Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lake Eola is the Green Heart of Orlando

Full view of Lake Eola Park, fountain and ducks

Downtown Orlando stretches from Lake Ivanhoe on the north to Lake Lucerne on the south. Right in the middle is Lake Eola Park. It's about forty five acres more or less evenly split between lake and land. The park is at the core of much of downtown's activity and has been for over a hundred years. A monument on the east side says it was placed at the site where Orlando Rees, the city's namesake was killed by Seminole Indians in 1837.

Southside of Lade Eola Park

As a native of Orlando, my memories of the park go back to my grandparents taking my sister and I down when we were barely able to walk or talk and feeding the ducks and swans. I repeated the ritual with my godson David when he was not much older. Some things are always fun.

The Sunday Farmer's Market at Lake Eola is always a blast

From the ages of six to nine I attended art school in a two story Victorian house at the southeast corner of the park. Once a year the school sponsored a contest where people from all over would come for a day to paint in the park. Likewise there was a fishing competition and one year when I couldn't have been older than five, I won!

Painting from SW side of Lake Eola featuring the main attraction, the fabulous center fountain
This painting which is also visible on my website, floridagardengallery.com, was painted summer 2008. I've now been painting the park for fifty years. I still enjoy looking at it.

A postcard from 1914 of the Sperry Fountain. The same fountain my above painting was created after.

The wonders of the park are too numerous to describe. One is no longer there, having lasted about fifty years and ending in the late seventies. It was the sweet pea wall, a fabulous multi tiered annual bed that boasted as many as seven tiers ending in a ten foot trellis of sweet peas that smelled as beautifully as they looked. For two summers in college, I was the assistant to the city of Orlando landscape architect. One of my jobs was to visit all of the parks and draw the annual beds so that he could twice a year plot the layout of the season's annuals. The most elaborate was the sweet pea bed. We were told that Kodak reported it was one of the ten most frequently photographed spots in the country.

Ariel view of 1930's Orlando and the Lake Eola bandstand.

One of the water features of Lake Eola Park include this pond with a magnificent bronze sculpture and bridge with lovely scenic view of downtown Orlando in the background

Windermere Landscaping

Today we will install the wider drive with contrasting color at the hacienda in Windermere. Yesterday saw the end of the installation of most of the plants and the footers for the pedestals that will support the large urns flanking the drive. We're in full monsoon season now with a seventy percent chance of showers. We'll work on with cover in the garage to make our cuts. It's all coming together. The owners are flying in tomorrow and we are trying to have it done before they get here. Hope they'll be on the late flights. Whatever is done, they'll be delighted because the transformation from no landscape to now is huge. Below is a before and after shot.
Photobucket Photobucket
The town of Windermere where this property is located is so full of lakes that on a map it appears to be a virtual island. These spring-fed lakes are considered pristine waters and are connected by a series of canals. A hundred years ago wealthy Orlandoans would keep camps here to escape on weekends for swimming, boating and fishing. Proximity to the resorts and world class golffing at courses like Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill and Tavistock's Islesworth have made this an enclave for sports celebrities like Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as well as anonymous super-rich from all over the world. Despite this, the town has retained much of it's charm with a little village center and many dirt roads, kept that way to keep the lakes clean by avoiding run-off that paved streets would cause. The tree canopy remains largely undisturbed. And in areas like the Hacienda, we are doing our part to increase the tree cover by planting numerous species of shade and flowering trees. Other plants are being added for their ability to attract the three b's- butterflies, bees and birds. When we are done, our acre should be doing its part to produce pleasure, beauty and an upgraded environment on it's little plot of town.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

St Johns River plain

Coming back over the St. Johns River Thursday at twilight, the sun turned the marshes gold and a thousand white ibises took off in flight all at once. Maybe they were frightened by an alligator. The river basin looks so prehistoric, Spielberg used it as the background shot for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. And all day, everything I've seen has been so wet. The cornfields along the Okeechobee canal, the tree farms in the Redlands, the lakes and ponds along the long stretches of grasslands full of cattle. It's every shade of green and the air is full of the smell of leaves and flowers. It's so sensual. Wildly coloured clouds soar up so soaked with water they explode with sheets of rain and the air is charged until it flashes with shafts of electricity. The lush life of Florida penetrates my pores, fills every sense of me with a rich erotic connection to its untamed nature. As I let it wash over me , it cleanses me.


