Saturday, May 26, 2018
Home and Garden

From house to high-rise — a legendary Tampa gardener downsizes

Norma Bean and her magical woodland garden of award-winning roses and begonias, mossy birdbath planters and smirking vintage cat statues became legend among Tampa gardeners.

They got national attention, too. In 2002, HGTV featured Norma's garden on its popular A Gardener's Diary show (1995-2007). Magazines devoted glossy photo spreads to it. Garden tour coordinators clamored to add 417 S Paloma Place to their itineraries.

But, to every thing, there is a season.

A couple of years ago, Norma's kids began to gently pester her about downsizing. She had been living alone in her Georgian-style Beach Park home since 2004, when her husband, George Bean, longtime director of Tampa International Airport, passed away.

"It was time," says Norma, 78, from her new fourth-floor condominium in Hyde Park. "Moving was traumatic after 30-some years, but I love it here."

It has been a year since she gave away hundreds of potted plants, her whimsical birdbath creations and cuttings from her glorious angel's trumpet trees. And now, finally, she has a handle on shrinking more than a thousand square feet of flora onto a 180-square-foot balcony subject to conditions she never imagined.

"I've had to learn gardening all over again," says the former master gardener, a trim woman with a sporty salt-and-pepper 'do, chic fashion sense and decidedly down-to-earth personality.

"I didn't realize how windy it would get on the fourth floor. At first, I tried to do a Mediterranean-style garden to match the architecture here. That was a disaster! And plants I like to grow — pansies, petunias, lavender — didn't do well. They dry out so fast, so you keep watering them and the roots rot!"

Add to that, Norma's an artist with a discerning eye for composition. In a small space, that means constant, often painful, editing.

"I love buying plants," she sighs.

Her solution? Succulents. Plants that store water in their leaves or stems don't sulk if the soil dries out.

"They're my new obsession," she says. "Water every two weeks, and it's easy to start new ones — I just snip off a leaf or stem, poke a hole in the dirt and stick it in."

Flapjacks (kalanchoe), jade and enormous bloom-shaped echeverria varieties give her containers their "thriller" centerpieces. She uses sedums and smaller echeverrias for "filler," and "spillers," including string of pearls and burro's tail, cascade over the sides.

She brought nine cobalt-blue glazed containers from her old garden and fills the largest of them with plastic foam packing peanuts topped with a few inches of cactus potting mix. That's plenty of soil for succulents, which don't have deep roots, and the pots are light enough for her to move around. They're also cheaper to fill.

Next, she had to find the right containers to complement both the succulents and the blue pots.

"You can have a beautiful plant and if you put it in the wrong pot, it won't work aesthetically," she says. "Clay (terra-cotta) is all right if it's old and green looking, but it dries out more quickly."

Hypertufa pots, made from Portland cement, peat and perlite, have the rugged look of weathered stone and can be made into almost any shape.

"I'm in love with hypertufa pots!" says Norma, who buys most of hers at Bloom Garden Shop in South Tampa.

She added wire flower boxes to the balcony rails for more space. The plants face inward because "no one on the street is going to appreciate them as much as me." An ancient stone table and matching benches, given to her years ago by a neighbor in her 90s who was downsizing, hold more containers.

At the end of her long, narrow balcony, two tall Italian cypresses — survivors of her failed Mediterranean garden — flank a fuchsia bougainvillea, creating a striking focal point.

For now, Norma's satisfied.

"I have my coffee out here in the morning, do my gardening in the afternoon when the sun is on the other side, and a glass of wine in the evening."

As for her old garden, memories abound. Two of the more than 100 begonias she once had now thrive on her bathtub shelf. The 5-foot Victorian parlor palm grown from a cutting her mother-in-law brought her from Cuba decades ago holds a place of honor in the living room. Pressed pansy petals decorate a tabletop.

Back in Beach Park, Norma's legendary garden is no more.

"I got a note from the people who bought my house, apologizing for taking out a lot of the plants," she says. "They said it just wasn't them.

"No, I'm not at all bothered. That's their house now. I've moved on!"

Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; visit her blog,; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @Diggin Penny.