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Good Friends Make Good Gardens and Vice Versa

Ernestine Stevens calls hers a Friendship Garden. If you ask her the name of a plant, she is likely to say, "I don't know. I always call it Marie Harrison (for a lavender Philippine violet) and that is Tom Galloway (for an amazing climbing fern) because that's who gave them to me."

Ernestine Stevens enjoys her front garden with bromeliads in front and ferns all around her.

Most dear to her are the plants she saved from the funerals of her mother, father and husband Jim. Some of these have grown and spread beautifully. "My garden helped me get through those loses," she says.

"I was born and raised on an Arkansas farm. When I was about 9, my mother and I planted a huge tub full of purple iris. My sister still has some of them," she says. Since we can't grow those bearded iris here, she has photos and paintings or iris in her living room and silk iris bouquets. But outdoors she has one of the neatest and most colorful Florida gardens you will see anywhere.

She has been living in her south Brandon home since 1964 and some of her plants date back even farther. "That croton (about 12 feet tall) is 46 years old. I brought it from homes in Plant City and Tampa. It just finished blooming." It is a unique color and I've only seen one croton ever-at St. Marys Church in St. Petersburg-in bloom.

Her neighbors two doors down, Mr. and Mrs. Williford, were great collectors of ferns and orchids and went all over the world gathering plants, many of which they shared with her over the years. She has a row of tree ferns that she can actually walk under on the path that goes beside them. They are all growing in the shade of a live oak that covers more than half of her front yard.

"When we moved here there were 31 small live oaks on the property," she says. Since live oaks spread so wide, there are only a few now but they are grand trees and one of the most long living and storm resistant. They give almost her entire yard a dappled shade and she has made the most of both this and the few sunny spots to produce color beyond belief. What is more, though it was early May and bone dry and she has just returned from a cruise, there was no sign of drought in this garden.

"I have soaker hoses in many of the beds and I water the containers as needed," says Stevens. She also water the containers by hand, some twice a week, some every other day. "I don't fertilize much, mostly just the roses and some bone meal on the birds of Paradise. The mulch (she uses leaves, pine needles, moss, whatever she can get) does the rest. I have some Indian blood and I don't take anything out of the soil without putting back. I don't spend much money, just use my green thumb."

She has even rooted azaleas and grown them to blooming size. But she favors the dwarf azaleas because they need less water. "But nothing stays miniature for me," she says. Even her caladiums look like colorful elephant ears.

There is no grass in back or on the sides of the house and the plot in front is so small that the neighbor told her to get rid of her lawn mower since he could take care of it in 10 minutes when he did his own. It is however, a very elegant plot of St. Augustine lawn surrounded by colorful gardens with neat brick edges she put down herself. She recently replaced the Indian hawthorn with Knockout roses, including some of the new ones with double blooms. She follows the rule of several to many plants of the same kind together for best visual impact, and still manages to have an amazing variety.

When she is not in the garden, she spends much of her indoor time in the glassed in patio room watching the birds that come to her several feeders. Both are good places to retire after 35 years as a teacher's aide. She still works Saturday's at Pendy Consignment Center in Brandon and spends time with her two sons and many friends.

Right: This back garden patio graced the wedding of her son and daughter-in-law a few years ago.



Below: Knockout roses, blue salvia, cosmos, snowbushs and chartreuse ornamental sweet potatoes surround the front lawn with traffic stopping color.

Now's the time to...
Give you some of Ernestine Stevens' other garden tips...

  • She stuck the resurrection fern to her tree trunks with bubble gum.
  • Her well pump was a bit unsightly in the front yard, so she bought a charming doghouse and put it over the well workings. It is easy to move if necessary.
  • When her pots of impatiens get leggy, she cuts them back to about 6 inches, adds some more rich organic matter or potting soil to the pots, gives them a shot of Miracle-Gro and has them blooming again in a few weeks, some of her pots have been blooming for four years.