Paris Gardens leading to Bartlett Park's rebirth

Date Posted: 2009-06-23
Tags: Paris gardens, Green Florida, Bartlett Park, community, native plants, CONA, vegetable gardens, grow food, attracting wildlife, habitat construction, sunshine mimosa, tropical sage, less watering, no fertilizer

In front of the Preston Avenue S home where Paris Whitehead-Hamilton lived and died, two dozen volunteers busied themselves planting 55 native flowers and shrubs.  Volunteers worked in silence, bending over to rip the tired lawn and viburnum bushes from this devastated patch of earth. 

"It's a new beginning. It's a new birth," said Joseph, 42, who no longer lives in the house. "It's a celebration because, even though she's gone, look at all these people."

They call it a "Paris Garden," and hope it will symbolize rebirth in the crime-plagued Bartlett Park neighborhood as much as it memorializes the loss of an innocent life. Already, three have been planted — one at Paris' grandmother's home on 13th Street S, the other just steps away at 783 Preston Ave. S, where Paris' godmother lives.

The front yard garden project follows other efforts in recent months to galvanize the community in the wake of tragedy. Months after vigils and antiviolence marches were held on Preston Avenue, the city is considering renaming the street in Paris' memory. In recent months, the Bartlett Park crime watch group has also increased patrols and outreach to combat drugs and violence.

This summer, almost a dozen Paris Gardens are to be planted in Bartlett Park, and many of them will be vegetable gardens so homeowners can grow their own food. The materials and labor are donated. Though there is a waiting list for Bartlett Park, organizers hope to extend the program into other neighborhoods. The cost of the plants is partly covered by donations.

"We think our neighborhoods should be providing for us," said Andrea Hildebran, executive director of Green Florida, a nonprofit group that created the project and the Bartlett Park Community Garden on Newton Road. "They should provide a safe environment, and having front yard gardens is something that we think will give people pride in their environment, and give people a way to take back their streets, to feel more safe."

They used native plants and flowers you may not find at your big box store, specimens like beach sunflowers, coral honeysuckle, pineland lantana, Spanish stopper, sunshine mimosa and tropical sage. Native plants "create ecology" by attracting wildlife and adding nutrients to the soil, said Michael Manlowe of Twigs and Leaves garden center, 1013 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S, who is donating labor and materials for the project. Native plants also require less watering and no fertilizer, he said.

Few of the volunteers on Saturday were true natives, however.

A crew of 10 work-release program participants from Goodwill Industries in Largo did most of the heavy work. Linda Crockett, a teacher who oversees gardens at St. Petersburg High School and lives in Snell Isle, planted flowers. So did Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, also from Snell Isle. Emily Vaultonburg, a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary who lives in Shore Acres, came with several of her family members and friends.

A Preston Avenue neighbor, Clarence Jenkins, joined in for some of the heavy lifting before leaving for work. He said his stepson was friends with Paris. Jenkins said the house has attracted gawkers, and he was glad they would now have something nice to see.

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Returning to a native state

Natives like sandcord grass, silver palmettos and pineland lantana now fill a St. Petersburg yard where nonnative grasses and plants once lived. And died. Facing west, the sun scorched them.

Michael Manlowe majored in environmental studies at University of California at Santa Barbara, taking ecology and botany classes. Now he co-owns Twigs & Leaves, Tampa Bay's premiere native plant nursery.

"I take a planetary perspective," he said. "It's like being an earthling."

Planting with natives "lessens your footprint on the planet." Converts can drop the lawn service and create habitat for creatures like butterflies.

"We're putting the flora back in Florida. That's our goal," Manlowe adds.

Full story  from the St. Petersburg Times.

A Shift in the Landscape

A Shift in the Landscape
from the Tampa Bay Times

As water restrictions continue, more residents remove grass in favor of native plants that can weather dryness.

Right now, several Tampa Bay localities limit watering yards to once a week - a directive handed down by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the agency responsible for monitoring the area's water supply.

Floridians use an average of 150 gallons of water per person per day. That includes showers, dish washers, washing machines, drinking water and, yes, watering the lawn. What you might not realize is that more than half the daily amount goes to watering landscape.

That's why when water gets low, the first thing officials do is clamp down on yard use.

Water restrictions, which have been in place for more than a year, are driving more and more residents to get rid of their lush, green lawns.

People like Victor Beaumont and his partner, Dean Richardson, said good-bye to the blanket of water-guzzling St. Augustine grass covering a small patch in front of their historic Kenwood bungalow this summer.

"They said it was hearty grass," said Beaumont, 61. "We thought, 'This is what people do here.'"

But the problems that came with it were many.

First, there were bugs. So they sprayed. Then the grass grew quickly and needed to be cut often. So they hired a gardener. Then the drought hit, and their green showpiece turned brown.

"It just got worse and worse," said Beaumont, a retiree from upstate New York. "We thought ... why not get rid of it and replace it with something more natural?"

The couple hired Twigs and Leaves, a St. Petersburg native plant landscape and nursery business. After ripping up the grass, they installed a black tarp and planted sunshine mimosa and seagrass.

Things like the orange tree and coconut are not native to the area. Neither is St. Augustine grass, which is native to coastal parts of Africa and the West Indies. It became a popular lawn covering in Florida during the late 1890s.

"It's water hungry," said Michael Manlowe, co-owner of Twigs and Leaves. "So people go and spend a few thousands dollars on their yard. And then water restrictions hit, and they're stuck."

True native plants, he notes, are things that grew here before European exploration.

Did you ever wonder where that whole idea of planting grass came from anyway, especially in a place that's dry half the year? It came from across the ocean.

A well-kept lawn was a European status symbol in the Middle Ages. English noblemen who didn't have to worry about growing food and raising animals on their land had lawns.

When Europeans began coming to America, they brought their grass with them. Several New England homes became odes to the English- garden way. With the large number of Northerners flocking to Florida, it's no wonder that the majority of yards feature the green blanket.

"People come down here and think that's what they should have," Beaumont said. "They think that's what a house is supposed to look like."

Manlowe and his business partner, Philippe Piquet, hope to show folks that native plants can be just as neat.

"When you say Florida natives, people think of a bunch of weeds," Manlowe said. "But ... I can make an English garden out of native plants."

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Tampa Bay Water levels are at a record low, a result of two years of a shortage in rainfall, due partly to a cooling off of water in the eastern Pacific Ocean. It's a pattern that happens every four to seven years, said Granville Kinsman, manager of the hydrological data center for Swiftmud.

"It changes the weather pattern," Kinsman said. "But keeps moisture off us, which tends to dry us out."

So far, the worst drought on record occurred in 2001, Kinsman said. Since that time, the water supply has yet to rebound. In places like Charlotte County and Sarasota, water supplies are at dangerously low levels.

"We really don't know where it's going to go," he said. "We'll just have to watch it closely."

Increasing people's use of native plants would be a good way to deal with the worsening crisis, said Karina Veaudry, executive director for Florida's Native Plant Society.

"It's a simple remedy," she said.

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The heightened watering restrictions could mean city and county code enforcement departments across the Tampa Bay area will have to change how they do their jobs.

"You can't enforce a brown lawn when you tell them they can't use water," said Jeff Kronschnabl, director of Clearwater's code enforcement.

Kinsman, with the water management agency, said restrictions could even get tighter.

"We could see it go from once a week to every other week," he said.

In Tampa's Westchase community, like many other deed-restricted communities, green lawn rules remain in spite of the drought.

That's because Westchase uses reclaimed water, said Ruben Collazo, the community's association president.

"We're very fortunate, but I would encourage my residents not to waste this precious resource and to be conservative," Collazo said.

There's no doubt, reclaimed water is better than potential drinking water for watering yards, but Veaudry says it's no substitute for simply cutting down on the need to water.

"There's a change in thinking that needs to occur about what we plant," she said. "It needs to be things that are friendly to the places we live."

Article from the Weekly Planet

St. Petersburg's midtown is leading the charge in the transformation to a green city.  Florida Native Nursery, Twigs & Leaves provides native habitat, changing Florida's future.  Full story -