The inspiration behind Busch Gardens’ new topiaries

How did this 1901 bronze candlestick …
1901 bronze candlestick art nouveau inspired topiary at Busch Gardensbecome this?

topiary in the works of giant woman ladder leaning against her eyeJoe Parr, director of horticulture at Busch Gardens, Tampa, spotted the art nouveau candlestick while shopping antique stores — a pasttime he loves.

“I was hoping that she would be beautiful, so she embraces a watery looking glass,” Joe says of The Spirit of Spring, one of many new topiaries created for Busch Gardens’ new Food & Wine Festival, running weekends now through April 26.

Joe started planning the topiaries for this event nearly two years ago, taking his cue from “things that amused and inspired me along the way.” One of my favorites is Topiarazzi, which I can only guess came from watching park visitors.

5 topiaries life-sized men with cameras, kneeling and standing

Meet Winston, Jack, Otto, Cecil and Joe, who’ve been brought alive with 2,500 plants, including red, yellow, green and white Alternanthura and green creeping fig.

Florida sealife also captured Joe’s imagination. Here’s a Florida octopus in progress.

half finished giant octopus topiary surrounded by ladders

And the finished product!

night view of giant octopus topiary at busch gardens

“There are a handful of plant workhorses for topiary in Florida: Alternenthera, creeping fig,  wax begonias are some of the major species. Succulents are great for added texture and color,” Joe says. “The bigger the topiary the more varieties you can use.”

Wanna try this one at home?

giant coiled topiary snake, dark green, yellow, red

Passalong Florida plants & memories

hummingbird zooming toward bright red blossoms of firespike. crimson tubular blooms on a brown stem with dark green oval leaves that come to a point

I asked Tampa Bay Times readers and fellow gardeners to share their favorite Florida passalong plants — hardy, easy-to-grow veggies, perennials and trees — and the memories that came with them.

Wow. So many great stories! It was like coming home with way more new plants than places to grow them.

Several ran in the Sept. 21 Times — here are a few more. (Sadly, even a blog post can get too long, so I couldn’t share all I received. I enjoyed every email. It was like Christmas!)

Most of these are wonderful plants for your Tampa Bay garden. The photos were supplied by the gardeners, including the great shot, above, of a hummingbird zeroing in on a firespike, by Doreen Damm of New Port Richey.

Here’s her story:

Co-worker nectar

I worked for Kathryn at Hallmark for 11 years and we always ended up talking about gardening. Several years ago her husband took it upon himself to clean up her garden and cut her firespike bushes to the ground.

“I have a great plant for attacting hummingbirds, I can’t believe you don’t have one,” she told me.

She dug up some of the stubs and I planted them in my garden. They became an instant hummingbird favorite.

Kathryn moved out of state a few years ago, but when I pass by the firespikes,  now 6 feet tall,  I think of her.

When co-workers leave, they always say, “We’ll stay in touch!” but that rarely happens. Thanks to our shared love of gardening, Kathryn and I have actually grown closer! 

Bread and roses

rustic brown sign, post is a thick brown branch topped with an engraved wooden sign that reads Elijah Paul Duncan Garden

Susan Mallett Eckstein did a beautiful job telling her 94-year-old mother’s story of passalong inspiration. Her mom is Frances Mallett of Port Richey.

The carved wooden sign in my front yard reads, “Elijah Paul Duncan Garden.”  The story behind that sign tells of a long-ago
friendship, love of plants, and making a home where your flowers grow. 

In the mid 1950s, E. P. Duncan, an avid fisherman, pulled off Highway 19 at my husband’s bait and tackle shop, The Outpost, to buy supplies and get the scoop on the local fishing hot spots.  E.P. — “Sarge” — had recently driven from tiny, oval shaped white buds with pink to red tips of shell ginger. cluster of more than a dozen buses on a single stem California in a homemade truck camper to find a friendly small town where he could afford to live on a retired military pension. New Port Richey fit the bill

My husband and Sarge soon became friends. He was a frequent guest at family dinners and a fishing buddy for our oldest son.

 I had always been a practical gardener, focusing mainly on growing vegetables. It was Sarge whose small trailer was surrounded by beautiful flowers, who encouraged me to grow  flowering plants. He shared cuttings, potted plants, and seeds. I was hooked!

Sarge  told me that I was always to share plants with others so that they might experience the joy  of gardening.  Today,  I share cuttings from a gorgeous pink plumeria, brilliant blooming bromeliads, mysterious night blooming cereus, shell ginger (pictured.)  

The “Elijah Paul Duncan Garden” sign reminds us of family memories, of love for a man, his love of growing things, and the passing along of plants to others so that his legacy continues into the future.

Old eggs don’t stink!

If no one else has it, we love it! Lori Pacheco of Gainesville, Ga., got her “scrambled eggs” from Betty Montgomery of Scotts Hill, Tenn.

scrambled eggs plant, bright yellow blooms with five ruffled petals surrounding a swollen center. Foliage is green stalks like tall, wide grass blades

Lori writes:

Betty has the farm across from my family’s farm — 1 mile away and our closest neighbor.  When I went up for a visit a couple years ago, I noticed her unusual yellow daffodils. She told me they were scrambled eggs

“They’re not all that purty,” she said. “But they’re old-fashioned and nobody else has them anymore.” 

So, I wanted them!!

(From Penny: I found plenty of references online to this heirloom daffodil also called ”butter and eggs.”  Most were gardeners looking for bulbs or talking about their own plants, descended from century-plus-old gardens. Dixie Gardens, a Louisiana daffodil lover, offered “rescue Bread and Butters” from a construction site, but they’re’re sold out. For future reference, Dixie Gardens says the botanical name is Narcissus x incomparabilis var. plenus Butter and Eggs, and recommends them for zones 5-8 and “upper 9 with afternoon shade.”)

 Jungle love-hate

bromeliad with wide green leaves, about 3 inches across, growing in a V shape with rede fluorescence in center. Bloom is tall, thin red stem with numerous thin red branches tipped with pale green

When you can’t squeeze in one more plant — or deal with taking care of one more — sometimes one more is just what you need.

This is from Anne-Marie of Palm Harbor:

We have lived in our house for 36 years, so we have lots of roots!  Seven huge Spanish oak trees and lots of plants — it’s a jungle.
After a long time with very little planting– too little space and a hard time maintaining what I have!  — a good friend who has mastered the art of the jungle gave me this beautiful bromeliad. It can take care of itself!
I planted this bromeliad in the last possible little spot and … it bloomed! It was the ultimate compliment for the gift of giving and the pleasure of receiving.
(From Penny: Ann-Marie didn’t identify this bromeliad and I’m not crazy enough to try. If you know the name and shoot me an email, I’ll update this post. And thank you!)

Garden potluck

Tanja Vidovic is a 30-something Tampa gardener obsessed with spreading the love of growing your own edibles. (Find and share freebies on her popular Facebook page.)  Easy passalongs are her favorites. Here’s daughter Kalina with one of her favorites.

Little girl, about 4 years old with flowered dress and sandals, stands in front of a banana tree with her hand on one of about 15 green bananas in a bunch

Tanja writes:

I love all plants that are shared and gardeners the most giving group of people I’ve ever met! The best grow so easily, they almost ask you to share them with others. They’re also able to be harvested quickly and produce enough to share with all your neighbors.

That said, my favorites include sugar cane, cranberry hibiscus and bananas.

In-laws — they’re part of the family!

Janice Vogt  grew up in Seminole Heights in Tampa. But she’s rooted, by marriage, in Arkansas. She writes:
My mother-in-law brought these four o clocks from her childhood home in Arkansas. They were in her grandmother’s garden.
She lived to be 101 years young. I always loved the yellow ones and now I pass them along to others.
Four 4 o' clock blooms, two large in foreground, pale yellow flat flowers with five petals and short, orange-tipped stamen at center. surrounded by dark green oval leaves that come to a point
Me again!
My garden is full of passalongs. Fifteen years ago, I bought most of my plants. Today, at least half — and those I love best — are from seeds, cuttings or small rooted plants shared by generous gardeners.  Look for plant swaps and garden club meetings. Heck, don’t be afraid to knock on a door and ask a homeowner for a cutting. I’m always flattered when that happens!

If it’s almost spring, it’s almost time for lubber grasshoppers (ewww!)

The other day, I got an email from a gardener friend. The subject line was, “Coming to your garden soon …”

Bill usually sends me photos of beautiful new plants he’s discovered, so I opened his mail with happy anticipation.

