Merchandising in the garden? Don't discount the value

It's amazing what a career at Walmart can do for your garden design skills. Save money, live better. Indeed!

Peter Peck of Valrico is the friendly "customer is always right" manager of the Bloomingdale Walmart, which earlier this week was named the chain's Store of the Year for Florida. It also happens to house the third best-selling Walmart garden center in the state. Coincidence? I think not.

His wife of 34 years, Betty, is at the store all the time, supplying books, magazines and CDs for her employer, Anderson Merchandisers.

Together, they've completely redesigned their shady backyard garden in the St. Cloud Oaks neighborhood. Now, from wherever you look, the view is a visual merchandising dream: impatiens, Cordylines and Stromanthe sanguinea 'Triostar' illuminate the "strike zone" — retail speak for the spot where customers pause and look around after coming through the door.

The leafy canopy overhead creates a dappled ceiling with lines that sweep down arching tree trunks and a jasmine-covered fence into a bed of walking irises, crinum lilies and purple queen. At Walmart, that's called "framing it out."

Peter points to strategically placed 10-foot-tall lumber posts, "trees" hung with containers of geraniums and petunias or topped with rustic birdhouses handmade in North Carolina. "I position for focal points," he says.

Adds Betty, whose other passion is designing stamped greeting cards, "We've always kept a nice yard, but this has been the most like artwork."

About two years ago, the couple pulled out ferns, overgrown azaleas, philodendrons and a coral snake to start their backyard anew. The first step was installing a 120-foot-long, 4-foot-wide brick path. Peter did all the digging — "When you're in retail, it's good to work off some stress." But he happily paid someone else to lay the bricks.

They bought a book, Easy Gardens for South Florida by Pamela Crawford (Serendipity! That was my first gardening bible), and learned the shades of difference: light, dense, mixed and filtered. Peter started migrating truckloads of rocks and old statuary from Betty's childhood home in Plant City. Many had originally belonged to her grandmother, Betty Mike, who moved there 75 years ago, and were handed down to her parents, Bill and Mary Herold. All three have passed away but live on in the Pecks' garden.

Betty Peck started the yesterday, today and tomorrow bush, Brunfelsia latifolia, from cuttings snipped off her dad's plant. Peter didn't want it. Too small, he complained.

"The first time it got a bloom, he was like a kid at Christmas," Betty says, just a little smug.

The gardenia bush was a 50th birthday present from her dad. It got its first bloom on her 51st birthday.

Decades-old stone benches, statues of Harvey the Rabbit and Goose, and mammoth birdbaths, all came from Grandma. Watching over it all from a pedestal in the center of the garden is a graceful young girl.

"That's Mary," Peter says, referring to Betty's mom. "She's looking out for us."

The Pecks' first Cordyline, a red ti, was a gift from Mary nine years ago. Peter and Betty fell in love with the magenta and hot pink leaves, so the tis have proliferated. They're one of 20 species in the tropical Cordyline genus, and the Pecks have added another, Black Magic, Cordyline fruticosa. It's a large shrub, about 5 feet across, with leaves several inches wide that shimmer with hues of near black, forest green and deep pink.

If you (like me) figured "tropical" means sun-loving and if you (like me) could never understand why your red tis always looked terrible, we finally have the answer. In the rainforest, they grow beneath a high canopy of leaves. They don't get a lot of direct sun or even intense heat there. A garden of mostly dappled light, like the Pecks', is their happy place. Another tip: The Pecks cut theirs back every year so they'll stay full and bushy.

Their first Black Magic came from a roadside vegetable stand in Dover. Which brings us to their favorite price rollback: mom-and-pop nurseries tucked away along the back roads of eastern Hillsborough County, particularly Plant City.

"There are a lot of nurseries that don't advertise and they're dirt cheap," Betty says. "They're local mom-and-pop growers. Some are little and some are quite big. You just have to drive the back roads and look for them."

Of course, the Pecks shop at Walmart, too. That's where they found their peace lilies, Spathiphyllum. For us sunny gardeners, peace lilies are houseplants, but in the shady garden, they create an impressive display. The Pecks planted them en masse and now have dozens of cupped white blooms doing the queen's wave.

Starting over at the home they've lived in for 13 years was a lot like building a new Walmart, Peter says.

"I helped build the Valrico store in 2002. It was a blank canvas; you have a cement floor, empty walls. You have to create everything," he says.

"It's not so different starting a garden from scratch. You want to create strike points that catch the eye and visual vignettes. You think about color, texture, height, light.

"The difference in the garden is, it's infused with Mother Nature. It helps you relax and refresh."

And there's no price match for that.

Reach Penny Carnathan at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com. Check out more Florida gardening photos and stories on her blog, digginfladirt.com, or chat with other local gardeners at www.facebook.com/digginfloridadirt.

Merchandising in the garden? Don't discount the value

03/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 15, 2012 5:30am]

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