When I think of a garden that I want to emulate, I think of Demi Stearns’ garden. Her property, at 80’ across and 303’ deep, hosts a little more than half planted gardens and half naturalized woods. With a mix of shade and sun, the ground is covered in mulched leaves and tree trimmings, leaving no space for grass, creating a water conscious yard. Walking through her property is similar to walking in a manicured forest. The skinny mulched paths, lined with specimen plants, encourage butterflies and other pollinators to waltz around you. In the untamed back half of the yard, there is an even thinner path which guides you to Orange Flame Justicia, ferns, two large stands of bamboo and a canopy of oak and camphor trees.
Growing up in Hyde Park, on the South side of Tampa, Stearns did not have much land to garden. It was the city. When she moved to Forest Hills in 1974, she was still in the city limits, but there was large amounts of land surrounding her tiny house. She read “Organic Gardening” and started digging and turning over the sandy earth, adding leaves and mulch to amend the soil.
“I started with a small area and built it into raised beds which made lots of sense to me,” Stearns recalls. Over the year she would keep working in the area to make the garden bigger and improve the soil.
As an outdoor and practical person, gardening – especially growing vegetables – allowed her to be outside and productive. It provides her with exercise and the enjoyment of seeing the Florida seasons change – as much as they can.
“When I was little, the people I liked staying with the most were all gardeners.” Stearns’ two grandmothers and all of her aunts had beautiful yards that they loved working in. In her parent’s backyard, her father would dig up a small area to plant tomatoes.
“You could see the plants grow every day,” she reminiscences with me on a 90° day, over freshly squeezed pink grapefruit and orange juice.
In the summers, Stearns would spend several weeks in Dade City. Her Aunt Dempsey was a Master Gardener and a founder of the garden club there. Her best memory from those summers was getting to see an actual vegetable garden for the first time. Ruby, an employee for Aunt Dempsey, grew a range of vegetables.
“She showed me how to pick the long pods of the field peas, and then we sat at the table and shelled them and cooked them. From then on, I wanted a vegetable garden like Ruby’s.”
Presently in her vegetable garden a little red cherry tomato called Matt’s Wild Cherry (a native to Mexico) that she ordered from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange would take the prize for easiest to grow.
“The six little tomato plants that I planted over a year ago are just now coming to a close. They are productive in every season of the year. Plus, I can just look around the area where they grew and find little ones coming up,” Stearns delightedly shares.
“I think spinach and cauliflower would be my choices for the hardest plants to grow.” Central Florida does not have consistent cold winters and the haphazard warm weeks in the winter seem to upset both crops. “Only once have I ever gotten lots and lots of spinach and cauliflower. There were weeks of 40° and 50° daytime temperatures. I have learned to enjoy Swiss Chard as a good substitute.”
Thryallis, a year round constant bloomer, is Stearns favorite perennial. “It’s such a versatile plant. It can be a small tree, a bush or a hedge. Once I was driving and something yellow caught my eye. I turned around and went down a small street and saw a bright yellow hedge. It was about 12’-15’ long, all Thryallis, and was so beautiful.”
Stearns favorite seasonal plant in her garden is Pine Cone Ginger which comes out of the ground in May and last until winter. “I look forward to the fragrant red cones and love to wash my hands with them.”
Stearns loves to watch the beans and peas come up and begin to vine. She enjoys seeding broccoli in her seed-starting tray and then care for them as seedlings until they outgrow her in a matter of a few months. She loves to pick beans and field peas in the warm weather and snow peas in cool weather. With her productive garden, year round, she can take a basket outside and pick garlic chives, parsley, basil and oregano for noodle dishes – which I have benefited from multiple times a month. She also grows kale, collards, cabbage, Swiss chard, lettuce or summer spinach depending on the season for fresh salads or smoothies.
“I think having a productive vegetable garden has been one of the pleasures in my life.”
When she is not tending to her vegetable garden she is caring for her butterfly plants.
“Both host and nectar plants let you see a part of nature that’s way better than reading about in a science book. I get to see so many different butterflies every day from planting a good variety of the plants that they love to feed on and lay their eggs on.”
For pollinators, she grows coral vines up trees and African Blue Basil. She moves caterpillars around to new food sources and discover cocoons in strange places daily. In the evening she watches the zebra butterflies return to a tree limb to sleep.
“Also in the evening the humming bird moths buzz by your ear. They are so big and friendly.” Ironically, “They come from the big green hornworms that demolish your tomato plants,” she adds.
Many years ago Stearns worked at a plant nursery owned by the neighborhood doctor, Dr. Maurice Guest. Dr. Guest taught her how to seed flowers and vegetables, handle small delicate seedlings and how to propagate cuttings. These vocational skills, she acknowledges as the reason why she has been such a successful gardener.
By reading and attending monthly Master Gardening talks at a local library Stearns has honed her gardening skills. “I always have a good time and always learn something.” At the end of the talks a plant raffle takes place where attendees win a cutting or rooted plant.
In addition to plant talks she purchases vegetable seeds from catalogs and receives cuttings from friends and neighbors to increase her botanical collection. She has attended the USF Botanical Garden Spring and Fall plant sales for many years which has allowed her to create a unique garden. To further furnish her garden she looks out for little seedlings coming up in her yard. She transplants Thryallis, Bahama cassia, milkweed, beautyberry, scorpion’s tail, Surinam cherry and cranberry hibiscus.
In addition to time, Stearns has been able to have a well-planted yard by supplementing her income to pay for her gardening hobby. By having two plant sales a year at her home she can share her plants and knowledge with new friends. She sells assorted perennials that are good and relatively easy to grow in Florida. Her sale theme, of course, is plants for pollinators.
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