I was NOT happy when I saw not flowers, but this:

green black and yellow lubber grasshopper

Although this grasshopper doesn’t look exactly like the Eastern lubber grasshoppers we get here in the Tampa Bay area, it was close enough to make me recoil in horror.

For years, my garden was infested with lubbers — thousands of them every summer! The grasshoppers we get are even bigger than the one in Bill’s photo, and lots uglier. They serve no useful purpose that I’ve been able to find and trust me, I’ve tried!

Here’s what our Eastern lubbers look like:

eastern lubber grasshopper, facial photo, green, yellow black and red on jacaranda tree. looks mean

I usually start seeing the babies in March (hence Bill’s nudge-nudge). If you don’t know what they are, you may think the nymphs are cute. A friend of mine once posted a photo on Facebook with the comment, “Look at all the sweet crickets!”

nymph eastern lubber grasshoppers, black with yellow stripe, swarming new growth on a plant


I don’t care how innocent they look, these babies need to die! They grow up to be armored monsters that spit, hiss and eat your garden, starting with your favorite plants. Once they’re adults, the only way to slay them is man-to-mandible warfare: Smash them with a rock, snip them in half, stomp them.

They’re so hard to kill, normally gentle gardeners come up with creative ways to send them hopping into the next world.

Andy Carr of Spring Hill uses a Dust Buster for the nymphs.

man using dust buster to vacuum eastern lubber grasshoppers from plants in flowerbed lining a lanai. dog watches from inside lania

“I can collect a hundred or so in it, maybe more, until the battery is dead,” he says. “Once we have them in the Buster, my wife holds the small garbage bags, doubled, and I dump ’em in, tie ’em off and sooo long you ugly little plant-eating varmints.”

Norm Smith, a “Mad Men”-style retired advertising guy, turns them into dioramas.

“I try to come up with outrageous themes, something a grasshopper – particularly a lubber – would never be caught doing, like scuba-diving,” he told me back in 2011.

He drops them in a jar of alcohol and leaves them there for weeks so they’re preserved. Here’s the lubber diorama he made for me. (My doppelgänger has lost her legs while swinging on my bookshelf these past three years.)

eastern lubber grasshopper with wig clothes diorama in swing on tree newspaper and potted plant When I first started writing about my lubber problem a few years ago, a couple readers suggested I try  Nolo Bait. It’s not an insecticide in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s an organic bait you sprinkle around your garden, and it doesn’t affect other bugs. If the nymphs eat it, they die. If adults eat it, they’re rendered impotent.bag of nolo bait. drop-out of package

The results aren’t immediate, but I love the stuff.  I’ve used Nolo Bait for three years and my lubber population is down from thousands in a season to a few dozen.

When I first started buying Nolo Bait, I had to order it online. Now, I think a few local shops carry it, but the only one I’m sure of is  Shell’s Feed Store, 9513 N. Nebraska Ave.. Tampa

Owner Greg Shell is taking orders early (and no – I don’t get a cut of the sales for recommending Shell’s).  Since Nolo Bait relies on live organisms, it has a short shelf life, just 13 weeks. Greg’s offering customers who order before March 15  a 10 percent discount because the short shelf life and whopping customer demand once the lubbers appear make it hard to keep it in stock. He doesn’t like having frustrated customers when he’s sold out. (I’ve been one of those!)

Greg has some helpful tips for making your Nolo Bait last longer, including creating feeding stations to place around your garden. That’s what I do, because rain will ruin the bait.

I assure you, it’s lots easier using Nolo Bait than chasing giant grasshoppers with rocks and snippers all summer. Although, if you’re into art, you may prefer the Norm Smith method. His dioramas are loads of fun!

What to do when the HOA requires a landscape makeover

When newlyweds Cheryl and Dan Kaplan finally found their first house, a bargain short-sale in a Wesley Chapel, Fla., subdivision, their biggest dilemma was the pretty but out-of-control flowering jasmine.

flowering white jasmine blossom with eight, pointed petals, daisy shape and red buds. a vining shrub with glossy green oval leaves in wesley chapel, florida

Such nice flowers — and loads of them! — but the viney shrubs had gone wild. Should they stay or should they go?

overgrown jasmine shrubs in front of a house. Lots of green foliage, tiny white blossoms, nearly covering two round-topped windows in front of a home in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Part of the trunk and dangling brown frond of a queen palm visibleBefore Cheryl and Dan bought their home in the Bridgewater subdivision north of Tampa, the Homeowners Association warned them that they’d have a limited amount of time to make improvements. The house had been neglected for some time and, though it wasn’t in terrible condition, it didn’t look good. The couple would have to renovate the landscaping, paint the house and make some repairs, all within about 45 days. I wrote about their experience in a June story in the Tampa Bay Times.

