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Butterfly garden is more than a refuge

TAMPA — Robin Gravis knows what it's like to seek solace in a butterfly garden. Every morning, mug of coffee in hand and her calico cat, Cindy, at her side, she retreats to the little oasis she has created outside her condo off Manhattan Avenue.

It's a modest, but sweetly beautiful place that she dreamed up on a very tight budget. The brightly painted, chipped children's chairs were roadside finds, as was the broken terra-cotta pot she fashioned into a rustic bird bath.

"I love the days when people put their trash out on the curb. I love to pick things up off the road," says Gravis, 54.

The plants were gifts or bought for pennies, meant to attract visitors like spicebush swallowtails and monarchs.

What grows in her butterfly garden?

Lantana, red pentas, milkweed "and those plants that butterflies migrate to," she says.

Gravis, who also creates butterfly gardens for friends, family and acquaintances all around Tampa, recently launched a modest Web site, There's an inspirational quote from Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature: "The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has enough time."

There are also before-and-after photos of some of Gravis' gardens, as well as photos she has shot of some minute but exquisite details: a monarch perched on a painted green coffee can; cascades of pink flowers spilling over a white fence; a dragonfly perched on a delicate, bare branch.

Self-taught, she gleaned everything she knows from University of Florida extension service literature, various books and Web sites.

Gravis created her first garden four years ago as therapy while in a live-in rehabilitation program at Tampa Crossroads. She'll be the first to tell you that she's a recovering crack addict who once lived on the streets of Tampa and spent her fair share of time in the Hillsborough County Jail. She says she has been clean since the day she walked into a recovery program five years ago this Thanksgiving and that her road to a new life really started in a garden.

"The program was in a beautiful old Victorian house with plenty of space outside," Gravis recalls. "I asked if I could plant a butterfly garden and they said yes."

Her dream is to someday open a small garden center, a place where people could come to enjoy the beauty of a garden, drink good coffee, learn yoga or tai chi and take a pottery class.

She hopes to employ other women who have gone through the Tampa Crossroads recovery program.

"I want to be of service to others, to provide a miniretreat, a place where people can get in touch with themselves, nature, the planet and God," says Gravis, who grew up in St. Cloud and developed her love of gardening from helping out on her grandparents' small farm.

That dream, however, is years away. Right now money is tight. Gravis supports herself delivering pizza and doing yard work for people who need it. The butterfly gardens are a bonus when she's lucky enough to get a commission.

For now, her garden inspired others who see it: In addition to the plethora of butterfly plants, she grows gladiolas and roses and adorns the garden with her own gentle touches — a bird feeder, wind chimes with exactly eight chimes for good feng shui.

She loves to watch birds, insects, butterflies and caterpillars react to the heat of the day or a change in weather.

Says Gravis: "I know that I've created a place that's better than when I came here."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

Butterfly garden is more than a refuge 10/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 4:25pm]
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