1. Life & Culture

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Inspiration abounds at Selby Botanical Gardens' Marc Chagall exhibit.

Gardeners plant landscapes like artists paint canvases. We add drifts of color for maximum eye pop, fill rusty kitchen appliances with succulents to celebrate the prosaic, and order sculptural fountains for scenes worthy of gilded Baroque frames.

Our inspirations spring from our own imaginations, social media, magazines, gardens we admire. But what if we look to the masters? I'm talking Monet and van Gogh, Frida and Dalí.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota tried it for the first time in February and everything from admissions to sandwich sales has jumped 30 percent over this time last year — especially notable considering the featured attraction then was a botanical rock star, the orchid. "Marc Chagall, Flowers and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams," runs through July 31 and invites all kinds of fun new possibilities for home gardeners.

"We didn't try to replicate his art with plants, although that's been done with other artists at other gardens," says Mike McLaughlin, Selby's senior director of horticulture. "We looked at Chagall very holistically. We looked at where he lived, what he painted, what he said."

The result? An immersive experience that takes visitors to the French Riviera, where the Russian-French modernist made his last home and died at 97 years old in 1985. Chagall worked in multiple media — he painted, created stained glass windows and sculpted. "The Color of Dreams" includes original paintings, reproductions of his stained glass and vases he owned, all set against a backdrop inspired by both his art and the village of Saint-Paul de Vence, his last home.

"The French Riviera is not unlike Sarasota, with the azure blue waters, sailboats, lovely warm climate," Mike says.

The gardens overlook Sarasota Bay, a fortuitous backdrop. But the devil's in the details. Mike and his team of 10 horticulturists, along with Carol Ockman, curator-at-large for the gardens and Robert Sterling Clark, art professor at Williams College, started by identifying outdoor areas that could evoke the ambiance of France's southeastern coastline.

Marie and William Selby's home made the cut. Built in 1921 and perched between Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou, Selby House has the required view and the Mediterranean-style architecture.

"We added lots of potted plants, arbors with vines, bougainvillea, succulents on the roof," Mike says.

Recreating the region's iconic lavender fields posed a bigger challenge.

"Lavender doesn't grow well in Florida and certainly not for very long. We made a lavender field but it's Salvia 'Mystic Spires,' which is a very tough plant," Mike says.

While Selby Gardens went all out for its transformation, Mike says home gardeners can evoke the essence of their favorite masters with much less effort. His tips:

• Find a thread to exploit, whether it's an idea or an object. Most artists have repeating themes; an obvious one for gardeners is color, one of the qualities that often attracts us to a particular artist in the first place.

• Look for motifs. Maybe your favorite master uses waterfalls, or angels. If you're designing to please yourself, simply incorporating those elements will make you smile. If you want people to recognize the artist, take it a bit further. For a Dalí garden, maybe a melting clock. At Selby, we included signs with quotes from the artist.

• Think beyond the art. Where did the artist live? What inspired him or her? Paul Gauguin lived in Tahiti. A dugout canoe filled with flowers and coconut trees could be elements of a Gauguin garden.

Of course, you can always go even simpler. My bed of irises may become my new van Gogh garden, and when my water lilies bloom this summer, I'll credit Monet.

That's the beauty of flowers; they're all masterworks.

Contact Penny Carnathan at; visit her blog,; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.