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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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A Florida garden that feels like a Mississippi farm

Nancy Pickens’ home has a white crape myrtle tree blooming over the roof near the front door, bird feeders all around, ornamental grasses and bananas. It has great curb appeal, but when we went around to the side and under the trellis covered with blooming passion flowers, I was really hooked.

Looking up from under the leaves, we found many white caterpillars with black dots and black predators, the larvae of the zebra longwing butterfly. These I had seen a few times before, but never in such abundance.

Also, there were many orange caterpillars with black spots and hairlike spines. I knew I’d seen them in my butterfly book, and we guessed right that they would soon be gulf fritillary butterflies — orange with black spots and silver markings on their undersides.

At the gate to the back garden, there was a plant I’ve wanted for a year and not found, the giant milkweed. She had two,and they were small trees. Nancy said she had bought three plants for $20 apiece and they all died. Then a friend gave her a cutting, and this is the result. Her backyard is her treasure, with a brown picket fence for her two Schnauzer dogs, Winston and Walle, some shade and some sun, many lovely plants and sitting areas, and enough tables to serve a crowd.

This lady grew up on a farm in Mississippi and learned her gardening from her grandmother and her dad. She also learned how to build things. She had some help sinking the large poles, but after that she built her trellises, room-size pergola and even an outdoor shower room by herself.

Several places along the paths, we stepped on black circles with square holes in the center. Those I did not recognize until she told me they came from her father’s disc, the farm implement pulled behind the tractor that breaks up the soil between the plowing and planting.

On the side of the Nancy’s present house is a large hole belonging to a gopher tortoise. We didn’t see him, but I did notice the two small cattle troughs. She bought them and was going to plant something in them and still may, but for the moment they are upside down with a pot of plumeria on top. Distinctive and creative, they plucked the strings of my heart. Both of us grew up on farms and loved them.

Many kinds of wind chimes also grace this garden.

Nancy is an operating room nurse. The stress of her work is balanced by the peace of her garden. Just thinking of it makes me feel good. I came home with cuttings of the giant milkweed that have since rooted and a bag full of milkweed caterpillars that have already gone into chrysalis and come out as butterflies. I guess I have the best job in the world. Praise God and thanks to so many who share their gardens.

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Today’s pick is the native seagrape. Nancy had two on the far side of the house in full sun and one in the back in partial shade. They tend to stay shrubs in our area but can grow to 30 feet on the coast. When we first visited Florida as tourists, these huge, unusual leaves fascinated me. They still do.

The fruit is edible as is or in jelly. It’s a bit tart. Take a bucket when you go to the beach in late summer or fall and hold it under the grape bunches. Comb lightly with your fingers and the ripe fruit will fall. Leave the green ones to ripen later.

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Now’s the time to ... watch those ripening pineapples so you get them before the wildlife. Enjoy all the butterflies. Pull out any invasive vines as much as you can. The nasty skunk vine is blooming with its lovely white and rose flowers, but don’t let them go to seed. Pull them down with a rake if they are high and put them in the trash, not the compost.

Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 11 gardening books who can be reached at [email protected] Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.

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