Mermaids and tropicals enchant Weeki Wachee area gardens

Among the gnomes and whirligigs and rusted appliances-turned-yard art in our gardens, some of us have mermaids.

Guilty!

For no good reason, I'm drawn to sculptures of topless women with scales and tails. I'd like to say it's because I've known a few personally. Or because they're neighborhood fixtures, like the peacocks around my house. But I'd be lying.

Not so the many gardeners who live along and around Weeki Wachee River in Hernando County. Paddle down the clear, spring-fed river and you'll see one eclectic Southern-style cottage garden after another teeming with bright tropical plants and — mermaids.

They gaze from boat docks and pose seductively among the pentas. There's a life-sized siren with real (sort of) long blond hair who's stretched out like a cat on the riverbank; rustic stone mermaids; cartoonish garden flag mermaids; mermaid window decals.

"Many of the longtime residents know one or more former mermaids, so they have that attachment," explains Linda Roderick, who has lived in Weeki Wachee Gardens with her husband, Larry, and son, Morgan, since 1992.

The neighborhood flanks the river about 5 miles west of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Its 66 years of world-famous mermaid (and mermen) performances have included many high school students and young women from the rural community.

Then there are those other mermaids — the chubby ones with whiskers, wrinkles and, too often, scars from motorboat propellers. The river is home to lots of manatees, which have been mistaken for mermaids for as long as there have been sailors.

"Not half as beautiful as they are painted," a disappointed Christopher Columbus reportedly opined in 1493.

In the Rodericks' garden on Patterson Drive, a copper mermaid weather vane tops the gazebo. And it's Linda and Larry we can thank for the sultry riverbank blond, a Homer-esque siren calculated to make motor-boaters SLOW DOWN for the poor manatees.

Weeki Wachee is about an hour north of Tampa. The community, a favorite weekend getaway for generations of Tampa Bay area families, enjoys protection from heat and cold extremes, thanks to the river, the huge old trees and its proximity to the gulf.

Gardeners here love their mermaids — and their tropicals.

"A lot of plants that you'd expect would freeze up here actually do just fine by the water," says Mitch Armstrong of Mitch Armstrong Nursery, a Palmetto plant vendor and popular fixture at garden festivals around the state.

Mitch and Annie Sprague, his business partner, introduced me to Linda, Larry and this enchanted community. The four plant lovers have been working together for more than a year to create a floral oasis around the Rodericks' rental cabin across the street from their mermaid-bedecked home.

When Linda and Larry bought the rental property in 2011, it was a rundown mobile home with a barren yard that doubled as a parking lot for neighboring Rogers Park. The couple took the trailer down to studs and transformed it; today it's an immaculate, well-appointed cabin with a shady back porch, a floating dock and a stack of kayaks for guests.

"Mitch and I were looking for a place to get away, but we couldn't be too far from our plants for too long," says Annie, who lives in St. Petersburg. "We found this cabin on VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) and fell in love with it, and with Linda and Larry."

So began an odyssey; four fast friends and knowledgeable plant lovers all in love with a yard in need of love. Larry and Linda cleared dead trees and planted cosmos, rose bushes, cypress trees and bromeliads. Mitch and Annie, who specialize in rare tropicals and butterfly plants, drove up with popcorn and candlestick cassias, the most weeping bottlebrush tree hybrid on the market (Boyette — born in Sarasota), and heavenly fragrant night-blooming jasmine.

Their guiding principles?

Think about the different seasons and what will be blooming during each, they say.

Be aware that, in Florida, you can't assume that a plant won't do well because you're in a particular zone.

"I've lived in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, and I've learned that, in this region, you have to adapt to the conditions in your little microclimate," Linda says.

If you like to sit outside in the evening, consider night bloomers.

"The problem is, most people buy plants during the day — when the night bloomers aren't showing their stuff," Annie says. "Do some research before you shop so you don't buy based on what the plant looks like at noon."

As for garden themes? Don't feel locked in to what's popular locally, Linda says.

Her rental cabin is all bear, moose and deer. "But you never know," she says. "A mermaid might show up there."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Read more local garden stories on her blog, digginfladirt.com, join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida, and follow her @DigginPenny on Twitter.

>> if you go

Mitch Armstrong Nursery

Mitch Armstrong and Annie Sprague specialize in rare tropicals and hardy Florida butterfly plants. They sell at markets and plant fairs. You can find their schedule and learn more about their plants at heyplantman.blogspot.com or call (727) 542-9951.

Upcoming events

• Saturday, Saturday Morning Market, at First Avenue S and First Street SE, St. Petersburg. (saturdaymorningmarket.com).

• Today through Sunday, fall plant show at Tropiflora Nursery, 3530 Tallevast Road in Sarasota (tropiflora.com).

• Oct. 9, Phillippi Farmhouse Market, 5500 S Tamiami Trail,

Sarasota (farmhousemarket.org).

Mermaids and tropicals enchant Weeki Wachee area gardens 10/02/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:52pm]

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