But that was only part of the story, and I recently heard from another new Bridgewater homeowner who faced the same challenge. Their experiences may help you!

The Kaplans’ biggest challenge was the plants. Cheryl wanted her own garden, in part to honor her dad, who’d died in a car accident just a few months earlier. He loved gardening, but he’d been a Chicago gardener. And the limited knowledge he’d passed along to Cheryl didn’t translate easily to the crazy world of Florida gardening.

fuchsia colored azalea blossom. five petals with deep pink stakes. close-up with glossy green oval shaped pointed leavesCheryl decided she really wanted azaleas. Heck, it was February and they were blooming! Personally, I’m not a fan of azaleas unless you have a huge yard loaded with oak trees, which drop acid-rich leaves and give these shrubs the conditions they like. Traditional azaleas bloom only in spring, and they’re kind of boring the rest of the year. They also like plenty of water.

But I’d read about Encore Azaleas, which bloom a few times a year. I told Cheryl about them and  that’s what she went for. Hers were already blooming when I shot the photo above a few weeks after she planted them.

Cheryl dithered over whether to keep those jasmines — which I was never able to definitively identify — and trim them, relocate them, or just take them out. When she, Dan and her mother-in-law finally waded in to cut them back, they found such a mess, they opted for the last option.

They got rid of the jasmine, and had an arborist trim the queen palm and Laurel oaks. They planted the Encore Azaleas, crimson pentas, Gerbera daisies, Apostles iris and Mexican heather — all Florida-friendly plants.

This is their house before all their with overgrown laurel oak dominating front yard, overgrown potocarpus by the garage, driveway and mailbox

And this is after!


gray and white stucco house with new (small) shrubs in mulched, outlined bedsAfter the column about Cheryl and Dan ran in the Times, I heard from Dan Stidwell, who’d bought his first home in the same subdivision a few months earlier. He and his wife, Lisa, ran into the sam problems Cheryl and Dan had — a deadline, a shortage of money, and the need to do a lot of hard labor themselves.

They weren’t happy.

The results, though were beautiful. Here’s the before and after.

cheryl neighborIt can be frustrating for new homeowners to learn they have yet a new bunch of hurdles to jump through when dealing with an HOA. On the one hand, remember, a well-run HOA will protect your property value by establishing and enforcing rules.

On the other hand, know that a fairly new Florida law requires every government body — be it an HOA or a city or county — must allow for you to replace your turf with Florida-freindly and native plants.

Many HOAs have relaxed their rules since the law took effect. Yes, you still have to submit your landscape design for approval. But if it’s rejected over and over again, as if the HOA is trying to circumvent the law, you now have the government on your side.

Yard art inspiration from Tampa Bay gardeners

koi pond with orange and white koi in foreground. waterfall splashing from front grill of a silver 1995 Buick CenturyHalf the fun of gardening is finding, or creating, yard art to complement all those plants, like this koi pond waterfall created from the front end of a 1995 Buick Century.

It was the vision of Maryhelen Zopfi of Lutz, and the workshop project of her handy husband, Simon. Earlier this month, Maryhelen imagined her swimming pool-turned-koi pond with a cool old car front replacing the wooden bridge and fountain that had been in the spot.

“I looked on the internet and found six car fronts at the junkyard. I knew this was the one I wanted because it had the Buick hood ornament,” she says.

old wooden door painted with with pumpkins painted to look like mural. top half o of door is window. yard art placed in gradeJanice “Pumpkin” Vogt of Seminole Heights found this old door in an alley in her neighborhood. She asked her friend and neighbor, artist Bean Spence, to paint it for her. She paid him in oatmeal cookies.

Yard art requires no water or fertilizer. Occasionally, pests find it, but when they chew it up,  we just toss it! There’s no pain in that; only comfort in knowing we’ve gotten the most use possible out of something that would’ve ended up in a landfill.

