Euphorbia, petrea and more grow hardy in this gardener's hands, as do artistic pique assiette mosaics

For nail polish, Becky Savitz's grandma wore little black crescent moons of dirt. Always.

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"I loved her hands," Becky says. "I look at my own hands and they look so old, but they look like Grandma's. Her fingernails were always dirty. . . . What do your fingernails look like, Penny?"

I take a quick look to confirm. Yup, short and dirty. Definite evidence of rodentlike gnawing. For the first time in my life, I'm proud to say, "My fingernails look pretty nasty."

And that, in a nutshell, is the joy of a conversation with this belle of Tampa flora. A recognized gardening and artistic talent, Becky is down-home, with a gift for making everyone she talks to feel special.

Her South Tampa garden was a huge hit on last month's Earthly Paradise tour. Her North Carolina garden is a popular stop on the sellout Joy Garden Tour in Cashiers. Nationally renowned garden photographer Jerry Pavia stopped by recently to shoot her containers and ended up photographing her English-style beds, her art — everything.

It wasn't always thus, says this 63-year-old former Chamberlain High School math teacher.

"I had a personality change," she says. "I was an uptight, wound-up math major. Then I was diagnosed with Graves' disease."

The autoimmune disease affects the thyroid gland, which regulates, as Becky says, everything. It was discovered early — about the time her two daughters left home for college. The treatment, destroying her thyroid, resulted in a whole new Becky.

"I wasn't wound up tight anymore," she says. "It absolutely changed my life. I could smell the roses!"

That's when she became her grandma.

During the Earthly Paradise tour, Becky cheerfully held court in pink pants liberally sprinkled with embroidered strawberries. She's small, unadorned (except for the berries) and effervescent. Visitors gathered around her, sometimes in rows three deep, waiting to ask about the queen's wreath draped like designer scarves on the front of her house; her rows and rows of meticulously labeled cuttings; her stunning pique assiette mosaics.

For those who didn't get to ask the questions they wanted, here are a few of mine.

What was the most-often-asked question during the Rose Circle Garden Club's Earthly Paradise tour?

What is this plant?

The petrea (queen's wreath) — everybody wanted to know what it was. They loved the euphorbia (Diamond Frost), the white Floribunda Iceberg roses in the middle of the hybrid teas. The amaranthus, they're also called ponytail; mine are green and grown from seed.

That white petrea is really unusual. Where did you find it and more important — where can we find it?

My friend Marti Hirons, who taught me everything about gardening, the last summer she was alive, we went to GreenFest (the Friends of Plant Park's annual spring fundraiser). My house had been leveled and I was living in a rental house while we rebuilt. She saw that white petrea in a pot and she said, "You have to buy that, Becky. It's very hard to find. Plant it in the yard at the rental, then dig it up and take it when your house is rebuilt."

Sometimes those petreas take a while to bloom. She died in August 2007 and that very year, it bloomed.

Good luck finding one!

How did your garden get started?

When my daughters (Sallie, now 34, and Rebecca, 31) went off to college I replaced them with roses. I always loved the yard, but I didn't have much time for it until they went off to school. Then I got full-blown into roses.

Marty Hirons was my husband's first cousin. She became my mentor. She taught me garden design, amending the soil, checking the pH, how to grow things from seed. She dropped off books on my doorstep, stacks of them, and seed catalogs. We would sit around her table and pore over catalogs, ordering everything unusual that we couldn't find in the garden shops.

Every time I go out in my garden, I can hear her say, "Becky, use good dirt on that!"

Having a mentor's important.

You mentioned you like growing from seed. You have rows and rows of seedlings in your greenhouse but, oh my gosh, tons of Diamond Frost! Is that your favorite?

They don't sell the seed for that, it's patented. But you can make as many cuttings as you want legally. I probably root about 100 cuttings of it a year. It's light, airy, constantly blooming. I love the look of it. I use it in Florida and North Carolina.

The year it came out, Marti said, "We gotta get this." We got a flat and split it and I've never had to buy it since.

It's one of my favorites, but I don't have a favorite. I love 'em all.

When you leveled your house and rebuilt, you filled in the swimming pool and turned it into a garden. Did you have it filled with compost? Is that your secret?

No!! It was fill dirt! I've amended a lot over the years. I'm always putting stuff in. I love Black Kow (cow manure compost) and Milorganite and Mills Magic Rose Mix (sold online or at Shell's Feed Store on N Nebraska Avenue in Tampa.) Twice a year, I put about 2 cups around the drip line for each rosebush. I just love that stuff.

The other part of your garden that got oohs and aahs was your beautiful, pique assiette mosaics. It looks like you've covered everything that sits still with tiny bits of china. You're an artist, too!

Carole Guyton (of Davis Islands) is the other person who influenced me. She taught me where to go look for china that will work; what to look for; how much to pay; how to do it. I go to antique malls and look for china marked down because it's cracked or stained. Ebay's another good place. The best is friends who drop things off. You would not believe the wonderful things that appear on my doorstep!

This question comes from online gardening friends who saw pictures I posted of your art. They want to know: Do you sell it?

It's a very spiritual thing for me. I see it as God taking broken lives and putting them back together.

My grandmother left me chipped plates; I took those plates and put them on a plant stand. I think of her in heaven; she doesn't have an old broken up body anymore and there are her plates, all put back together.

No, I don't sell them. They are so time-consuming, I couldn't make it worth my while.

Between the gardening, the seeds and cuttings, and the millions of bits of china you turn into art, I'm mystified as to how you do it all. Do you sleep?

I think you might use the term obsessive-compulsive with me. Once I start, I cannot stop. I just get so into it.

I sleep seven hours a night.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com. Find more of her gardening stories at www.digginfladirt.com and join her and other local gardeners on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.

Euphorbia, petrea and more grow hardy in this gardener's hands, as do artistic pique assiette mosaics 05/17/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 5:30am]

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