If you can spit into your neighbor's yard from your back porch — not that you would, of course — you probably live in a Florida subdivision.
Shrinking yards and zero lot lines became the norm during our housing booms, making the 6-foot privacy fence as ubiquitous as podocarpus hedges back in the day.
But fencing wasn't an option for Charlie and Barbara Majeski when they bought the first house built on Tamarron Terrace in Palm Harbor's Falcon Ridge subdivision 28 years ago.
"I really did not want to see my neighbor in the back, but she didn't like fences, so we didn't put one up," says Barbara, whose patio ends just 20 feet from where her neighbor's back yard begins.
Instead, Charlie deposited three small boulders in their little strip of treeless lawn. When his brother-in-law asked about them during a family get-together, Charlie explained.
"I'm gonna build a rock garden."
Five years and zero progress later, his helpful in-law again took note of the three stones.
"Love your rock garden," he said. "Looking really great!"
By then, Charlie, a master baker and cake decorator, was 50. The year was 1994.
"I figured I'd better get started on it, or I'd be too old to get it done," he says.
Today, step onto the Majeskis' screened back patio and you'll see a Caribbean-style waterfall and pond surrounded by lush tropical plants — a garden that, for all anyone can tell, just might extend for acres. It's an optical illusion derived, in part, from Charlie's skills as a confectionery artist. Also evident: undertones of Yankee ingenuity (he's from New York), influences of hand-me-down gardening know-how (Mom) and endorsement of cow poop as one terrific fertilizer.
The Majeskis' neighborhood was built on a cow pasture.
"All those cows … the dirt is black and it goes down 2 feet or more," Charlie says.
When plants go in that soil, they mainline nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potassium, plus, cow manure helps hold in other nutrients. That's some good — um — stuff!
So the Majeskis have firecracker trees instead of bushes; mammoth Indian Hawthorne shrubs (Charlie's favorite for its beauty and durability); and a towering gardenia. Many of them came from Charlie's mom, a diehard gardener who shared her knowledge, passion and plants with her son.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. It started with three rocks.
After his bro-in-law's jab, Charlie started collecting. Thanks to a nephew with a garden-supply business, he was able to buy Florida coral rocks at a great price. Still, it took him a year to stockpile what he needed — 4 tons. And then he got down to business.
First, he shoveled out a 22-foot-long, kidney-shaped pond, about 5 feet across at its widest, right in front the patio. He dug in cinder blocks around most of the perimeter to establish a form and laid tar paper over the bottom and sides. Over that, he laid metal mesh used for plastering. Finally, he applied three tiered layers of fiberglass-reinforced concrete, adding flourishes like scalloped edges to make it look more natural.
"He looked exactly like he was putting icing on a cake," Barbara says. "He even used the same tools."
The dirt excavated from the pond helped build up the area behind it to add height and visual interest to the future landscaping that would flank the future falls — much like a wedding cake.
"The waterfall started with cinder blocks," he says. He threaded rebar through the blocks, planting everything securely in the ground, and cemented the rebar in place by pouring stones and concrete into the blocks' openings.
Around the edges of the pond and on the waterfall, he added the rocks he'd collected, covering the block. Some of the rocks are held in place with concrete; others are loose, to allow for rearranging.
The construction took just two weeks; tweaking and planting goes on and on.
Today, the view from the Majeskis' back patio is a naturalized 65-foot-wide landscape with 6 tons of coral stone around which grow rich foliage, including two trees that — if not for that great soil — would have been shrubs.
"We love sitting out here," says Barbara, a professional assisted-living caregiver.
"When that waterfall comes on, whatever problems you have go away.
Reach Penny Carnathan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about local gardening on her blog, www.digginfladirt.com or join in the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow her on Twitter, @DigginPenny.