This is another from Janice, a birdhouse crafted by her husband. He made the roof from an old AC duct from their home.

white birdhouse with metal roof made from discarded AC duct, surrounded by fat pink bloomsAfter spending time with a 20-something friend and newlywed just starting her own garden,  I asked some Tampa Bay gardeners to share their favorite masterpieces to inspire her — and give me a column for the Tamapa Bay Times.

Of course, print is limited, so I couldn’t run all the wonderful photos, stories and tips gardeners shared. So here are a few more. I hope they’ll inspire you as they do me!

From Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, yard art created from actual plants! (Who’d a thunk?) Busch Gardens director of horticulture Joe Parr shared a parterre (I had to look that up — it’s a  low-growing, highly manicured planting design.)

This is just one that he and his staff created.

yellow and green swirls of marigolds and other plants parterre at busch gardens

bl Zagora Cafe Parterre detail“For our garden art at Busch Gardens, whether topiaries or parterres, we look for very compact and smaller plant varieties, especially annuals, that can be continuously sheared tightly and manicured on a regular basis,” Joe says.

“We pick annuals that exhibit excellent foliage and/or foliage color. Also it is very important that these plants contrast strongly to bring out patterns and details in the garden art that we are trying to create.”

Susan Gillespie of Riverview went another route with her blue bottle tree.

blue bottles turned upside down on a "tree" with numerous limbs“This started out as a project on branches of a lemon tree that didn’t make it. Then I saw a metal one made by a guy hawking his wares in Webster” flea market in Webster, Fla., Susan writes.

“Then the search was on, for a couple of years actually, for blue bottles. Some of my customers happily supplied me with their contributions to the cause, one party at a time. :) But the rest were from antique outings all over the place and part of the fun of putting it together.”

Bill Carr of Plant City notes that one person’s favorite art may not be another person’s (spouse!).

bl bill flamingo“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” writes Bill. “Here, in what I call my Heron Garden, is a plastic flamingo, which my wife hates and I think adds some whimsy. My wife visualizes it as fitting right in with the gardens around where we grew up that used old whitewashed tires and sinks for containers.”

And finally, one more from Maryhelen Zopfi’s garden: She put this fun face on a truncated tree limb that would have otherwise just looked very, very sad.

yard art on tree. Mask of man with big sunglasses, long mustache embed at athe end of a tree stump



Some lucky home buyer will get a Tampa garden diva’s colorful legacy

Norma Bean, whose 31-year-old  home and garden has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and on HGTV’s former “Gardener’s Diary” show, is downsizing. Whoever buys this artist and master gardener’s Beach Park home in South Tampa home will get a lot of cultivated natural bang for their buck.

“I wanted to have a good view from every window,” Norma says. “And that’s what I have.”

angel's trumpet tree with yellow blooms, large green leaves, viewed from second story paned window with ruffled edge of pink curtainNorma, whose late husband George Bean was the director of Tampa International Airport for three decades before his death in 2004, is accomplished in her own right. She’s an artist whose eye for color, contour, texture and balance translates readily to the garden.

But sometimes, the greatest garden gifts are  the happy accidents — or the success stories that defy explanation.  The angel’s trumpet tree  in Norma’s front yard, above, photographed in early April, is a mutant giant started from a cutting only 4 years ago.

“Angel’s trumpets are supposed to be heavy feeders, but I don’t fertilize it, I don’t do anything to it!” she says. “I have angel’s trumpets that have been growing a lot longer and they’re nowhere near this size. Maybe it’s picking up fertilizer from the roses?”

norma bean, white hair, pink sweater, in front of angel's trumpet tree about 20 feet tall loaded with yellow, trumpet-shaped dangling flowersAmong Norma’s favorite plants are begonias — she has at least 40 varieties, many hanging in pots from the stone wall lining her driveway. Most love filtered light; many have  foliage with patterns so varied and colorful, you won’t care if they never bloom!

Norma’s favorite is Begonia Joe Hayden.

“It’s very, very easy to grow and easy to start from cuttings,” she says.

soft pink and white blooms of Joe Hayden begonia. two rounded petals on each flower with three short hello stamen in the center. close-up of a cluster of bloomsHere’s a look at the foliage — the dark green leaves surrounding the wine-colored, flower-bearing stems.

joe hayden begonia, dark green leaves with shape similar to maple leaf, five points, tall stems topped by clusters of small pink and white two-petal blooms Norma’s second-favorite begonia is a fragrant variety – Begonia oderata ‘Alba,’  or Alba for short. I love this one because it can become a huge shrub, has a reputation for being very hardy, and has a divine scent .

