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It started in Granny's garden

Heliconias in hand, Mac Garner scrambles around his tiki hut.

Those gingers go here, he tells his workers. That waterfall goes over there. Arrange the tiki dolls thusly.

Normally, he'd have several weeks to install a landscaping design outside a business or home. But now he has two days to arrange a tiki hut, waterfall and more than 800 plants and flowers inside the Pinellas Park Expo Center for this week's Tampa Bay Flower Show.

"Usually, I'll sit down with clients and develop a thought-out detailed plan," says Garner. "Right now, I'm just freestyling."

Mac Garner is Mac the Gardener, an exotic foliage grower and landscape artist in Dover, and a featured garden expert at the flower show.

His 20-acre garden and nursery on Walden Sheffield Road offers heliconias, gingers, bananas and other tropical greenery, which he uses to custom-landscape more than a dozen yards each year at an average cost of $9,000 each.

The 40-year-old Garner has been involved in horticulture nearly his entire life, ever since he'd travel with his family to Winter Haven to visit his grandmother _ and her garden _ as a child.

"My earliest memories, when I was 4 or 5, are being in the garden with her," he said. "I would pick English peas and eat them out of the pod because they were so sweet."

Garner's family had a garden, and his father owned an irrigation and landscaping business in Dunedin. But young Mac learned just as much from his artistically inclined mother and from books about architecture and design.

He set up shop in Dover about 14 years ago, and since then, for the most part, has worked alone.

About two years ago, Garner formed a partnership with the Exotic Plumeria in Seffner, another landscaping business that specializes in tropical and colorful plumeria trees. Garner combines his greenery with the Exotic Plumeria's colors to give clients' backyards a south Pacific feel.

"It's a tropical look," says Alan Bunch, the Exotic Plumeria's owner. "I grow the plumeria and the palms; he grows the heliconia and ginger. It was just a logical marriage."

The two businesses also have teamed up to grow Bangalos, a cold-resistant type of palm tree from Australia that Garner believes are poised to take over Central Florida.

Mac the Gardener, though, is still a one-man show, which at times wears on its owner. Garner is involved with every aspect of the landscaping, from the design to the installation.

Some of his jobs have lasted a month and a half and cost nearly $25,000. One yard layout at a home in Culbreath Isles in Tampa was nominated for a design award from a national pool and spa magazine.

"I really work close with everybody," he says. "I think I'm my own worst critic, because I continually try to do better."

He estimates his work takes up more than 60 hours of his week. Even though he only just turned 40, he's looking forward to cutting back on his duties to spend more time with his wife, Cheryl, and 2-year-old son, Elijah.

"I really love designing, and I really love to see it going in, the creation of it," he says. "I still want to oversee it, but I've got to get some younger guys."

His partnership with Bunch has made a difference. He now designs the landscaping and supplies much of the greenery; Bunch's men handle the installation.

By outsourcing some of the manual labor, he may be able to expand his designing and growing to nearly 20 jobs per year, instead of the 12 or so currently on his schedule.

"That's what I want to do, is focus on the growing and the design," he says. "Hopefully, that's what I'll be able to do."

_ Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.

WHAT: Wholesale exotic foliage and landscaping.

WHERE: 14735 Walden Sheffield Road, Dover

PHONE: 695-1703.

E-MAIL: macthegardenerclearsurfusa.com

AVAILABILITY: Garner's plants can be purchased at local outlets like the Exotic Plumeria and Kerby's Nursery and Landscaping for about $15 and up.

If you go

The Tampa Bay Flower Show runs through Sunday at the Pinellas Park Expo Center, 10601 U.S. 19 N., Pinellas Park. The gates are open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Mac Garner will be a featured speaker at 6 p.m. Saturday; his partner Alan Bunch of the Exotic Plumeria will speak at 2 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $9 for adults, $5 for children. For more information, call 727-456-1130 or visit www.flowershow.com.

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