ST. PETERSBURG — Greg Charles never seemed to stop thinking about plants. In this peninsular, southernmost state proud of its native species, he taught everyday gardeners, students and professional landscapers with professorial zeal.
At Pinellas Technical Education Centers, where he taught more than 30 years and was the longtime director of its horticulture program, Mr. Charles was the bearded man ("I do enough pruning at work," he would say) in collarless shirts decorated with bugs or butterflies or roses.
Tampa Bay Times readers know Mr. Charles as the author of "Ask Dr. Hort," a weekly gardening column in the Sunday HomeLink section. Until two weeks ago, he was their diagnostician and consumer watchdog, offering tips on fighting diseases and insects. Mr. Charles, who won multiple countywide teacher-of-the-year awards while at PTEC, died at home Aug. 28, of cardiac arrest. He was 59.
"His name is definitely synonymous with education and the horticulture industry in the entire state," said Merry Mott, who directs industry certification for the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association.
He knew genus and species, always including the Latin name, along with potting soils and poisons.
"He was the go-to person for anyone who had any question of any kind about plants," said former PTEC student Debby Laramee, 53. "He just knew everything."
Other ex-students have gone on to start their own landscaping and pest control businesses.
One of those, Phillippe Piquet, opened Twigs & Leaves eight years ago. Co-owner Michael Manlowe described Mr. Charles as an ecological advocate who fought against invasive species and was an expert in native Florida plants.
"When you think about all the landscapers he's influenced who have taken his class, it's humbling," said Manlowe, 48.
Gregory Joseph Charles was born in Sarasota in 1954. He went to the University of Florida intending to become a pharmacist, but became disillusioned after working at a drugstore. Unlike surly customers, plants wouldn't talk back, he later told students — "and you won't get arrested if they die on you."
He started at PTEC in 1978. Mr. Charles welcomed all types of students, making time for inmates and teenagers with shaky track records.
In 1991, he married former student Leslie Waters, his second marriage. She sewed more than 200 open-collar medical scrub shirts for him with designs that represented holidays or the subjects of his lectures.
On vacation, they visited the world's great gardens, bringing back seeds to plant around their Broadwater home. Now more than 60 species of plants line all sides. Mr. Charles cultivated sugar cane and apricot and macadamia trees; bananas, mangos and pecans; sage and mint and rosemary.
The couple also enjoyed a property in Cedar Key, a refuge until 2009, when Mr. Charles fell down stairs and was paralyzed below his chest. He spent six months in a rehabilitation center. Mr. Charles started writing "Ask Dr. Hort" in December 2009.
In the meantime, he worked out with weights, regaining much upper body movement. He spent hours in the yard again, pruning and weeding from a motorized chair. His spirits were so good doctors worried he was in denial.
On Wednesday, Waters stood beneath a loquat tree as tall as the house and with yellow flowers, the result of seeds they once brought back from Paris. A few feet away, a zebra longwing butterfly paused on a firebush and sucked out the nectar of the flower.
"Our lives were meshed together," she said. "I can't imagine being without him."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.