Having grown up in the Springs, I thought that I was already as familiar with everything special here as I am with the back of my hand. I didn’t think I’d find anymore surprises. Since I started writing this column, I’ve been delighted to discover the opposite is true. It’s been a wonderful perk to meet some of our many talented residents and get a glimpse into that part of their lives that makes their hearts sing.Last week, two couples, both living in Clearwater Beach, invited me over to view their extraordinary gardens. As I was leaving, I was stunned to suddenly notice my once lush patch of Mexican sunflowers that had grown four feet tall completely stripped down by deer in the night.
I can’t express the love I had felt for these flowers that I had started from seed and nurtured to thrive into silky, thick stalks with ever widening leaves. My heart expanded when I noticed the first bright orange bloom appear. I was so thrilled, I gave it a kiss. The sad sight of the bare stalks brought tears to my eyes, and ironically, I had agreed to write another piece about the joys of gardening!
Then a truth hit me as I was driving over that like anything else that’s alive we dare to love comes with it the risk of loss and sorrow. For those of you thinking, “Oh no, another column about gardens,” let me tell you that what I’ve found through my own experience is that having a garden is profoundly spiritual and healing (even with my recent loss), and the same is true for just visiting one from time to time. Being in both of these gardens and getting to know their caretakers was such a lifting, unexpected treat. By the time I was leaving the second garden, my sense of hope and wonder was completely renewed. It’s made me wonder what other kinds of hidden gems can be found amid of our Springs’ neighbors?
Bob and Olga Prince met me at the front gate to let me into their waterfront property that’s set on Hog Creek. Obviously not novice gardeners (like me), they had the good sense to have deer fencing to protect their labor of love! Nothing could have prepared me for the wonder that unfolded beyond that gate. The entire property against the backdrop of the sparkling waters of Hog Creek is a lush sanctuary where about 150 different varieties of plants flourish. The greenery of the front yard is created by a patchwork of ground covers such as lamium, ivy, myrtle, and vinca and a diversity of large, bushy plants like clethera (commonly known as sweet pepper), hydrangea, lady fern, and castor beans. As they graciously gave me a tour through their grounds, the Princes led me down pathways to both shaded and sunny spots, each with its own bench where we perched for a few minutes, as I marveled over the immediate surroundings.
The gently sloping backyard interspersed with majestic trees hugged by climbing hydrangea leads down to another gated garden at the water’s edge, where tall sunflowers nodded in the breeze and an osprey’s nest resides. Truthfully, it would be impossible to do this garden justice in the space allowed for my column. By the time we were sitting on another bench inside this gated garden, where every color imaginable exists, I was totally enraptured and blown away by the love and dedication required to manifest this magical place. I was charmed by the names of the old-fashioned varieties like a cluster of purple junipers that Olga smilingly told me were also known as “kiss me over the garden gate.”
Since they first took up residence here about 25 years ago, they allowed the natural beauty they found already here such as the sweet ferns, blueberries, and salt bushes along the shoreline to help inform the evolution of their own creation. Fortunately for readers, theirs has been included in past garden tours, so experiencing this astonishing wonderwork yourself one day is a definite possibility. I’ll let you know. You won’t want to miss it.
Last week, I received an email from Betsy Ruth of Springs, enthusing about her incredible neighbors, Manny and Amelia Vilar. From her description of Manny, just shy of 90 years old, as having an extensive vegetable garden, and a plethora of fruit trees including pomegranate and kiwis, and also an avid fisherman having recently caught a 25-pound bass on his boat named “Ms. Long Island,” I knew I had to meet them. The Vilars live less than a mile away from the Princes, and they, along with Ms. Ruth, greeted me when I pulled into the driveway with wide smiles and shining faces. I was immediately taken by this sweet and energetic couple.
Originally from Mineola, they made their Clearwater Beach house a full-time residence in 1987 after retirement. Again, I was astounded by the garden I encountered here, which was totally unexpected along this residential street. The entire property front and back has evolved into an orchard of trees bearing ripe, plump figs, plums, persimmons, and lots of varieties of pears. “Last year it was apples…this year, it’s the year of the pears,” laughs Amelia, looking around at the trees whose branches were laden with red, green and golden pears.
Amazingly, they do all the work themselves. Manny, who hails from Portugal, is self-taught from books on the art of grafting and growing fruit trees. Manny’s appearance and spryness defies his years, as he scrambled up a ladder to pick me some figs to take home. When asked what they do with all this fruit at harvest time, Amelia responded she makes a lot of jam. Their delight in everything is infectious, and I felt wholly cheered as I drove away with them waving and calling out an invitation to stop back in the fall for some pears.
Always a Springs’ summer highlight that’s steeped with tradition and dear memories for many of us locals, The Fisherman’s Fair will be spread out on the grounds of our historic hub that comprises Ashawagh Hall, the Springs Library, and the Springs Community Presbyterian Church this Saturday, August 10, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. This one event captures our roots and essence as a community with every walk of life represented from baymen to farmers to celebrated artists and crafts people. There will be tons of children’s games, artisan booths, plants and flowers, bargain treasures and books, not to mention great eats from local roasted corn to chowder and clam pie.
An important update concerning this year’s fair from food coordinator Kristi Hood of the Springs General Store, is that they could really use all the extra volunteer help they can get. Apparently, many volunteer members have retired, leaving them short-handed. Free t-shirts and all the delicious food one can eat are offered for anyone who can lend a hand at the fair, promises Kristi. Anyone who finds that they have the time right up to the last hour is welcome. It’s a nice way for local teens to gain community service hours required for graduation. Please call Ellie Becker at 324-9612 or Kristi at 329-5065 to sign up. Being a part of a community effort is always so worthwhile. Lastly, Kristi reminded me that this fair will have many people, including her, missing Vito Sisti who for many years was such a vital part of this event he loved so much.
This week, I am ending in gratitude for being just a small part of this wonderful, little community populated with caring and creative people, both past and present. The benefits of writing a community column seem to constantly unfold in sweet ways… last week, delicious fresh figs from the Vilars and some exciting bags of seeds from the Princes to sew into my own garden next year…and now, I’m looking forward to the Fisherman’s Fair this weekend. Hope to see you there!