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Elisa Vazquez Knows about Plants

Elisa Vazquez makes a garden wherever she goes. As her 80th birthday approaches, she showed us around the yard of her nephew with all the delight of a small child on Christmas morning. With all the cars, the two boats, and other areas she has not yet moved into, her garden would not make it to Better Homes magazine. But because she has so successfully worked around all that, her garden is one of my all time favorites.

She has surrounded her little house in the back yard with flowers, fruit, and the vegetables she grew up eating in Puerto Rico. From there she is spreading around the edges of the entire yard.

Starting at the front of the main house, a mandevilla was in full and beautiful bloom at the corner. When I admitted I had not been able to root cuttings of this, she threw up her hands. "I have tried to start these from cuttings a million times, but never have they rooted. But, look. Seeds. Now I will get more," she said.

She uses chenille plant as a groundcover.

She showed us two ponytail palms in containers. "There are two kinds," she said. "See the difference in the trunks. One is very round and the other is like an elephant's trunk and that one is very hardy. You don't have to bring it in on cold nights."

She uses chenille plant as a ground cover. "In the shade it is pink, in the sun more red," she said.

Her orchids hang from a tree in the side yard. None were blooming at the time, but you could almost see the blooms as she explained, "This vanda has blue blooms when the wind shakes it. It is called the 'Dancing vanda'".

"You should see her nun's orchids when they bloom. She has maybe 20 spires in ordhids," said her neighbor Michelle Ferguson.

"I keep them tight in a pot," Elisa said. "Nun's orchids and clivia like to be root bound before they bloom."

This tiny yuca bloom indicates that the roots are large enough to dig.

She had several plants of yuca, also called cassava (Manihot utilissima), with their five finger leaflets. Some were at least 7 ft. tall. "You have to wait until they bloom or the roots will not be large enough," she said. The flowers are very small, but she found some. Before frost she will cut down the canes and dig out the roots. "Last year we had one that was 16 inches long. I cleaned it, removed the sin, and put it in a plastic bag in the freezer. There is still some left. It is delicious just boiled like a potato, very good with pork," she said.

Among the elephant ear-leaved plants along the fence line, she showed me the malagna with the stem attached well down in the leaf and the base as thick as a potato. That base will turn from white to gray before she digs that. And another elephant ear leaf with the leaf not joined above the stem she called yautia. These are two of the main root vegetables in Puerto Rico.

"This is like a tunnel," she said after we passed by the tall papaya loaded with fruit and the ripening pineapple. She is giving a young mango tree all the room it deserves. Michelle's young sons, Liam, 2, and Declan, 4, were obviously enjoying the garden, but were amazingly well behaved. When we came to the chairs at the back corner, Eliza sank into one as if she were weary. "I love the shade of this avocado tree," she said. But in a moment she bounced up again to show us the purple passion fruit among the vines on the back fence.

Again in front of her house she sat down as she showed us the two cathedral cacti in pots, one with green on the leaf edges, one with a dark reddish green.

She has a large collection of succulents in containers. It seemed like the end of the tour, but "I have more to show you," she said and bounced up again. Around the house, in perhaps a 4 ft space between the wall and the fence, she has a potting bench, only partly filled with plants in containers. "I take these to garage sales and make a little money," she said.

Buckets are lined up to catch the rainwater runoff. "I have to use it within a few days or it gets mosquitoes," she said. Along the fence are all sorts of plants in the ground and in containers. This secret garden continues around the back of the house, and her enjoyment of it and attention to detail is one of the great joys of her life.

"I plan to live to be 100," she said. "But that is all up to God. He is my priority."