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A gardener's life

Gardening is in Earl Garland's genes. He bought a nursery from his father and went into business with his sister.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2002


PALMA CEIA -- As co-owner of a garden store, Earl Garland knows a lot about plants. He can tell which ones need light and which ones prefer shade. He can distinguish a mealybug from a spider mite.

He's a homegrown gardening guru.

But probe a little deeper and you learn that he's much more than the "Garden Guy." He's an arts aficionado, AIDS activist, pianist and party host -- to name a few.

Garland runs Garland's Garden on Bay to Bay Boulevard with his older sister, Sharon Mineo. They bought it from their father, Hugh, who owned it for nearly 20 years.

The site has been a nursery since 1939. Sterling and Geneva Rideout ran a garden store and florist along what was then a dirt road.

Garland, 51, grew up in South Tampa, where his family still lives. He attended local public schools and the University of South Florida, where he studied theater and art administration.

Garland ran the box office at USF, then moved to Wisconsin in 1973 to work for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He shivered all winter and left the next year.

He returned to the Sunshine State to help manage the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota. Two years later, he went to Atlanta to work at the Fox Theatre and for the Atlanta Symphony.

In Atlanta, Garland landed part-time gigs representing stars who came to town to perform. Among his favorites: Tony Bennett, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor and Liberace.

The thrill of working shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrities lost its luster for Garland in the mid-'80s.

He got tired of rock stars and their quirky demands.

"I found myself picking green M&Ms out of a crystal dish in the green room, and I got to thinking."

He needed a change.

Garland came back to Florida to work at his father's nursery. In 1989, he walked into an oak tree and punctured his right eye. He couldn't work for a year.

During that time, his sister became more involved in the garden shop. They teamed up and bought the business in 1991.

Since then, the siblings have expanded the inventory to include garden gifts, trellises and furniture. They use every inch of the 15,000-square-foot site, which includes parking.

"We're sort of stuck here," he said. "We would like to upgrade to keep up with the neighborhood."

Over the years, the store has survived an onslaught of supercenter nurseries, such as Home Depot and Lowe's. Garland says that rather than compete, he offers personal service and consistent quality.

"We try to give a tip about whatever it is they are buying," he said.

The store has a loyal following, dating back three generations. Many come for advice about how to save a bug-infested bromeliad or a rotting rose bush. Others say Garland's plants live longer.

As a neighborhood plant expert, Garland has heard it all. Like the person who calls and says, "My plant is dying. What should I do?" Like the customer who drives over to ask how cold it will really get, after watching the weather report on TV.

And his favorite:

"I saw this plant in my neighbor's yard that has green leaves and red flowers. What kind is it?"

Garland's love for plants and the outdoors spills into his life outside the nursery. He did a home gardening segment on WFLA-Ch. 8 for seven years and served on the city's tree and landscaping board and variance review board.

Last year, the garden of his Seminole Heights home was featured in the PBS series, At Garden's Gate. Garland and his longtime partner, Ed Zebrowski, have transformed their back yard into a garden oasis with low-maintenance plants and three fountains. Every Monday, they host a potluck dinner for 10 to 20 friends, complete with linen tableclothes and china.

When Garland isn't gardening, he practices piano on his Steinway grand and heads a committee building an AIDS memorial park along Bayshore Boulevard. Garland became active in gay rights issues after many people he knew in Atlanta died of AIDS.

The memorial is scheduled for unveiling Dec. 1, 2003, World AIDS Day. Garland says it will have a gazebo, pergola and a decorative water feature.

And, to be sure, plenty of plants.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

Earl Garland

  • OWNS: Garland's Garden
  • FAVORITE MEAL: Steak, baked potato, salad and Merlot.
  • FAVORITE TV SHOWS: Oz, Six Feet Under, Sex in the City.
  • FAVORITE CHORE: Mowing his yard.
  • MENTOR: John Coker, the late associate dean of USF's College of Fine Arts.
  • CAR: 1998 white Cadillac.
  • PETS: Dalmatians Buster, Harley and Hunter.

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