Friday, May 25, 2018
Home and Garden

National photographer zooms in on Tampa's overlooked gardens

We complain a lot about our challenges: Hurricanes and heat, sand and nematodes, drought, monsoons and random freezes. Despite our very well-warranted whines, in your heart of hearts, do you truly believe they've got it easier up North? In snow? How about Georgia clay? The desert?

I didn't. Apparently, I was wrong!

"I look at the national publications and you don't ever see Florida gardens because you have such a difficult climate," says photographer Jerry Pavia. He shoots plants all over the globe for top publishing houses like Timber Press, Taunton and Abbeville Press (his 17th book should be out later this year). He also shoots for magazines, including one of my favorites, Fine Gardening.

"Your plants are so untypical."

Thanks to Jerry and 27 local gardeners — and Tampa Garden Club president Virginia Green, who worked hard to help connect many of them — we may finally get our national cameo next year.

Earlier this month, Jerry created a flurry of excitement when he flew in from Bali to shoot for Container Gardening, a popular annual magazine from Harris Publications. The 2012 edition is just showing up on shelves and 220 of the photos in it are Jerry's.

For the 2013 edition, he dug in here for about 10 days, following the light from South Tampa to Plant City. "Virginia was wonderful," he says. "She even gave me maps."

Jerry found something to love in every garden he visited, and though he focused on containers, that wasn't all he shot.

"It was a real compliment to me when he said he wanted to take my entire garden," says Becky Savitz of Palma Ceia, whose formal English beds of boxwoods and roses include hollyhocks, snapdragons, zinnias and containers she hand-decorates in the French mosaic style pique assiette.

She was as impressed by the laid-back photographer from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, as he was by her greenhouse full of seedlings and cuttings.

"When somebody loves gardening, it's just a different breed of person; I liked him immediately," she says. "I love that he's going to include Florida in a national magazine. All these gardening books and magazines that come out, they really don't pertain to zone 10."

Jerry liked Becky's china-trimmed pots, and her approach to gardening, she says.

"I really love to grow from seed, to see a plant through from start to finish. I think that's what he enjoyed."

(Note to Becky: You're right.)

By the way, she gardens May to October at her summer home in Cashiers, N.C. And she says yes, it's a lot easier there.

On the other side of the county, Plant City's Bill Carr got not one but two visits from Jerry, who shot bromeliads and tropicals flanking paths that wind through Bill's 2/3-acre garden.

He's been planting for 50 years coast to coast across the South and regularly hosts garden club tours, so he wasn't at all nervous about a discerning guest dropping by.

"At my age, President Obama could visit and I wouldn't be the least bit intimidated," he says. "I didn't spend the weekend cleaning up; I found that makes little difference on the things a photographer sees."

But — "It was nice to get a pro's opinion. If I'm selected for an article, of course I'd be pleased, but if it doesn't happen, it was a good experience."

Jerry says he'll edit his photos and submit the best to Container Gardening, which makes the final selection. He's visiting nine other locales, from Louisiana to Connecticut to southern British Columbia, so who knows which of our photos will make the cut? (He plans to offer the extras he shot to other publications, so we do have some second chances.)

He'll send all of the gardeners a CD of their photos and, if they're featured in the magazine, he'll mail them a copy.

Among other highlights he noted midway through his visit: Rick Miller of Hyde Park, who finds interesting ways to display his containers of tropicals, including dangling them from his children's old swingset; Carole Guyton of Davis Islands who incorporates a wall of windows into her design — "Her potting shed was terrific," he said; — and the Bricks of Ybor restaurant, where Chef Josh Poticha grows tomatoes, peppers and herbs on the roof for use in the kitchen.

Back home in Bonners Ferry, population 2,543, Jerry's president of the community garden, enjoys pulling weeds and drives a 1985 Mercedes fueled by used vegetable oil he gets free from restaurants.

"I learn so much about myself when I'm putting a plant in the ground or getting frustrated pulling crabgrass," he says. "Gardening's a wonderful hobby; a tool to learn about ourselves. I've never met a nasty gardener because they're all under the influence — of plants.

"The more we get the word out, the more people will garden and the better our planet will be."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at [email protected] Find more Tampa Bay garden stories on her blog,, or join in local garden chat at