If you would rather garden than do anything else, you're in good company. Gardening is now considered the No. 1 outdoor activity in the United States. And if like many gardeners, you love learning more about your passion, you might do what Andrea Griggs did when she moved to Sarasota: earn your Master Gardener certification.
"When I came here from Hawaii in 1994, I felt the need to switch from interior to exterior design," says Griggs. "I loved the idea of promoting beauty in the garden. Though I knew that it's always best to grow plants indigenous to the area, I was unfamiliar with what it took to have a thriving Florida landscape." In 1995, Griggs completed the 13-week garden design course offered by the Master Gardener program, which is managed by the University of Florida cooperative extension service. There, she undertook an intensive study about different types of soils, plants, fertilizers and general plant care.
"Although the title designates a degree of expertise, don't let it intimidate you," Griggs explains. "All you need is a passion for gardening and the expertise that comes from the training provided by the program, the information available at the extension office and the knowledge shared by other Master Gardeners."
Florida Master Gardeners, about 4,000 of them statewide (98 in Sarasota County), are University of Florida-trained volunteer teachers. A key aspect of the program, "learn and return," requires them to volunteer in the community 100 hours the first year, followed by 50 hours every year thereafter, designing gardening-related programs, conducting garden tours, creating and maintaining gardens, taking part in plant clinics and community garden projects, and other related activities that emphasize environmental stewardship.
After receiving her designation, Griggs became involved with the Sarasota Garden Club and Florida Yards and Neighborhoods projects. Then, feeling confident with the training she received, in 2003 she established Andrea Griggs Gardenjoy, a landscape consultation business.
In her own garden, she focuses on natives and compatible plants that have undemanding growth habits and conserve water.
"When I bought my house two years ago, there was only a handful of plants on the property: one queen palm, two Washingtonians, a pigmy date, and a couple of rose bushes," she says. "At the beginning I bought a lot of plants, but now I propagate."
Plants bloom in her garden, which is a haven for birds, bees and other winged creatures, in a beautiful sequence. When the butterflies arrive, the tall milkweed is there to greet them, and an array of colorful flowers stands waiting to nourish hummingbirds. The soaring golden spikes of the candle bush and the bright yellow blossoms of beach buttercup illuminate the multicolor landscape where the sky-blue plumbagos mingle with the fiery red of heliconia and penta, the orange blossoms of the pagoda flowers, the purple haze of the crepe myrtle and the glory bush (and the coral trumpets of the cape honeysuckle. Bumblebees buzz hungrily in indigo and coral porterweed and the lavender-hued flowerets of slender Mexican petunias. Fragrant frangipani and crepe jasmine scent the evening air with their heady perfume. Citrus trees and papayas are heavy with fruit.
Griggs designed her garden as a laboratory where she can research and test new ideas. "I do things I would not implement in clients' gardens, unless they wanted me to," she explains. "For instance, I'm very fond of wildlife and purposely incorporated plants that attract raccoons, frogs, armadillos and snakes. I also mixed plants with various light, water and fertilizing requirements to determine the best combinations."
Master gardeners like Griggs relish the opportunity to share useful information to help people create beautiful gardens. "I love the comradeship and intellectual stimulation that master gardening brings. Whether working on creating a garden from scratch, figuring out what to do with a garden that has become overgrown or shaded by maturing trees, or altering an existing design, each particular project gives me the chance to share what I have learned," she says.
FROM THE MASTER
MAKE YOUR BEDS: Mulch your bed to improve soil quality. Florymulch is a good commercial product made from the invasive and undesirable melaleuca tree.
RIGHT PLANT, RIGHT PLACE: Select plants that require minimum care and group them according to their needs for sun, shade, fertilizers and water.
LESS IS BEST: Over-fertilizing can hurt plants and contaminate the bay.
WASTE NOT: Establish a compost pile, utilizing kitchen and yard waste. Use a mulching lawn mower and leave the grass clippings on the lawn for natural composting.
BUG OUT: Control bugs responsibly; wait until you see a problem, identify the source, and address accordingly.