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From plain yard to healing retreat

Meet: Lee Silverstein, who spends as much time as possible in the quiet of the peaceful patio and paths of red brick at her back door. She explains that her husband, Marvin, likes what they've done instead of grass, but she had a job persuading him to go along with nature instead of fighting it after 25 years of grass in front and back. They moved into their northwest St. Petersburg home in 1966, after helping with plans and watching its construction.

History of landscape: Marvin, who plans to retire soon from Honeywell, says he is not a gardener but has always helped with digging or other heavy work. When the children were growing up, he maintained a compost pile and experimented with hydroponics and vegetables. Several citrus trees still produce fruit, but his top priority has been a good-looking front lawn. It is enhanced by a Southern magnolia and a small live oak, which replaced a beautiful purple orchid tree that died. A small front-door garden belongs to Lee, she says, pointing out the weeping yaupon holly.

She recalls that 10 years ago, worn out from traveling back and forth to the east coast, where her father was dying, she began to feel the need for hanging pots and something living. Now, this former nurse, who is on disability because of health problems, says that gardening and growing things is "a healing process."

What's she proud of: The privacy and peaceful ambience of the wood-fenced back and side yards, which she persuaded her husband to begin five or six years ago. Their son and daughter grew up with the usual swing set and somewhat grassy play area with wire fence. The poodle and Yorkie tracked dirt inside, but raised beds helped and her dream came true gradually.

Help with the make-over: "I got cuttings from all my dear friends," she says. She admired the natural approach taken by Dave Oros, who declined to advise except to say: "It's your garden. Just do it." They began with a concrete fountain, and the old Augusta block patio was laid by Jim Borycens, a professional whom she recommends if you would like a sunny outdoor sitting room. White duranta and other perennials grow in large containers, and a Savannah holly thrives in a raised bed. Lightweight aluminum furniture is comfortable, and a triangular gazebo in white aluminum fits into the northeast corner, shaded by a crape myrtle in bloom during warm months. A pond with water lettuce and fish is flanked by blue and coral porterweed. Both attract nectaring butterflies.

Monarchs lay eggs on 5-foot-tall milkweed plants at the arched entrance to a narrow Oriental area, with impatiens and dianthus around a stone lantern and corner Buddha. A variegated dwarf schefflera grows like an espalier, covering a high window where the view was blocked inside by an entertainment center and Lee's handmade doll collection.

Around the corner to the west is a concrete bench in the shady area where two large live oaks were about 10 feet tall when planted, Lee recalls. Ferns, Xanadu (dwarf philodendron), bromeliads, walking iris and oak leaf mulch give a natural look for this xeriscaping. A metal butterfly house beckons in vain, a fairy seems to flit, and from its corner a 300-pound concrete lion looks on.

Successful results: The lawn is still Marvin's, with a teenage neighbor to mow and trim. Marvin fertilizes and sprays as needed, and the nutrients from reclaimed water help keep his grass green and healthy. But he admits the make-over in back is "a wonderful place to be," saying it's a retreat where they relax and enjoy nature. "It's even cool in hot weather."

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