Like many great plant friendships, I was introduced to Johnnie Hagin by another plant friend, Demi Stearns. Johnnie lives a block away from my Tampa home. Her yard is the size of a small city plot, but her yard is another but traditional. Her diversity of plants is astonishing. Every time I visit, I discover another plant tucked in a corner that I want a cutting from.
Johnnie is a septuagenarian and has lived at her Tampa home for 50 years. When her husband, who loved St. Augustine grass, died, Johnnie dug up the yard and started planting. Today her entire front yard is a cornucopia of color. There is no grass on the property. Throughout the year the front seems to harmonize the blooms by color. Once a passerby stopped and said, “I really like your yard, but I like it in the pink phase more.”
Her backyard is a rotating crop of annual edibles mixed with pollen producing plants. At my latest visit, Johnnie had tomato plants that were taller than six feet and stretched along a ten-foot-long fence. Her holy basil was taller than her one-story house. Mexican oregano and other herbs cascaded down their distinctive pots, hitting the ground to go rogue.
Raised outside of Gainesville on a farm, she tells me her father planted vegetables, but wasn’t good at it.
“When I was real little my grandpa had a farm and I followed him around,” Johnnie recalls. “That is where I learned to really like gardening. It was nice. I watched him graft pear trees and grow a huge gardenia. All of our vegetables came from the farm.”
Johnnie is a licensed therapeutic massage therapist who works out of her home. Due to her personality, her business has grown by word of mouth. She has never advertised. When she started her yard transformation, she asked one of her clients Bruno for advice.
“He really taught me how to mix the soils because I kept losing everything I would put in the yard. It would just die,” Johnnie says. This was due to her yard soil only consisting of sand, which many Floridians can relate to. “I was bringing in mulch and leaves, but Bruno showed me how to mix the soil.”
And then Johnnie had to overcome another hurdle.
Every two to three years we would have a freeze and she would lose everything. So Johnnie went around and looked at all the medians to see what survived and got those plants. She put liriope, an herbaceous flowering perennial, as a permanent base and added flowerpots and tree pots so she could control the soil.
“And if I could only control the opossum, I would be in business,” she adds half-jokingly.
When I ask her how she achieves the size of her herbs and vegetables in her backyard, she tells me the secrete soil mixture.
“I cling to this friend whose daughter has horses. I would do almost anything for her to get horse manure. I create my own compost with horse manure and sawdust,” she teaches me. “I have no problems growing in containers.”
In addition to learning from Bruno, she has learned quite a bit of gardening from our mutual friend Demi. Johnnie also watches TV and reads articles and magazines regarding Florida specific gardening.
“As the vegetables play out in the summer, I hit the back corner of Lowes and get discounted marigolds and anything that blooms and add them to the pot to bring in the pollinators. Then I buy the flowers that attract me.”
A few years ago, I gave her hairy ball milkweed seeds. A season later she had a towering plant that was nine feet tall.
“If everything liked my yard as much as this plant does, we would have to have a machete to get through it,” she teases.
Johnnie propagates a few things like African blue basil and rosemary but says when you have friends like Demi or Bruno, she doesn’t need to. Gardening brings her solace and comfort and has been the perfect hobby for her latest hurdle.
“This is how I heal,” she explains as she walks me around the yard. “It doesn’t seem to matter what’s wrong, if I can go outside, I get better.”
“Bruno taught me to fertilize every quarter. So I put on bone meal or a low grade 5-20-5 and it seems to keep the herbs going.”
Most days Johnnie enjoys gardening in the early morning. Around dawn she goes outside and tends to the plants for about two hours. She cares for the front yard for curb appeal and she loves the work.
“The backyard is for food.” She explains, “I am tired of going to the store and buying lettuce and hearing ‘Oh there was a E. coli in that last batch.’ I know if I grow it there was no spray, no poison, and I am not going to get E. coli.”
Due to her soil health, she says that her vegetables, fruits and herbs are healthier than the stores. Her food intake, which she has always been cognizant of, is enhanced by a succession of herbs. Knowing that each herb, vegetable, and fruit contains its own unique vitamins and minerals she tries to benefit from them all by rotating what goes in her meals.
“You can grow a lot in a pot actually,” Johnnie explains. “Plenty for one to two people.” When she was able to raise chickens customers would come and get a message and a dozen eggs.
“Now they get a message and take home kale. It’s a client builder,” she laughs.
Last year Johnnie was diagnosed with cancer. With the chemo she was unable to keep her chickens. Her personality has not wavered.
“My positive outlook for life is due to my age. You either give it up or you go with it. You can whine and complain, and it doesn’t work. People go away and they don’t want to be around you. I really like the idea of people liking me. My humor is not always that funny. I’ve had to really tone down sarcasm. It didn’t get me what I wanted. It’s good to be not so sarcastic. This is especially true to when I started texting. It does not work. It’s hard to interpret the tone. I was blocked a lot,” she laughs. “Gardening has helped me get my strength back. I am still not there but going outside is the most healing thing I can do.”
Johnnie’s Tips for Florida Transplants
·Don’t paint your tree trunks
·Don’t butcher your crepe myrtles
·Read everything you can