There are plenty of spots for sitting in Wes and Faye Miller's Seminole Heights garden: century-old concrete benches salvaged from historic properties they've bought and sold, a shaded "dining room" by the outdoor kitchen, tiered landings overlooking the Hillsborough River.
Guests are welcome to take a load off anywhere. But don't expect the Millers to join you.
"It's really, really hard to just sit down," Wes says. "Every time I go out, I find something to do. It just goes on and on and on."
He isn't complaining, mind you. He and Faye love the hours they spend planting and pruning, designing and redesigning their quarter-acre of garden "rooms" connected by twisting paths and stone stairways. Faye rules the roses and can root just about anything. Wes enjoys the creative challenges, from snipping azaleas and bald cypress into bonsai sculptures to the big stuff — ponds and pergolas.
They settled into their home on Park Drive in 1999 after moving in and out of more than a dozen Tampa area houses over seven years — buy, renovate, rent out. In the process, they acquired old statuary, wrought iron burglar bars and those solid concrete benches that lend an air of permanence to their ever-changing landscape. Wes, 68, and Faye, 64, are both longtime gardeners, so they were anticipating the day they could establish roots.
"We'd visit a house to buy, and we'd look at the yard first," Wes says.
Then they found their real home.
"When we moved in here, it was a pretty nice yard, all landscaped with grass and sprinkler systems," Wes says. "We ripped out everything."
Because the soil is mostly sand, they've been adding compost, manure and mulch ever since. That can get pricey if you're buying by the bag at the local garden center. The Millers seek less expensive alternatives.
"That's part of the challenge — I'm not cheap, but I am frugal," Wes says.
So he drives out to the Falkenburg Road Yard Waste Processing Facility, 350 Falkenburg Road, towing a trailer behind his Prius to load up on truckloads of compost and mulch. It's cheap: $15 for up to 4 cubic yards of mulch on his last trip. But the facility, open 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, has no phone for that area of the complex. So you have to make the drive to find out what they've got on any given day. They had nothing when he went in October.
"They're getting more demand," Wes says. "That was the first time in five years they had no compost."
His adventures in frugality occasionally become misadventures — big ones.
Wes heard about a local equestrian center that would deliver its organic horse manure free to anyone willing to wait till it had enough to deliver. Wes called and, after a few weeks, the stables delivered — 10 cubic yards, a dump truck's worth — on his driveway.
"It took me a year and a half to use it up," he says. "I had some unhappy neighbors."
Mostly, though the Millers' frugal "guerrilla gardening" pays off. They have more than 50 garden boxes, Wes' low-cost version of the EarthBox, a self-contained, almost foolproof system for growing veggies. The boxes are everywhere, some with crowning heads of cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, spinach. They produce such an abundance of veggies, the Millers have plenty for friends.
(Wes offers classes on creating his gardening boxes, beginning bonsai and guerrilla gardening; email [email protected])
Tips? He says one of the biggest mistakes he sees is all about size.
"People don't visualize how big the plant will be at maturity, so they plant them too close together, or too close to the house."
And never think you know it all. He and Faye attend gardening classes about twice a month, driving as far as Sarasota if the topic looks good.
Planning? Not so much.
"We go with what feels right, what looks good."
Sitting down and enjoying the garden?
"At night, when you can't see everything that needs to be done. A glass of wine is nice. And a fire."
Just don't start wondering if the firepit might work better in another spot.
Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Penny, Wes and Faye recently co-hosted the Diggin Florida Dirt 2012 Plant Swap, a party of about 150 people. Check the pictures at digginfloridadirt.com. Chat with local gardeners at www.facebook.com/digginfladirt.