Apparently, I haven't been stimulating the economy near enough the last couple of years. If I had, I surely would have noticed what's been going on at the Plaza at Citrus Park.
Last weekend, I took a long-overdue trip to the shopping center across the street from Westfield Citrus Park to pick up some tennis shoes. I almost didn't make it. The eye-popping landscaping at the entrance made me hit the brakes — which the guy behind me wasn't expecting.
The entrance exploded with color: Crimson caladiums, lime-green foxtail ferns, hot-pink pentas went on and on along the driveway into the parking lot. The combinations of Florida-friendly colors and textures was pure genius; these were flower beds I'd be more than proud to have at home, full of plants I'd never think to put together in just that way.
This — at a strip shopping center?
"We want you to go in there and feel good," says Doug Fischer, property manager of the plaza owned by Kimco Realty. "We don't want green and boring."
A landscape renovation has been under way for two years at this shopping center and others owned or operated by Kimco, including Mission Bell (Lowe's) and Carrollwood Commons (Target) on N Dale Mabry Highway and Westgate Plaza (Publix) on Anderson Road.
"We've been doing it in phases, as the budget allows," Doug says. "We still have about $150,000 worth of work at Citrus Park, all the interior parking lot islands."
It has got to be impossible to calculate a return on that kind of investment. Which is why I'm especially grateful when businesses make the effort to color our paved, commercial lives with natural beauty.
Not long ago, the sight of dozens of agapanthus in bloom at Grow Financial Credit Union on Sheldon Road made me pull in for a closer look. And I've written before about how much I appreciate the wildflowers, Chickasaw plum trees and Walter's viburnum planted by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise along the Veterans Expressway/Suncoast Parkway.
So what's motivating Kimco? Is it really just for us?
Basically, yes, Doug says.
"It's a feel-good signature look," he says. "When you come to a Kimco plaza, you're going to know that's a Kimco property."
The men primarily responsible are Doug and landscape designer Phil Shriver. They've been working together for years, undertaking a similar program for another company before Doug came to Kimco two years ago.
"We're always in search of something new," Doug says. "Especially ground covers — things that don't need mulch."
You know those beautiful chartreuse and purple sweet potato vines we see a lot of at businesses and homes (including mine)?
"When Phil and I began, we were the first to use those," Doug says. "That was 12, 15 years ago. Nobody was using it. Suddenly, everyone's using it!"
He likes ground covers and crowding beds with large plants — 5-gallon pots — to help reduce the need for mulch.
Mulch is expensive; you can spend up to $20,000 a year on it at a shopping center the size of Citrus Park, he says.
"And what do you get? Islands covered with brown mulch. We take the money we save on mulch and spend it on bigger plants that look like they've been there awhile."
Proper trimming, creating a tiered effect using plants of different heights, and using annuals to add even more color are a few of their other tricks.
And those marvelous plant combinations? They're mostly homegrown.
"That's all I do on the weekends. You should see my front yard," says Doug, who lives in Sarasota. "I get more people coming to the front door asking who does my gardening. I experiment with different plants to see what I want to use in my centers."
Apparently, I wasn't the first to notice the new look at the Citrus Park shopping center. The tenants love it, and patrons have telephoned their thanks, even sending photos of plants to request IDs.
"Our competitor across the street is already trying to copy us," Doug says, referring to the Westfield mall. "It's a compliment.
"But theirs doesn't look the same. I don't think anybody can do what we do."
I'm guessing he's right.
Penny Carnathan can be reached at email@example.com. Find more local garden stories on her blog, www.digginfladirt, or join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt.