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For a masterpiece garden, borrow from the artist's toolbox

Step out in your garden, make a frame with your hands, and look through it like you're looking at a painting in your living room.

Does it make you smile — or make you want to post a curb alert on Craigslist and hope someone carts it away?

It got me outside Memorial Day morning, digging up eight bedraggled plumbagos encircling, and swallowing, a young cassia tree. Now through my frame, I can see the cassia and the beautiful angel's trumpet tree and yellow-flowering thryallis beyond. I even rediscovered a beloved little birdbath!

Artist Kathi Hobbs would have painted those plumbagos out of the picture long ago.

"When I don't like how it looks, it goes," says the popular longtime local art instructor.

She and husband Michael Nussbaum tend a Lutz half-acre imbued with all the qualities of fine art: Lines draw the eye from one surprise to the next, to views and vignettes that delight the mind and calm the soul.

A neatly trimmed hedge teases at a view of the front beds while coyly hiding a dramatic vista of dozens of blooming peace lilies. Thousands of bright green, crimson-streaked bromeliads provide a backdrop for purple duranta, burgundy and fuschia cordyline and blush caladiums. Tall shell gingers drip clusters of glossy white, rouge-tipped buds.

When Kathi moved into this home 14 years ago — sans Michael, who came along later — it looked like a shoebox medical clinic, she says, with a few trees and some limp shrubs hastily planted to enhance the listing's curb appeal.

Presented with what was essentially a blank canvas, she began to paint.

"I look at composition, just like I would a painting," she says. "I look at contrast, depth, line and design, texture. I think of structure and softness."

She doesn't like the "fluffy" look of a jumbly cottage garden but, as she tells her art students, there is no right or wrong when it comes to what appeals to you. Heck, that's what art's all about!

"Composition is the whole thing — your hardscape (paths, patios, etc.) and how you group your plants," she says. "I plant lots of a single variety together for visual impact. The biggest mistake people make is planting one thing here and one thing there."

She's unabashedly cheap, so her favorite plants are those that propagate easily.

"I can't remember even buying a bromeliad," she says. "All the Spathiphyllums (peace lilies) came from five originals."

Create focal points that draw the eyes, she suggests.

"If you paint a seascape, at first it's just a line where the sky meets the water. Your eye zips across it. So you add a sailboat. And a palm tree. The verticals are punctuation marks that make your eye pause."

And don't be afraid to take a spin on the color wheel.

Colors directly opposite one another on the wheel, like red and green, are high contrast and complementary.

"Plant red and green together and the red looks redder and the green looks greener. The red comes forward and the green gives it a shove," Kathi says.

To give all those colors an even bigger boost, she painted her home a neutral beige — the perfect foil, she says, for her garden's reds and greens and purples. The house's white trim echoes throughout the beds, in the swaying peace lily blooms, chubby gardenia flowers and patches of white caladiums.

That provides continuity, Kathi says.

Of course, great art is packed with symbolism, and so is Kathi and Michael's garden, including round beds whose circles denote family — between them, the two have seven kids and a slew of grandkids.

Several ornamental bird cages, all painted white and holding birdseed, dangle from a tree outside the window where the couple sip their morning coffee. The cages are picture perfect, functional bird-feeders and a daily reminder to Kathi to let her imagination take wing.

The cage doors stay open, she points out. "Birds symbolize freedom," she says. "And with these cages, they're always free."

Reach Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Read more local gardening on her blog, www.digginfladirt; join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt, and follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.

For a masterpiece garden, borrow from the artist's toolbox 05/29/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2014 8:38pm]

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