A living work of art


Special to The Miami Herald

This is one in a series of occasional reports about South Florida gardens.

A towering live oak covered in Spanish moss first catches your eye. From there your vision roams across the open expanse of Jillian and Gene Cain’s front yard. This is their canvas that they fill with colors, shapes and textures of living things.

“If you are an artist, you have a canvas on which you can do just about anything you want,” says Gene. “But if you are a gardener, you have a piece of property.”

In 1970, when Jillian moved into this bungalow in the Shady Banks area of Fort Lauderdale, that live oak was the first plant she bought. The sapling cost just $10. Her hardest decision was where to put it. Using principles she had learned in art school, she made it the focal point of her front yard.

Gene joined Jillian in her garden and in life when the couple married in 2000. They still live in this neighborhood that Gene describes as “full of character and full of characters.”

Today, in a ring at the base of that tree are dozens of Aechmea rubens that Jillian propagated from one plant. These bromeliads are particularly showy when their red and yellow blooms explode, then linger for nine months.

“They grab your eye,” she says.

She also uses tall, medium and low shrubs and trees as well as ground cover to create a path that keeps your eye moving through the yard. After all, the principles of art tell us that the more your eye flows through space, the bigger the space seems.

So let your eyes naturally follow the curving brick-lined beds to a robellini palm that Jillian rescued from the trash. Today it provides the perfect cover for the purple blooms of multiple ground orchids. As your eye moves along to the Alcantarea imperialis, the focal point changes to this huge bromeliad.

Then your vision glides past a condo mango, Louis Philippe rose bushes and the raspberry cones of a red button ginger. This is her living work of art.

When Jillian moved here, she found only one small oak tree in the backyard. Today it is over 100 years old. In the front was grass interrupted by only a single croton bush and a “for sale” sign.

It was a neighbor who encouraged her to join the Fort Lauderdale Garden Club and offered ideas, information and even plants to get her started. Today, both Gene and Jillian belong to the garden club where they regularly win blue ribbons in the club’s flower shows. Gene is also a master gardener and master naturalist.

But when Jillian began gardening, she was clueless. “I didn’t know an annual from a perennial,” she says.

When her neighbor saw her with a corn plant in a pot, she told her, “This is Florida, stick it in the ground.” Jillian took her advice and she’s been growing things ever since.

When a patch of grass in her front yard turned “yellow and ugly,” she decided to go to work. She had read that she could design a garden by laying out a hose in a pleasing curved pattern and then digging up the turf.

“After that, I just kept taking that hose and curving it and digging up more yard,” she says.

When laying out her garden, Jillian was careful to showcase each variety of plant either individually in its space or in groups.

For example, Gene came home with a Jewels of Opar that has variegated leaves. If she’d put it among the other plants, its beauty would have been lost. Instead, she placed it against a dark wooden fence. “Now it really stands out,” she says.

They gathered Spanish moss for the live oak on a trip to Florida’s west coast. Then they stood on the roof of their home so Jillian could toss it in the air while Gene sent it flying with a leaf blower. Some of the strands landed in the limbs of the oak tree, where they thrived.

“I just hope none of our neighbors were watching that day,” Jillian laughs.

That moss helps draw your attention to the tree that is now over 30 feet tall.

When placing other plants Jillian has been cognizant of negative space, another principle garnered from her art experience. “Do I want the plant touching the one next to it? Most of the time I don’t,” she says. But that’s not a hard and fast rule.

“When you are up close on the ground you might think your garden looks fantastic but when you back away, it’s all wrong. You need to go back and forth,” she advises.

Often she groups a single variety of plant to good effect. Consider a delicate ground cover such as silver sparkles that she uses to create a shimmering haze at ground level.

And a grouping of Neoregelia passions in her side yard add a splash of neon pink to the surrounding green. “When planted all together these bromeliads don’t have to bloom to be eye popping,” she says.

To ensure the garden is thriving, Gene and Jillian survey it daily. If after a week they determine a plant isn’t doing well, they move it.

“Most plants have a happy spot where they’ll bloom and flourish. Our goal is to find it,” Jillian says.

To make getting the right plant in the right place easier, they often leave them in pots. Then they can move them without disturbing the roots or digging.

“Everybody wants an instant garden but sometimes it’s better to take your time and wait to plant,” Jillian says.

To help decide on the perfect spot for each plant, here in South Florida you have to start by looking up. “You have to know where the sun is,” Jillian says. You also have to determine how the sun moves depending upon the season.

In winter, the sun is along the back property line of the Cains’ garden. But in summer, it’s in the street in front. Plants may thrive until summer but then the sun shifts and they burn up, Jillian says. That’s when she and Gene get busy shifting plants.

The couple is constantly moving and adding plants that they buy at garden club sales, get from friends or propagate in a nursery out back. “I never had $1,000 to just put into my garden. It’s always been bit by bit,” Jillian says.

So she is careful to nurse the pups and shoots of the plants she already has so that she can use them to replace older ones or create vistas.

“I like the designing and creating. I love to garden,” she says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

In an earlier version of this story, a caption misidentified a plant paired with a pink bromeliad. The yellow flowers are Walking Iris.

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