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.