Monday, August 4, 2008

Mount Dora wildflower garden puts St. Augustine grass to shame

Wildflower expert Dr. Hector Perez of the University of Florida pauses for a picture with wildflower gardener Tina Drake during a recent tour of her garden. For more photos, see our slideshow in the upper right corner. Photos courtesy of Tom Drake

Story by Lisa Roberts
FWF Executive Director

MOUNT DORA – When she moved here three years ago from Sorrento, Tina Drake envisioned something other than a spreading lawn of St. Augustine that soaked up Florida’s precious water. So she “gave back” by doing something rarely seen in Central Florida’s residential neighborhoods – she went wild.

Past the brick pavers of her home’s cozy backyard patio, past a neat-as-a-pin garden filled with Old Garden Roses sprouts Drake’s Florida wildflower garden. On this day in mid-July, blooms of yellow, orange and power-puff white dance among slender stalks of native grasses and trees. Tomorrow and the next day and next promise more color as summer rains coax plants to display their finery.

“We wanted an alternative to the water-demanding sod for the one-third acre in the rear of our property,” Drake says. “It seemed that sowing natural flower seeds just might offer a colorful and interesting alternative. In addition, it would be environmentally friendly."

Every day in the garden is a treat, she says. She often starts her mornings there, sitting in the arbor swing installed by her husband, Tom, and admiring the life going on around her.

“I sit and I swing and just kind of look and see what’s new, what’s come up,” Drake says, who recently invited the Florida Wildflower Foundation’s board of directors to drop by for a visit. Besides flowers, she spots a variety of wildlife taking advantage of what she’s created. “I saw a black racer snake the other day, and the monarch butterflies are starting to appear. And, oh, a lot of birds. And grasshoppers, bunnies and pocket gophers.”

Landscape architect Joan Randolph, of JCR Consulting in Maitland, first envisioned “something natural” for the spot when she visited the brand-new house to design the home’s landscape. The plot, with its backdrop of tall pines, was perfect for a natural garden, she advised Drake.

Thus blessed, Operation Wildflower Garden quickly bloomed. Drake enlisted native nursery owner Wendy Poag, now a Lake County park ranger, to help figure out the intricacies of the garden and plant it. The garden that resulted contains dozens of species of native wildflowers and trees, all of which can be seen from paths of mulched pine needles. Depending on the time of year, there blooms blazing star (Liatrias tenuifolia), cottonweed (Froelichia floridana), blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella), Blackeyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), goldenrod (Solidago stricta), coreopsis leavenworthii, passionflower (Passaflora incarnata), rosemary (ceratiola ericoide), partridge pea (chamaecrista fasciculate) and much more. Among the blooms are cheery little treats added by Drake – sculptures of deer and other creatures, shiny gazing balls and gay garden flags.

Her three years of hand-weeding, twice-annual seedings and carefully timed mowings have paid off handsomely, and Drake is obviously pleased with the result. Though a split-rail fence and a trellis for the garden entrance are still to come, “it just looks beautiful,” she says. “I love it.”

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