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  1. Life & Culture

Celebrate herbs, cookies and spring at GreenFest

Penny likes to share a laugh with her fellow gardeners. This year, her theme is “The Hunger Games” — perhaps your only chance to find the humor in aphids, lubbers and nematodes.
Penny likes to share a laugh with her fellow gardeners. This year, her theme is “The Hunger Games” — perhaps your only chance to find the humor in aphids, lubbers and nematodes.
Published Mar. 20, 2013

What's new at GreenFest this year?

Dennis Gretton's rosemary-cranberry cookies.

You can try them for free but, he warns, "You have to sit through my whole program to get the reward."

Dennis, co-proprietor with his wife, Donna, of D&D Growers in Lithia, is among the many original vendors returning for the 16th annual GreenFest, the first plant extravaganza of the year in Tampa and one of my favorites. With 81 vendors selling plants, garden accessories and food beneath shady old oaks overlooking the Hillsborough River, it's the perfect coming out party for our very lovely but fleeting spring.

To try Dennis' newest recipe, which he's been fine-tuning since November, catch his speaking gig, "Growing Herbs in Florida and Culinary Uses," under the Tampa Bay Times tent at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

His herbal cookies are renowned: mint chocolate chip made with chocolate mint; golden lemon thyme crisps; lavender, and cinnamon basil pistachio. Take note: He doesn't sell these cookies. If you catch an addiction, you're on your own. But like any good dealer, he'll be happy to supply the herb!

"I make them to show people you can get flavor without salt," Dennis says. "From personal use, I can tell you they're very addicting."

If Sunday doesn't work for you, come out tomorrow and catch my program! At 11:30 a.m., I'll be at the Times' tent emceeing "The Hunger Games" — a hands-on battle of the bugs already salivating over your tender new growth. The experts predict we'll pay for this year's mild winter with an explosion of hungry little larvae, so I'm all about training for serious hand-to-mandible combat.

Dennis has amazing cookies; I've got prizes, donated by Shell's Feed Store, that emporium of countrified garden supplies on N Nebraska Avenue. Either day, you win!

And so does Plant Park, the setting for all this spring madness and our city's first public park. GreenFest's gate donations go toward preserving and restoring the park; the single-minded mission of the Friends of Plant Park, a club of 200-plus dedicated volunteers.

Plant Park dates to the 1890s, when railroad magnate Henry B. Plant built a Taj Mahal in the swampy, sandy, mosquito-infested netherworld at the end of his rail line: Tampa. How else to entice anyone to come here?

Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa, included vast, exotic gardens, the remains of which became 4.5-acre Plant Park.

The Friends of Plant Park have been slowly stepping the gardens back in time to look as they did in 1898, when Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt mustered his troops there in preparation for an invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

GreenFest's $3 suggested admission donation pays for projects like the 212-foot replica flagpole flanked by a cannon installed a couple of years ago — a re-created feature of the original grounds, says the Friends' long-range planner, Pat McLendon-Kaye.

"We want to bring history alive and save it for the ongoing generations," she says.

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The Friends' most recent project does that in a fun, narrated cellphone tour of the park's highlights. Dial (813) 319-8445 and you'll hear beloved longtime local radio personality Jack Harris describing the significance of various park features. (Retired Judge E.J. Salcines is working on the Spanish version.)

Other voices include Michael Norton, a guy who so completely channels Roosevelt, he gets annoyed if you call him Teddy (not a nickname the original embraced, apparently). Michael will be roaming the park in costume and character during GreenFest, one day as Roosevelt, the other as Henry Plant. Ask him a question — any question! — and you'll be talking to history.

The cellphone tour, by the way, cost the Friends $28,000, Pat says, half of which came from Hillsborough County. And that doesn't include all the donated help — from Jack Harris' and Michael Norton's time to the production facilities. Preserving history is expensive!

When you think in those terms, $3 isn't much to pay to shop lots of hard-to-find plants for our area; to catch speakers both days in the Times' and Master Gardeners' tents; and to let the kids get dirty learning in the activity pavilion.

"Just don't tell anyone about the cutting celery," implores GreenFest chair Laura Barber.

That's the wonder herb she discovered at D&D's booth a couple of years ago. It looks like parsley and has all the flavor of celery — without the chewing (for lazies like her husband and mine).

So, yeah, I'm not telling you about the cutting celery. Focus on the cookies!

And the bugs.

Reach Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com. Find more local gardening stories at www.digginfladirt.com, or join in local garden chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. On Twitter, she's @DigginPenny.

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