TAMPA — Nestled behind a wall of green in Tampa’s Ballast Point neighborhood, John Starnes, Jr. created a lush, chaotic oasis.
His mind packed with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, the rose breeder and former landscaping expert grew all sorts of flora on his property on West Paxton Avenue. For years, he shared his expertise at gardening in regular features for what was then the St. Petersburg Times.
“Controlled madness,” said longtime friend Archie Giannella. “He knew where every single thing was and no one else in the world could have made heads or tails of it, but he would go unerringly to any plant of the thousands he had and point out some detail. The love in his voice was unmistakable."
The inside of the single-story home, chock full of eclectic items, had a similarly quirky vibe. “Disney World meets the disco era,” is how he described it.
On Tuesday morning, the home and garden lay in a burned, sodden ruin as word began to spread among Starnes’ many friends that he was gone.
Tampa police and fire rescue crews responded to the home about 12:15 a.m. after someone called to report the house was on fire. When authorities arrived, heavy flames were already engulfing much of the single story block home.
Neighbors said Starnes, 66, might still be inside.
Firefighters were initially hindered by what appeared to be a live utility wire sagging and sparking in front of the house, said Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny. The property that Starnes had carefully crammed with plants and other possessions also posed a challenge for firefighters trying to maneuver to attack the flames, Penny said.
"It was very tight quarters both inside and out," Penny said.
Once they had the fire knocked down, firefighters searched the home and found Starnes’ body in the bathroom.
Investigators suspect some sort of electrical malfunction in the home's living room sparked the blaze, Penny said.
County animal control workers found his dog Cracker, a black, white and brown collie mixed-breed, in the back yard. Peering out from a metal crate in a county van, the dog looked wet and scared but was otherwise okay.
Starnes graduated from Tampa’s Robinson High School in 1971, said Giannella, who was in the same class. Starnes wrote poems for the school’s literary magazine and celebrated the inaugural Earth Day.
"We were both hippies, and neither of us turned our back on those ideals," Giannella said.
Starnes spent several years in Denver and moved into the Paxton Avenue home in 1998, according to a 2014 feature in the Brandon News. He made his living as landscaping consultant of sorts, helping clients choose and arrange plants on their property, Giannella said.
For several years in the 2000s, Starnes wrote a regular gardening feature for the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times.
“Our cooler winter months allow Floridians to grow —cheaply and easily — a whole chef’s blend of vegetables and herbs that can transform a simple meal into a feast,” he wrote to start a 2008 column.
Starnes also raised his own fish and chickens, leaving the eggs on his porch for friends and neighbors to buy on the honor system. A dedicated recycler, Starnes built his hen house and much of his fencing with discarded gates.
"He really cared about his footprint on the earth," Giannella said.
Starnes was for many years a prolific blogger. He called one blog Rosegasms. On another, John Starnes’ Urban Farm, he offered this autobiographical description: “I am a happily single homosexual male who feels wedded to curiosity about the Universe around me, and to my many passionate avocations.”
Longtime friend Kimberly DeFalco called Starnes sensitive, creative and generous.
“He embraced his individuality and in those he met or shared time with,” DeFalco said. “We occasionally reminded each other how rewarding it is to color outside the lines.”
In what apparently were the last hours of his life, Starnes on Monday night went on a Facebook spree , posting YouTube links to some of his favorite songs. Yoko Ono’s Why (Starnes was “fanatical” about Ono, DeFalco said). Sandman, by America. And, at 9:16 p.m., John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels.
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go