Sandy Wilkes got her first clue something was amiss soon after she moved to Tampa.
"It was July. I went to a nursery to buy pansies and they told me, 'It's summer! We don't get those in the summertime,' '' she recalls.
Well, shoot. Pansies were a summer staple back in Pittsburgh.
Her beloved daffodils were confused, too. She tried putting the bulbs in the refrigerator to remind them of frigid Decembers, but they may as well have been rocks for all the life they showed.
Eventually, Sandy stumbled upon amaryllis and daylilies as Florida substitutes for the bulbs she'd enjoyed up North. Crape myrtles, she found, worked as a stand-in for lilacs, at least to look at. And the fragrant white blooms of nun's orchid allowed her to stop pining for lily of the valley.
Twenty-six years later, she and husband, Alan, enjoy a back yard overlooking a pond in Country Place subdivision with a Florida-friendly bounty of color and surprises. Alan supplies muscle when asked, but otherwise, he prefers watching the History channel to doing yard work. For garden help, Sandy has her mom, 91-year-old Claire Hetz, a lifelong gardener who can still beat the most stubborn weeds in a tug-of-war and get cuttings to root with just a few loving looks.
In a shady bed, they have six varieties of ginger, which take turns starring at different times of the year. At the moment, blue ginger is putting on a spectacular show.
"It just comes up in the fall. I forget it's there, and then one day it's blooming," Sandy says. "It's like an old friend that comes to visit for a little while, then goes away."
Same with the bulbs, including caladiums her youngest son, now 27, brought home in little pots from school for Mother's Day in first, second and third grades. They're showing their age but, like the maple tree that served for years as second base for her four boys, Sandy relishes plants with a story almost as much as those she forgets about.
She says her learning curve took a sharp new trajectory 13 years ago, when she joined the Fern Garden Club of Odessa.
"That's where I learned basic Florida gardening," she says. "We had all the old-time gardeners, people who had acres and acres of land. We would get the pass-alongs (hearty local heirloom plants) from them. That was instrumental."
The chit-chat at meetings, the speakers, the annual propagation blitz in preparation for the fall plant sale – it all got Sandy so charged up, she and her mother started replacing the old baseball field with flowers. Today, the sunny central "island" has red powderpuff and blood lilies, walking irises, snow-on-the-mountain, shooting star clerodendrum, bromeliads and crinum lilies ringed by giant liriope. From an aging golden raindrop tree hang two large staghorn ferns. A young redbud tree promises pink spring blossoms.
Coral honeysuckle and miniature roses climb a trellis near the pond, and vigorous blue glory and bleeding heart vines are working hard to cover a side fence.
Years of allowing oak leaves to lie where they fall has enriched her once sandy soil, so Sandy fertilizes only with Osmocote slow-release granules, and only when she plants. And she tries to find plants that aren't especially thirsty to minimize time spent watering.
Her garden, she says, is her passion. It's therapy for when she's frustrated; a little time spent working among the flowers and her blood pressure drops. And the surprises, like those blue ginger blooms, never fail to delight her.
But she still misses Pittsburgh. "I'd go back there tomorrow."
For some things, there's just no substitute.
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