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Published Nov. 16, 2012

Enameled metal thrift-store colanders - the ultimate in great drainage - serve as hanging baskets. Citronella and Surinam cherry provide, respectively, natural mosquito control and Simon Zopfi's U.S. recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. The only fertilizer Simon and Maryhelen Zopfi give their garden comes from their compost bin, and any watering is the work of a micro-irrigation system that diverts rainwater from their roof's downspouts. "Not a drop goes down the driveway," Maryhelen says.

That creative conservation recently won her the 2012 Water-Wise Award from the Hillsborough County Cooperative Extension and Tampa Bay Water. (Community radio station WMNF-FM 88.5 was the business winner.)

It's no gimme. Applicants have their yards evaluated by a bunch of clipboard-carrying specialists from the extension service. They look at whether you're using native and Florida-friendly plants, if your plants are in places where they'll thrive, your mulching habits, what you're doing to conserve water.

And whether the end result is actually attractive.

If you win, you get a beautiful, custom-made mosaic stepping stone that Maryhelen - for one - will never set foot on. It's that pretty! You'll also be the special feature at a Hillsborough County Commission meeting.

"The hard work, examples you've set, make an important difference in improving the lives of all Hillsborough County residents," both people and wildlife, Commissioner Al Higginbotham told Maryhelen in presenting the award this fall.

"Her yard is just amazing," added the extension's Lynn Barber, addressing the commission. "Every time you make another twist and turn ... there is some phenomenal piece of yard art or beautiful plant."

Maryhelen's front and back yards are so full of plants, you've got to stay on the winding path to navigate them. In fact, after 30 years, she has run out of room, so now she's planting in the easement along Mobile Villa Drive in Lutz.

"I don't really take care of my plants," says this member of the Tampa Orchid Club,Tampa Rose Society, USF Botanical Gardens, the new Sunday garden club at Annie's Garden Shed in Lutz, and the North Tampa Garden Club, of which she's president.

"I just help them exist."

But she does talk to them. A lot.

"Oh, no!" she said, stopping suddenly while leading me on a tour recently. "Did you fall over?"

I looked around. Um, me?

She darted off the path to set a container upright.

"Don't worry - you'll be okay," she told the begonia. "You're just fine."

I swear, that begonia did seem to sigh and perk up!

Much of Maryhelen's front garden gets filtered sun, so she has lots of gingers and bromeliads, 4 o'clocks, orchids and peace lilies. Unusual croton varieties add color everywhere. Simon is from Indonesia, where crotons are a remembrance plant placed on graves. He acquired some of his years ago, from a croton club.

"But you can sometimes find really unusual ones if you look through all the crotons at the big-box stores," Maryhelen says. "They don't know what they are, so they'll have some accidentally mixed in."

An old mailbox centrally located on a post is a handy, watertight storage spot for Maryhelen's clippers, trowel and her favorite hand tool, a bulb planter. Rusted metal shelves hold containers, and a faded little red wagon is filled with plants.

"I find a lot of this stuff on the side of the road," she says. "I call it ground shopping."

The centerpiece of the back yard is a retro swimming pool that's been converted to a koi pond. Nearby, the wanderlust of tall canna lilies is contained by a claw-foot tub. Pitcher plants get their fill of sun and water in an old birdbath.

Maryhelen says it's all about finding a plant's happy zone.

"Plants will let you know where they're comfortable, where they want to be," she says. "Once you find that, there's really not much they need."

Except the occasional talking to.

Watch for the 2013 Water-Wise Award award application. Reach Penny Carnathan at Visit her blog at or join her and other gardeners chatting at, Diggin Florida Dirt. On Twitter, she's @DigginPenny.

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Maryhelen's tips for growing desert rose from seed

Maryhelen is all about conservation - and that includes propagating plants instead of buying them. She always has dozens of desert rose seedlings, which make great gifts for any occasion. (These popular succulents are miniature "trees" with vivid blooms in a variety of colors.) To propagate, of course, you have to have a desert rose!

- When the plant produces pods (you can't miss 'em - they're big!) wait until the pod turns from green to brown, then snip it off and put it in a brown paper bag.

- Keep it in the bag overnight.

- The next day, open the pods and separate the seeds from the white floss (the "wings" that allow the seeds to fly away when the pod opens).

- Soak the seeds overnight.

- The next day, gently rub the seeds to remove the outer coating. Plant in tiny pots with a mix of half and half potting soil and perlite.Rule of thumb for all seeds: Plant no deeper than the seed is wide.

- Sprinkle the soil gently with water and cover with clear plastic (to help keep it moist). Place the pots where they'll be warm and get morning sun, but not strong direct sunlight.

- When the seeds sprout, remove the clear plastic. When they have several leaves, transplant to a larger pot.

- During the blooming seasons, allow your desert rose to dry between waterings, then water well - until the water drains out of the pot. It also likes the occasional application of water-soluble fertilizer during bloom time - about April to November. Water much less in the winter, when the plant is dormant. Protect it from cold temperatures.