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At home, Florida gardening power couple enjoys 'landscape lunacy'

My marriage has a no-compete clause: Plumber Ben handles pipes and all things cooking. I'm garden and anything requiring a log-in and password.

We both know what we don't know, which makes for a happy partnership.

So what happens when two University of Florida-educated horticulturists, both leaders in their fields, share a home garden?

"We don't argue," says Rick Brown, flashing an impish smile. "We discuss."

Rick owns Riverview Flower Farm, which fills Florida's Home Depots with annuals and perennials. He's all about sustainability — his farm has earned the Environmental Leadership Award from Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture — and he's a constant innovator, developing ingenious techniques and products for Florida-friendly gardening.

Sydney Park Brown's a titan as well. She taught a generation of master gardeners, more than 500, as Hillsborough County's horticulture extension agent, and co-authored two gardening books, among a gazillion other publications. Today, she's a UF associate professor and Consumer Horticulture Specialist.

Rick and Sydney don't have a no-compete clause. But after 30 years gardening together, going back to their days as UF students, they have it worked out. The proof bursts into view in a spring kaleidoscope of color at the end of their wooded driveway in Riverview: towering 7-foot pink Vietnamese hollyhocks, steroidal sunshine-yellow shrimp plants and a gigantic purple firespike firmly anchoring one corner.

Their pale gray Victorian-style home serves as sedate backdrop.

Gardenwise, Rick and Sydney say they're living large this year. Everything's unusually robust, maybe because of the mostly warm, wet winter and generally cool spring.

Which is lesson No. 1: Even experts like Rick and Sydney don't have a garden that always looks terrific, at least by their standards. Plants wax and wane. Weather and seasons can lift them up or smack 'em down.

Lesson No. 2: They usually have a beautiful garden anyway (or so I've been told by their many visitors) because they practice the principles they preach. Mostly. That also makes it low-maintenance.

"Our yard really doesn't demand much because we do 'right plant, right place,' '' Sydney says. "The problem is, there are just too many 'right plants' for each place."

Rick coughs a little, smiles and cuts a sidelong glance toward his wife.

"As the yard matures, we get more shade. We know better than to put a sun plant in shade but, sometimes, we do it anyway," he says.

"We're just like any other gardener," Sydney says. "We want to overcome by sheer will."

Which is why the sun-loving geraniums out back aren't blooming. Ahem.

That's okay — when you know the rules, you can play with them. Sydney calls it landscape lunacy, and a little crazy has resulted in some fun garden features.

Like Rick's striking bromeliad tree.

The trunk is heart of pine, the remains of one of the many trees that once blanketed their 6-acre lot. A couple years ago, Rick stuck it in the ground and began attaching colorful bromeliads.

It works so well because many bromeliads are epiphytes — they get their sustenance from the atmosphere and debris decaying in their cups. (That's from "Bromeliads at a Glance," one of Sydney's articles in UF's database for gardeners. To learn about a plant, pest or other topic, Google the name and "edis," for Electronic Data Information Source.)

And then there's Sydney's "moss house."

It grew from the loss of several pines, which left a sunny clearing in need of shade.

"I remembered the 'moss house' my grandmother had when I was a little girl," Sydney says. "We decided to try it."

They built a wood frame, the skeleton of a cottage, and added a flagstone floor. The "ceiling" is plastic garden netting dripping with gray Spanish moss Sydney used to add "like tinsel on a Christmas tree." Now she just tosses it up there.

On one "wall," she created a "Tillandsia curtain" — air plants dangling from fishing line so they appear to be floating.

From the font of the moss house, the view to the back lands on a bottle tree blooming with muted blue, green, brown and clear glass.

The effect is both haunting and a bit like stumbling into a woodland fairy's lair.

From Rick's bromeliad tree to Sydney's moss house, his flower farm experiments and her favorite plants, the Browns' garden is no-compete. Their personalities, expressed in plants, blend in perfect harmony.

Sharing a garden just adds to the marital bliss, Sydney says.

"It's fun to have professions that we both appreciate, as well as a shared hobby," she says.

"We're happily immersed in horticulture at work or at play."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan49@gmail.com; on her blog, DigginFlaDirt.com; and on her Facebook page, Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow @DigginPenny on Twitter.

At home, Florida gardening power couple enjoys 'landscape lunacy' 05/01/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2014 10:27am]
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