I promised my co-workers I’d bring them homemade blueberry muffins on Monday morning, but they’re going to be disappointed.
The scads of locally grown blueberries I expected at low, low prices were nowhere in sight at the annual Florida Blueberry Festival May 4 in charming Brooksville, Fla., Florida’s Rural Community of the Year in 2000. The festival continues 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today (May 5.) Parking is $10 and admission is $5 for adults.
After 30 minutes of wandering and browsing, the first blueberries I saw were these.
”Oh, Blueberry Butt!” a woman standing near me shouted. (Is that the official name for statues with clusters of blue balls on their backsides? I don’t know. But I was glad to see at least some homage to my favorite berry.)
The Blueberry Butts stood in front of a fun antiques consignment shop called Easy Street Home Decor. Loved this giant spider on their storefront, made from recycled metal doodads.
Fellow blueberry tripper Janna Begole and I soon discovered Island Grove Wine Co. , which offered tastings of 8 wines for $4.
My favorite was Sorta Sweet Blueberry Wine — it’s made 100 percent from blueberries. Most of the other wines, like Bold Blackberry and Southern Strawberry, are merlots and Rieslings with fruit juice added for flavor. Very tasty, but if I’m gonna drink wine, I want 100 percent.
(Chase Marden, who guided Janna and me through our tasting, is the wine maker. He says the tour of their vineyard in Hawthorne, Fla., is a whole lot of fun — and I believe him. He’s a lot of fun!)
Another favorite vendor was Dona Designs. This Jacksonville area artist creates fun ceramic birdhouses and birdfeeders. Janna picked up a great Mother’s Day gift, and I found a very affordable, personalized birthday present for my sister and her husband.
Janna and I both loved this whimsical birdhouse by Dona. (Prices start at about $40.)
“The best restaurant in town is Rising Sun Cafe. I know. I live here,” she said. (Later she told me the proprietors feed the homeless every Sunday.)
Our blueberry-starved souls found nourishment here. We got ‘em in our water!
I ordered the Blueberry Festival chicken sandwich — pulled chicken with Sonny’s BBQ sweet sauce mixed with a puree of blueberries. Janna got a steak and cheese pannini with onions, peppers and roasted summer squash. Both were excellent. (Cost: About $8 per sandwich. They come with chips and a pickle.)
What the heck is a blueberry corn dog? I asked the teenager manning this booth. He said he initially thought, “Ewww.”
The dog’s batter is mixed with artificial blueberry flavorings plus real blueberries.
“I had one this morning. It’s really good,” he said.
Dole is the No.1 sponsor of this fest, and the only blueberries we found (besides plump pints at Rising Sun Cafe for $4.99) were Dole’s half-pints for $3. Which is what I can buy at my local grocer. Disappointing!
But wine-maker Island Grove had blueberry bushes for $5 ,or 3 for $10, and we saw lots of people walking around with them. In fact, people were mobbing Island Grove’s plant stand.
Yup, I bought one.
And they came with, hooray!, blueberries!
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.
Janice “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.
After 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.
“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.
“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!).
“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.
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.
Norma, 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?”
Among 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.
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.
Norma’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!”
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!
“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.
There’s more than one way to catch a pesky — OK, downright evil — garden-devouring pest. Dig for them!
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.
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!)
From left, Ioan Fernandez, Camille D. and Dina Lott fire away at nasty, giant aphids threatening some beautiful blooms.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
He recommends this guide by the late plant guru Julia Morton.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.