Most Visitors to Orlando have Never Been There

Few destinations are as tricky as Orlando. For millions who visit Disney, Sea World and Universal their trip never brings them to the city of that name. And this is no accident. When Disney announced it's imminent arrival in the mid sixties, the city leaders were happy, as well as determined that downtown Orlando would be protected from an onslaught of tourists.
Contrary to popularly received wisdom, Orlando was an extremely prosperous city before Disney arrived. It sat straddling the rich citrus producing region which generated tens of billions in revenue in the fifties and sixties. Other agriculture in the area, from vegetable and foliage industries, to massive cattle ranches south of town, brought in billions more. The city had a full-time professional orchestra before Miami. The aerospace industry and in particular, the Martin company, had brought tens of thousands of high tech workers to the area, some of whom really were "rocket scientists." They laid the foundation that has made Orlando one of the top high tech regions in the country.
So, not to see their beautiful city besmirched by hordes of station wagon driving, tee -shirt buying hordes of middle class American and international gypsies, the city leaders erected the International Drive Area and actively encouraged all hotels to be built there, safely removed from downtown, but close enough for the city to gain tax and employment benefits.
The net effect of this little trick is that it let's those of us who live in Orlando forget there are any tourists here at all . They're all safely segregated ten to twenty miles to the southwest of anything that was ever historically considered to be the city.
And what's left for us to enjoy is one of the greenest cities in the country built around the shores of a hundred park lined lakes and downtown neighborhoods blanketed by live oaks. For those hip tourists smart enough to discover the deception, the trip to the real Orlando is the best part of their vacation. And we like them to come. It's just that our litlle slight of hand allows us to filter out the hordes of folks whose idea of a great time is to stand in line at a really slick amusement park.
Those old guys back in sixties Orlando were a pretty savy bunch. Even now most people haven't got a clue what they did.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Nurseries in Pahokee and Redlands

I got on the road at four thirty and made it down to the town of Okeechobee by sunrise. It is one of the neatest and cleanest little cities you can imagine, You can sense the prosperity that the surrounding farms and ranches bring. There seems to be a bank on every corner to hold the money. The route I took from Orlando took me down the turnpike past fifty miles of cattle country and woodlands where people come from all over to hunt for deer and wild turkeys. Disembarking at the intersection called Yeehaw Junction took me down a further thirty five miles, which starts as hunting camp land. Just above Okeechobee I passed the six mile long MacArthur Dairy, where tens of thousands of cows produce the leche for Miami's cafe.
I climbed the observation tower at a hotel to take a picture of the north shore of the lake. You have to get up tall to see it, because the whole shore is surrounded by a thirty foot dyke. It's then encircled by a canal with locks that give access every ten miles or so to the lake itself. What an elaborate engineering system. It will take billions to undo it but the benefits to wildlife and natural beauty will be worth it.
As I passed through Pahokee, I was struck by the contrast with its sister town on the other side of the lake. The dilapidated tenements and boarded up buildings provide the perfect stage set for hundreds of actors milling about with their paper bags just revealing a glint of aluminum or glass peeking over the top. Even by third world standards it seems poor.
The first nursery on my trip took my order for five hundred minima jasmine, one hundred twenty purple queen and fifty blue ruellia. I told them I would pick these up on my way back out of town as I headed to Homestead for some big stuff. Two pink tabebuias, a cassia, four eight foot trellised bouganvilla and three multi -trunked robellinis were capped off by a pair of standard "Miami" gardenias(as beautiful as they are fragrant) and two standard double peach hibiscus. The loading crew seemed incredulous that I intended to put all this in my little sixteen foot truck. They didn't know that I was planning on topping it off with a pair of twelve foot Queen crape myrtles and the six hundred seventy one gallon plants I'd already ordered.
Of course no trip to this area would have been complete without a fix of orchids. I stopped at my friends at Banjong whose other nursery is in Thailand. Sometimes when I come here their son and his other Buddhist monk friends are chanting in the avocado grove next to the greenhouses. I managed to limit myself to one blue species rynchostylis. It kept me company in the cab on the way home.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Windemere Landscape Design

