TAMPA — Lisa Strange understands the value of water. When she was first married, Strange and her husband lived on a sailboat for four years, circumnavigating the Caribbean "where we visited Third World countries where water was shipped in on barges."
Hauling water to fill their boat's tanks could take a whole day, she recalls, "so I know how precious water is."
Strange, who jokes that she lived her life "backwards" went back to school as an adult, earning a bachelor's degree in environmental horticulture from Florida Southern College and a master's degree from the University of South Florida in adult education.
She now does what she loves best: teach people how to landscape their property with an eye on Florida's environmental issues.
As the director of Community Association Outreach in conjunction with the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program, Strange educates homeowners associations, condominium boards, property managers — even lawn services — about Florida-friendly landscaping principles. The program, which Strange oversees in Hillsborough and Polk counties, is funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and both counties' boards of county commissioners.
"We want people to be educated and aware of how changes in landscape practices could protect the area's water resources," Strange explains. "You can maintain and have an attractive property and still reduce water and fertilizer use."
And she's determined to spread the message: She speaks at homeowner and condo association meetings and to community groups and visits neighborhoods in every corner of Tampa.
"I have all kinds of tips to save water, money, time and maintenance," says Strange, who gives advice on everything from micro irrigation to slow release fertilizers to appropriate ground cover plants.
She can also explain the pitfalls of St. Augustine grass — once the beloved darling of Florida communities — or tell why giving palm trees a drastic hurricane trim isn't such a good idea.
She takes pictures and offers design solutions as well as advice on the placement of plants. The service, free, comes with a written report and follow up visits.
First launched in Sarasota, the local program began in 2006 as a pilot project in Hillsborough, Polk, Pinellas and Pasco counties and is going strong, according to Strange.
"In Hillsborough County alone, there are between 1,200 and 1,500 registered homeowner associations and condominium associations," Strange notes. "And there are hundreds more that aren't even registered."
So far, she says, the response has been mostly good "with lots of success stories."
"I loved what she did for us," raves Kathy Spaulding, president of the Frances Arbor Homeowner's Association, a community of 115 homes in Temple Terrace.
Spaulding, a retired Verizon data processor who also wields an MBA, is a passionate Florida gardener and a member of the Temple Terrace Garden Club. She first learned about the program when she heard Strange speak at a two-day workshop at the Tampa Garden Center.
"I said 'Aha! She can really help us,' " recalls Spaulding who promptly invited Strange out to see the community and help them figure out how to replant two entrances.
Strange recommended plants that worked well in shade and sun including lantana, firecracker plant, coontie and Xanadu. She also advised Spaulding and her board on drip irrigation as well as which trees would work best flanking the entrance.
"Not only did she help us with the plants, she helped us learn how to prepare the soil," Spaulding recalls. "We took the soil 6 inches below the sidewalks and put in 3 inches of compost and 3 inches of mulch. That way, the mulch wouldn't float away in the rain."
The projects were split up over two years, punctuated by visits — and more advice — from Strange.
Says Spaulding: "We got wonderful ideas and it took all the guess work out of it. And the best part is: It was all free."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.