A hidden oasis on Shady Lane

Story by Jarman Peacock • Photography by Tina Sargeant

While sweltering in the backyard, mowing the grass in the dog days of August, most of us would love to have a bubbling stream cascading past ancient architectural relics into a dark forest pool filled with Japanese koi. Homeowners Tom Eleazer and David Renfroe have created a tranquil subtropical oasis and transformed their Central Lakeland backyard of patchy St. Augustine grass and clipped green hedges into a cool, watery, tropical oasis. Tom and David began this project ten years ago after moving to Lakeland, and looking back at the mud pit that was there, they can hardly believe what has grown in its place. Luxurious gingers grow by the stream, elaborately colored bromeliads and orchids grow on rocky outcrops, and spectacular tree ferns reach for the canopy.
Make the best use of what you have. What might appear at first to be a disadvantage can actually turn out to be an asset. This particular garden revolves around an enormous, 150-year-old live oak tree. Many homeowners consider large trees like this a challenge because the shade is so dense that grass won’t grow well under it, leaf litter and pollen are a yearly headache, and the giant roots make planting difficult. But those same characteristics have been turned into what makes this garden so special. The tree liberated these homeowners from the constant maintenance of a lawn. The leaf litter naturally mulches the plants, eliminating the need to buy truckloads of mulch, and the roots forced them to plant where the tree dictated, leading to a more natural garden — with no straight lines — that looks like it was always there.
Expand your plant palette. These homeowners have done an excellent job being adventurous with their plant material, and the results are absolutely incredible. Giant bird’s nest ferns rise out of antique urns. Aralia and heliconia join peperomia and pilea in a natural-looking streambed. Unusual orchid and bromeliad hybrids flourish in the dappled light, swaying gently in the breeze. The ancient oak acts as a blanket on cold winter nights, protecting any plants under it, and in the summer it recreates the forest canopy that so many tropical plants prefer to grow under. In fact, rather than the conventional thinking that deep shade makes it difficult to grow anything, in reality, shade enables gardeners to experiment with plants they might never think would do well in their Lakeland backyard.
Go slow and steady. Far too many homeowners pay thousands of dollars to a landscaper to swoop in and plant their entire yard for them all at once. In the span of a couple of days, they end up with the same hedges, ground covers, and giant swaths of mulch that can be found in any other backyard — or for that matter, any bank or drive-thru restaurant. It really is much more rewarding to take the time to create a landscape in the same way you might have filled a clothes closet: slowly, gradually, and from many different sources. That way, the garden becomes a reflection of who you are as an individual or family. The material can even bring back memories of weekend trips or special days when a cool or unusual plant was discovered somewhere. Tom and David have spent many Saturdays — almost ten years’ worth — buying two or three plants from local garden centers, which, over the course of a few years, have grown into a garden masterpiece.


I sat down with Tom recently to ask him a few questions about his wonderful garden.
Jarman Peacock: Your garden has such a lush, tropical, Asian vibe. Where exactly did your inspiration come from to begin this process?
Tom Eleazer: Well, I moved here from Oklahoma City, so there wasn’t much lush and tropical about that. But my grandmother, whose name was Jane Hair, was a true inspiration to me growing up in South Carolina. I can still vividly remember her begonia collection, and that is probably where I began to love plants.
JP: What are the coolest plants in your garden?
TE: The plant that means the most to me came from my son, Forrest, when he was working in a garden center in Gainesville during college. It’s a rare species of dendrobium orchid which rotates through various phases of leaves and incredibly beautiful flowers during the year. I love that it always reminds me of him when it’s blooming. Also, I don’t know if you even remember, but one of the first plants I ever bought from you [at the Green House Garden Store] is still one of my favorites. You know, it has been almost ten years since the Saturday I purchased the amorphophallus, the Voodoo Lily. It’s such an interesting plant, and I always look forward to it blooming its single, crazy, weird flower every year. Many thanks for that one!
JP: Be honest. How difficult is it to keep a pond like this up?
TE: (laughs) Ok, I swear it’s just an hour a week. That’s it. The main thing is to clean the filter every week of silt buildup. The fish are fun to feed, and I have an ultraviolet light behind the waterfall that keeps the water clean. It really is a joy to have, especially in the evening, which is my favorite time of day out here.
JP: Since we are doing this for The Lakelander, I want to finish by asking what are your favorite things about your adopted city?
TE: Gosh, you know I tell people that have never been here that it really is like the entire city is a garden. I know that’s kind of cliché, but it’s true. Lakeland has so many wonderful, shady neighborhoods, tree-lined streets, beautiful parks and lakes, the charming downtown, and everything is just full of beautiful plants. Of course, living less than an hour to the Gulf beaches and Disney World isn’t so bad either.
Leaf study of shade plants from the garden — all plants listed here have been purchased from local garden centers in Lakeland.
A diverse group of subtropical plants grown as much for their leaves as for the flowers. Coming from southern Brazil, which has a climate similar to Central Florida, begonias do very well in Lakeland gardens.
A wonderful family of colorful and hardy plants, many of which grow from tubers that protect them from frosts and droughts. They are a nice addition to any garden.
Commonly grown as annuals, coleus will actually overwinter in protected areas of the garden, growing into medium-height shrubs. The leaf on the far left is Persian Shield and can be used in the garden in the same manner as coleus.
Terrific seasonal color for gardens, caladiums go dormant in the winter but provide a bright splash of color for summer. They can also grow in much sunnier areas than most other shade-loving plants.