We completed plans for the back garden at the hacienda that include expanded terrace, forty foot pergola and water feature. Tomorrow I will drive to Homestead, the Redlands and Okeechobee for more plants. We put in a french drain for new gutters in the atrium /pool area. We are modifying irrigation to give better watering to the eugenia hedge. And we got materials to build the front pedestals which will eventually have planter urns.
The south side of the property will have a grove with assorted citrus and tropical fruit trees. I'm trying to formulate a plan where we could give the food to second harvest or another food bank, but I've actually had a brain storm. We could form a charity that would have a stand at one of the farmer's markets where homeowners could donate their excess production and it could be sold there to raise money for the Audubon Society or other group seeking to preserve the natural environment. I'm going to work on fleshing this out. And with a 4 o'clock wake up, I'm going to make it an early night before hitting the road south.

Landscape Windemere Progress

There is a lot of planning to do in the next couple of days. The hacienda in Windermere needs a water feature. We'll have to build up a berm for it at the back of the property, which drops off a good four feet in just thirty feet of depth. This is the area of the home where the family will do a lot of their living, as it has a large covered lanai which we are expanding by ten additional feet in width and that space will be covered by a vine-covered pergola. In order to make the pond as low maintenance as possible we will need to make it large so that it becomes a mini-ecosystem. It will also serve as visual stimulus from the great room which has access through a pair of french doors, as does the eat-in area of the kitchen. This is a large house and will be used by many people, both overnight and day visitors.We'll be making a couple more trips dowm south for plants including fruit trees, robellini palms, queen crape myrtles and more bouganvilla. The back garden area will be heavy with shade and will feature tons of orchids and bromeliads. Orlando and Miami are world centers for the propogation and growth of both of these and stocking this garden will be a real delight. Water features, exotic tropicals, it sounds like a perfect spot for a monkey to party.

The Hacienda Home Before We Begin Work

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hong Kong Orchids imported from Lake Okeechobee

Thursday brought me down past the shores of Lake Okeechobee to get four Hong Kong Orchid trees. Latin name is Bauhinia, these trees are covered from January through March with large lavender blooms that resemble cattleya orchids. And although they are tropical, I've known specimens that have withstood 25 degrees and are still flourishing. They reach 30 to 40 feet here and make great shade trees with their evergreen foliage. I've always admired them, but for no good reason, have only used them once before at a home in Vero Beach. I plan on putting them in many more landscapes in the future. We'll put a couple tabebuia trees, beautiful flowering trees native to Brazil, to add more color to the hacienda in Windermere where we are currently working.

Photobucket Hong Kong Orchid Tree Bloom

On the way down I took a couple pictures of the big lake. You can't see the far shore, but I did see a twelve foot alligator guarding the near shore. I wish I could have seen the lake before it was surrounded by its twelve foot dyke and filled with sludge created by phosphorous input from the surrounding sugar farms. The horizon showed three huge sugar refineries and fields as far as the eye could see east of the lake. I don't think it will look like that in twenty years. I wonder if the rows of houses I forsee will be much of an improvement. They could be if they were designed properly with appropiate parkland and green space. One can only hope that we'll continue in that direction.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Park Avenue Is Really Like It Sounds

Park Avenue in Winter Park. Postcard circa 1940's

Winter Park is the towm just north of downtown Orlando that is the center of the area's cultural life. Park Avenue bisects the center of it and the street, heavily lined with trees, has over a hundred tableaus of planters and potted specimens that show the vast diversity of flora that grow in this area as it straddles climatic zones where both tropical and temperate plants flourish. The avenue starts on the south end at the Rollins College campus as it spreads along the shores of Lake Virginia. The school boasts an outstanding art museum, the Cornell , which Frommer's Travel guide once rated as one of the nation's top free attractions(there is now a nominal fee). Gourgeous live oaks and long leaf pines shade the campus which boasts a mediterranean revival style. Moving north the street is lined with shops and sidewalk cafes as it passes Central Park. After the park, the street passes the Morse Museum of American Art. Here one finds the world's greatest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. One can easily make an argument that he is one of the most important figures in the history of American art and design.
Photobucket Park Ave. Winter Park

As the the street progresses, it slices through the Winter Park Golf Course along whose eastern perimeter is the relocated masterpiece "Casa Feliz" by renowned architect James Gamble Rogers. The citizens of Winter Park raised the money to move it when a nouveau riche gent in the cruise line business bought the lakefront lot where it was located and promptly announced his intention to tear it down. Folks rallied, got the funds and the place will now serve as a community center and museum to Roger's works.
Photobucket Park Ave. Winter Park

Park Avenue turns west just past this spot and eventually joins Orlando Avenue as it passes into the charming little city of Maitland. Half a mile further it passes Lake Lily Park. Today there was a farmer's market and I sampled a piece of cabernet soaked fromage called "Drunken Goat." And just a short block further north is the Maitland Art Center.
Originally conceived by Andre Smith in the 1930's as a research studio, it consists of a series of small buildings with stamped concrete inspired by Mayan designs and set in a series of gardens. I can't think of a better place for a monkey to rest at the end of a trek up Park Avenue.
PhotobucketPark Avenue, Winter Park.
Greenada Court located on Park Avenue. Postcard circa 1940's
This boat tour runs every hour, every day, and has been for the last 70 years. Postcard circa 1940's.
Winter Parks Spring Art Festival. Postcard circa 1964.

The Hills of Clermont

Clermont, the Gem of The Hills. Postcard circa 1930's

Last week we drove out to Clermont to build a paver patio.
As we headed up the turnpike from I-4, we began the climb into low hills that mark the western side of Orlando, I remember that if your driving up from Miami, this is the first real change in terrain that you would have experienced in two hundred fifty miles. It's the place that the huge savanna that holds the Kissimmee River basin, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades ends and the sand hills of the state's spine begin.

View of Fosgate Groves, 1940's.

Clermont is the hilliest part of this area. It's home to the citrus tower, a two hundred plus foot edifice that was originally erected to let tourists marvel at the sight of endless miles of beautiful citrus groves rolling symetrically over the landscape. Much of this land once belonged to my great uncle Chester Fosgate, a pioneer in the citrus industry. Since my cousins sold 12oo acres of the grove, called Sky Top, about twenty years ago, the oranges are gone and have been replaced by equally symetrical lines of stucco and wallboard construction whose drabness is hardly ever interrupted by trees.

Citrus Tower. Postcard circa 1956.

There are some nice things. The National Triathlon Training Center is here and a golf course has used the elevation changes to create a dramatic setting for the sport. People have access, as they drive up the roads, to look down on Lake Apopka and downtown Orlando over twenty miles away, and experience views which are for Florida, astounding and beautiful.

Citrus Tower, Circa 1950's.

It is really a unique place. The scarred nature of the rude construction could certainly be significantly healed if more than a handful of people would landscape their land and turn it into garden space. Many are transplants who have no clue about plants or the beautiful spot that was once the source of tens millions of valencia oranges that gave up their juice at breakfast tables all over the world. Lucy, I think we got a lot of splaining to do.

Monkey, Man and Me

When I tell people I have a blog called The Garden Monkey, I'm usually met with a look of wry amusement. I think they wonder if I mean to be taken seriously. Yes, I do.
I remember a show where Betty White, who had just been on a visit to Ohio to spend time with Koko the gorilla, decribed the experience as transformative. To spend time with a so called great ape who has gained the ability to communicate through a few hundred words, changes our basic conception of what it is to be human. Language has previously been thought to be the most important attribute that distinguishes us from our sister species. To sit down with another creature that is both so like us and so different looking and have a conversation in which the gorilla might appear to be the more insightful participant, really shakes up our notion of the natural order of things. It undermines that arrogance that makes us feel superior to other animals. It's the same inflated sense of ourselves that makes humans feel superior to others of the same species who look different, who have other world views, religions or belong to a different tribe or nation.

People have felt uncomfortable with the monkey/man connection since Darwin first posited it over a hundred and fifty years ago. Are we not god's chosen creatures who have been given dominion over all the other animals? The fact that we have super egos has led us to presume superiority. It ultimately finds expression in dogmas, like those in the Old Testament, that say we are chosen by God as his favorites, to the detriment of other peoples, be they Moabites or Phillistines. We are lead by such notions down a path that not only presumes our primacy over other animals, but also over other people as well.
When we embrace our simian brothers, we start to heal that schism which has been the source of so much unhappiness. If we accept stewardship of nature, instead of control of it, we begin to enjoy the harmony with our environment that so many of our attempts to be civilized have destroyed. It's ok to have fun and the idea of being a monkey man sounds liberating to me. It's no wonder people give a little smile.