One Tampa gardener’s quest to grow and educate
Story and Photos by Kenny Coogan
“It’s funny, I spend some time out here doing things that I need to do,” Virginia Overstreet says in her Georgia accent, “then I’ll come out here with no to-do list and before I know it, I’ll spend three hours and it will have been all productive.”
Overstreet, who reached Master Gardner Emeritus status a few years ago, has lived at her Seminole Heights Tampa home since 1998. After 20 years in the Navy, she retired in 2000 and started gardening seriously. Although by gardening, I mean she was planting things and killing them. So she began taking classes at the local extension office. Her neighbor recommended taking the master gardener course since she was already taking a lot of the classes, and in 2001 she graduated from the program.
Overstreet is the vice president of the local chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, as evidenced by her choice in plants. “All these buckets are my swamp plants,” she tells me during a winter tour of her garden. “This is swamp milkweed. I’m really trying to move into the native milkweeds for the monarchs.”
“That’s the thing about wildlife and for birds. You have to accept that some of the plants are going to look sloppy or untidy. It may be sloppy to you, but it is fabulous for the birds.”
In addition to native milkweed, she grows native wood oats, golden canna, and pickerelweed. The buckets have small holes in them for slow drainage, which she tops off when it doesn’t rain. Since her landscape is primarily natives, they are the only plants that she gives supplemental irrigation.
“I miss this one when it is not in bloom,” Overstreet points to a coralbean shrub as she continues the tour.
Her landscape boasts colorful pockets of blue curl, Bahama senna, dotted horsemint, starry rosinweed, and sprawling native blue porterweed. She says that the blue curl has flowers that are absolutely stunning up close. River sage, a ground cover that does better with a little bit of shade, volunteered in the full-sun front yard, so she left it.
“The mockingbirds have really gone to town on this thing,” Overstreet says regarding a beautyberry. “I just love the color and apparently they love the taste.”
Nearby, a towering pokeweed displays its purple/blackish berries. “The birds go nuts over the berries,” Overstreet says. “The berries do stain your clothes. It kind of looks sloppy and a lot of people do not plant this one, but if you like birds, you will. It is important to have plants in your landscape that provide food for birds in the winter when we have migratory birds coming through.”
Her wax myrtle, a slow growing tree, which is also covered in berries, is a favorite of the songbirds as well. Ornamental coffee growing on the north side of her home displays small white flowers in the spring, with birds comfortably visiting the plant as she watches from her large windows. She recommends adding native Lantana with its tiny button flowers that produces berries that smaller birds enjoy. But she then adds, “You really want to watch out for invasive lantana because the birds spread it and it pops up everywhere, even in citrus groves.” In the fall, she sees several hummingbirds feeding from her native honeysuckle.
In addition to attracting birds, Overstreet attracts beneficial pollinators with plants of all sizes. She tells me that her marlberry tree puts out small dark berries for the birds. The tree has tiny insignificant white flowers that appeal to the little bees, wasps, and other pollinators with small mouthparts.
“I’m getting to the point where I am more tolerant of Bidens,” Overstreet adds. “A lot of people consider it real weedy. Yes, it does spread, but boy does it put out the nectar and the bees love it.”
“That’s the thing about wildlife and for birds. You have to accept that some of the plants are going to look sloppy or untidy. It may be sloppy to you, but it is fabulous for the birds,” Overstreet explains. “It’s what attracts them, not necessarily what you like. You accommodate wildlife.”
As she takes me to the backyard, bustling with bees and some songbirds, she reminds me, “The more natives you’ve got, the more wildlife.”
A native passionflower vine grows on a trellis, showing off its dark purple berries. Overstreet shows me how to identify frost weed by having me feel the rough leaves and study the tiny flowers.
On her to-do list is to hang a solitary bee house that she recently purchased. “It’s really good to provide homes for our native bees. If you want these beneficial insects to come to your landscape you’ve got to provide the habitat.”
Another practice she recommends is to not rake leaves when they fall. “A lot of our native bees are ground dwellers and plus it is so much better for the soil when you let the leaves decay.”
In a back corner of her lot stands a large yaupon holly. I laugh when she tells me, “When I am sitting here the birds will get in this and scold me.”
Whenever she finds skullcap popping up she digs up the seedlings and transplants them to a bed in the backyard. “A garden is never finished, you just keep going.”
Master gardeners are required to volunteer 50 hours annually, but as Master Gardner Emeritus, she is not required to volunteer. But, later this week she is teaching around 150 kids the importance of bees. When they enter the auditorium, she tells me it is like a flock of starlings. “If all I can do is to convince them that bees are good, then I’ve done my job,” she says. “It’s crazy how many grownups are scared of bees.”
In addition to volunteering more than 200 (not required) hours a year for the master gardener program, she is currently taking the Florida naturalist class. This is where she learns all of Florida’s different habitats, animals, and plants. Seeing how we are all connected is huge for gardeners she tells me. “I remember one time I was sitting on the front steps thinking to myself, ‘Gosh that rouge is getting a little too heavy I need to thin it out’,” Overstreet recalls. “I pointed to the plant and soon as I said this, a mockingbird flew down out of the oak took some berries and flew back up, so I thought okay I’ll leave it.”
VIRGINIA’S TOP NATIVE PLANTS
Bahama or Chapman’s senna (S. mexicana var. chapmanii)
Bear’s foot, hairy leafcup (Smallanthus uvedalius)
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Bird pepper (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum)
Blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum)
Blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis)
Coral honeysuckle, native (Lonicera sempervirens)
Coralbean (Erythrina herbacea)
Corkstem passionflower (Passiflora suberosa)
Dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata)
Firebush (Hamelia patens)
Firespike (Odontonema strictum)
Florida anise (Illicium floridanum)
Frostweed, white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica var. virginica)
Golden canna (C. flaccida)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Indian wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Marlberry (Ardisia escallonoides)
Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
River sage (Salvia misella)
Rougeplant (Rivina humilis)
Rough skullcap, helmet skullcap (Scutellaria integrifolia)
Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea)
Simpson’s stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans)
Snow squarestem, salt & pepper (Melanthera nivea)
Starry rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Walter’s viburnum (V. obovatum)
Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)
Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa)
Wild lantana/buttonsage (Lantana involucrata)
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria)