, I’m glad I listened.

Waaaaay up U.S. 41, we found Shabby Abbie’s, a sweet little shop — another former house — that opened April 2. Owner Helen Kinyon has several designers who repurpose old furniture and other goodies they find. Like Joe, she shops estate sales and other bargain opportunities, but unlike Joe, she aims to repurpose many of her finds.

We pulled in just as they were turning off the lights and getting ready to leave. But Helen and Melissa, one of the designers (she laughs when Helen reminds her that’s what she is!) graciously re-booted so we could explore. It’s a beautiful place with artsy displays. Who knew Mason jars could be so pretty?

mason jars old

I was thrilled to death (!!) to find a metal tray just like one I’d seen a few years ago at a plant fair — and lost because I dithered too long.  I was excited not only to see this again, but to see it for cheap. $8!

I’m going to love this hanging on my patio wall.

19-inch metal platter black red white man at barbecue grill other illustrations

Shabby Abbie’s also had beautiful furniture — including a mid-century china cabinet that Sherri, Kathy and I fell in love with. It was $595, but Helen told me next Saturday it’ll be $300-something. They’re having a big sale 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 29. Oy vey! If only I had a place to put it!

‘Sall right. I’ve already spent my “disposable” income. And I have a rule: If I can’t pick it up, I don’t buy it.