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Cutting Down and Cutting Out

Three years ago Anita Ellington and her husband James downsized to a smaller house and yard in south Brandon. “There was nothing here when I started,” she says of her present garden. “We brought three truckloads of plants when we moved.”

“My front yard is not so special,” she says. It is quite attractive with a row of plumbagos blooming blue across much of the front. Ah, but in back the charming house opens onto a porch that is a garden in itself with statues of a little girl on a garden bench and a sitting pig, plants in containers, a hot tub in the corner and a table and chairs for outdoors dining.

Her heliconia or lobster claw plants had at least ten blooms.

“My backyard is full of flowers, and one is blooming like never before. I call it catclaw,” Ellington says. This is a plant she paid $50 for 15 years ago. “I saw the blooms and thought it was birds in the trees,” she says. It has had a few blooms a year now and then until this year, when it put out at least 10 of the beautiful pendulous stems of fiery red bracts tipped with greenish yellow and hung in stings of seven or more. Because the colorful parts are bracts, they last for months. The actual flowers are fairly inconspicuous; the leaves are of the shiny but flimsy texture of banana leaves.

Most often called lobster claw, Heliconia rostrata, it is the most striking of a very flamboyant family. It likes a spot as similar to the sunny edge of a rainforest as possible. Ellington’s has multiplied quite a bit since she planted it in the ground here. The ones with the bloom burst are on the shady side of the back border. At her old house she kept it in a container and it grew to the top of the patio, but here it is still 5 to 6 feet tall. She covers it on frosty nights.

Also along the back border is a Duranta or golden dewdrop with sprays of purple flowers edged with white. “It was in full bloom a few weeks ago and one day I counted fifteen butterflies on that bush,” she says. Crotons and many different kinds of hibiscus also give color. It is quite amazing what she has done in just three years. Between good gardening and Florida’s climate, her new garden has a mature look that would take a quarter of a century up north.

Good gardening is in her blood. “My mother will be 99 this December and she can out work me,” Ellington says. “She is out working in her garden ( near Orlando) every day. Many of my plants came from her. My son is also a good gardener.”

Anita Ellington holds one of her fragrant butterfly ginger flowers.

Anita Ellington is a master of pruning. She has plants growing almost on top of one another but has pruned them to fine shapes so there is no feeling of crowding. Her bush sunflower grows as a small tree and blooms on and off all summer as well as being covered with large yellow sunflowers in the fall and early winter.

A border of low peacock gingers have interesting foliage and constant lavender flowers all summer. When they go dormant, she sows seeds of alyssum right over the top or plants red and white impatiens for the winter months with snapdragons behind then.

Under the orange tree in the center of the back yard are caladiums. “They die down before it is time to pick oranges. I notice the leaves get bigger every year. There is also a millet growing there from a seed that dropped from the bird feeder. Nearby is a huge elderberry she pruned to grow as a three trunked tree, with the trunks that have both interesting bark and most unusual shape like lego blocks put together. Two staghorn ferns and several birdfeeders hang from the branches, including one with a clever roof that lets the squirrels slip off.

Across the whole back of the house is a lovely patio decorated with plants, porch furniture and garden art. “There was no garden shed, so my husband designed this one to look like part of the house,” she says. He also built the picket fence she had long wanted and then she spent 12 hours painting it white.

“We have a watering system but we seldom use it,” she says. “I use all the water from the dishes and such to water porch and container plants and the washing machine water is rigged to water the beds, also.”

“I seldom fertilize except for the roses, but I’m the bag lady for the neighborhood and have put many bags of leaves down as mulch.” Her soil is rich and black. And the plants appreciate it.

Left: Cacti and succulents thrive against the white wall on the east side of the house.
Right: She has quite a collection of hibiscus including this one she calls La France.