“It’s another that’s very easy to grow,” Norma says.

tiny white blooms with yellow stamens. begonia alba. Close-up of a large cluster of flowers on a shrub with dark green pointed, oval-shaped leaves in backgroundNorma’s garden is filled with countless varieties of perennials — yesterday, today and tomorrow; antique and hybrid roses; amaryllis; ferns; mystery vines and even cultivated weeds because “weeds are only plants you don’t want — I want these!” Her advice to fellow gardeners, no matter where you live, “Include a touch of silver. Every garden needs silver!”

She makes her point in a sunny front bed, where silver king Artemesia reigns. It’s a 2-foot tall lacy, bushy alternative to the low-growing Dusty miller we see in all the retail garden centers.

2-foot tall upward growing shrub with silvery pointed leavesWhere does Norma get her inspiration?

In a second-floor bedroom with shelves covered with interesting old bottles for rooting cuttings or floating blooms, Norma keeps an “inspiration” board — a bulletin board covered with pages torn from magazines and newspapers, and photographs. She may be an artist with her own visions but, hey, it never hurts to borrow!

bulletin board covered with photos, pages from magazines and newspapers with pictures of flowers, arrangements, ideas for inspiration in the gardenFor the record, Norma already has her new abode picked out. It’s a Tampa condo with a big east-facing balcony.

“I know I can’t bring all my plants — I’ll have to pick and choose,” she says. “But for some reason, I still keep buying plants.”

We understand, Norma.

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.

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


Tulips in Tampa — and Celery and Asparagus, Too


orange and green tulip blooming in South Tampa February 2012

It’s not often you get a blow-away moment in a garden. (Truth be told — it is for me. Which is why I so love writing about gardens. But before I got to visit all your gardens, I didn’t get blown away too often.)

When I saw Janice Straske’s tulip beds in February, I got goose bumps. Seriously. The drifts of colorful buds that absolutely don’t belong here were jaw-dropping beautiful. I wrote about it in the Tampa Bay Times, and there are more great photos there (most, like the one above, shot by fabulous photographer Caroline Hill).

Janice learned how to get tulip bulbs to bloom from her mother, Celia Ferman, a Tampa native and longtime member of the Rose Circle Garden Club (she, too, grows drifts of Tampa tulips in spring.) If you want to learn how to grow them, click the Times story.

I revisited Janice’s garden during the Earthly Paradise Garden Tour earlier this month. It’s the Rose Circle Garden Club’s annual fundraiser, and I’ve gone the past three years because I love it.

Here’s what Janice’s back fence looked like in February.

pink tulip bud and green buds along fence in south tampa garden february 2012

And just a couple months later,  here’s that same back fence.

variety of tomato plants along a wooden fence in south tampa. tall plants, blooms, no tomatoes

Janice has a variety of tomatoes growing. My friend Janna (in the photo) and I found plum tomatoes, cherries, and grapes, among others. Janice has three kids at home still — one will be heading off to college in the fall — and a husband, but I’m thinking she’ll be buried in an avalanche of tomatoes before long.

Earthly Garden Tour visitors also oohed and aaahed over the veggies we don’t often see growing in Tampa gardens. I can’t count the number of people who’d never seen celery outside the grocery store. (Me included — I was  sniffing the leaves, thinking they were cilantro on steroids.)

mature celery stalks growing in south tampa april

And asparagus! Janice had whacked back her asparagus when I visited in February. Now, she’s got hors oeuvres — albeit for one.

single stalk of asparagus, south tampa, one spear, april

Though she lives in the heart of the city — the Golfview neighborhood — Janice has chickens. The eggs are great and the poop is even more valuable (see plants above!) One just needs to make it work in the ‘hood you’re in. Here’s Janice’s coop.

brown and white tudor home south tampa, old, restored

Oops, no! That’s her house. Here’s her coop — you’ll forgive the error, I hope. Geez, it looks so much like the house!

chicken coop, brown and white, built to mimic home, tudor style

I don’t think I’m ready for challenges like tulips and asparagus, but gardeners like Janice make me believe anything is possible.