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Treasures all around

From the delicate roses he breeds to malodorous Dumpster finds, John Starnes can find beauty anywhere.

RON MATUS
Published June 6, 2003

GANDY - If noses could get whiplash, John Starnes' schnoz would be in a brace.

On many days, it finds itself hanging over the lip of a Dumpster, sniffing the funk that rises from garbage drippings.

It won't stay wrinkled long. Inevitably, it pokes into the petals of exotic roses.

"Ooooh, look who's blooming," says Starnes, 49, pausing by one of dozens of rose varieties that overrun his front yard on Paxton Avenue. "Fishermen's Friend. Wait 'til you smell this puppy."

Starnes' nose can't help but swivel.

It's attached to an obsessed rose breeder and a fanatical Dumpster diver.

In Starnes' world, the titles go hand in hand. Kind of like the plastic pink flamingo and zebra statuette that grace the "unspeakable kitsch" that is his living room. Or the Star Trek starship images he tacks on to landscape paintings.

Or the perfect rose he aims to breed.

The one with the brilliant color and knockout scent. The one still hardy enough to thrive in Florida.

Neither roses nor Dumpsters are mere hobbies for Starnes, who scratches out an income by landscaping.

Roses are "the central anchor of my life," says Starnes, who also writes a free-lance gardening column for the St. Petersburg Times. And he has been Dumpster diving so long "it's like breathing."

Get to know Starnes and it makes sense.

Infuse a bunny hugger with artistic spirit. Swirl in life below the poverty line.

The man who emerges is driven to convert his back yard into an organic farm and to irrigate with leftover shower water. He doesn't think twice about inspecting other people's garbage.

His favorite trash bins squat next to Britton Plaza and at an apartment complex a half-mile from his home.

At the plaza, his technique looks more like Dumpster flying.

He uses his stomach to balance on the edge. Legs extend. Flies swarm.

Inside, one hand holds a cardboard box, while the other tosses in slices of Cici's Pizza.

Starnes will give the pizza to a friend who feeds ibises.

In Denver, where he owns a second home, he raided bins after midnight, scooping up cheese, yogurt and orange juice. Grocery stores dumped the food because labels said it expired at midnight.

"I'd come out with thick chunks of Gouda," Starnes says, a smile spreading beneath rose-colored glasses.

Truth be told, he still finds something worth nibbling on now and then.

Where other people see trash, Starnes sees sponges. At the apartment complex, he snags two squares of packing foam.

"You wouldn't believe the lather that comes out of these," he says.

Dumpster diving has spared Starnes from buying most of life's necessities. Even clothes. He shrugs: "If it's got anthrax on it, you just throw it in the washing machine."

Friends know Starnes has endured tough times. For years, he published his own gardening newsletter even though it drained his money and kept his stomach tuned to a perpetual grumble.

"He's been in a position where he didn't have food to eat and two nickels to rub together," says Sally Newkirk, who has known Starnes since high school. But those experiences "make him what he is today: extremely grateful."

Creative impulses motivate him, too.

When Starnes was an art student at Hillsborough Community College in the early 1970s, he bicycled from the Ybor campus to an industrial trash bin on Hillsborough Avenue. He scarfed up acrylic rods and chunks of Plexiglass. He used them in sculptures.

Today, he continues to turn cast-offs into art. His entire living room is a work in progress. All the furniture, all the fixin's - "all scrounged," he says proudly.

All inspired by Pee Wee's Playhouse.

Mirror scraps form a mosaic on the floor. Holographic snowflakes dance on the ceiling. The couch is wrapped with silk flowers from a cemetery.

In the corner, a cardboard cutout of a man with long hair and a steel stomach emerges from a potted plant.

"I use to call it gay trailer trash on acid," says Starnes, who is openly gay.

But seriously, he adds, "You get this eclectic look you can't possibly get at Rooms To Go."

Starnes wants his roses to be one-of-a-kind, too.

He started growing them in the late 1980s, then used them in his landscape business. But he wasn't "psycho" about them, he says.

But then, about a decade ago, a good friend killed herself.

"About a year later is when I noticed that roses had become absolutely pivotal in my life," he says. Later he learned that Old World aromatherapists prescribed the smell of roses as a balm for grief.

Now, in early spring and mid-fall, thousands of roses bloom in Starnes' yard.

Starnes has developed several varieties that are sold commercially, though none are big sellers yet.

One is the color of an apricot, and a climber to boot.

Another is so red and luscious, he wanted to call it Ruby Voodoo. But women friends told him Four Inch Heels would be more fitting.

"They said, "John, it's got to be sexual,"' he recalls. "It's an unbelievably globular, dark, sultry, ox-blood red magenta thing. So inviting."

Starnes' mission is to breed roses that "love Florida instead of just tolerate it."

The ones that like Florida have limited colors and fragrances, and even the more vibrant varieties aren't good climbers, he says. He wants roses that will do it all.

He envisions them sprouting freely in Tampa's poorest neighborhoods.

"If I score," he says about his project, "I could end up well off some day."

He means money, not riches.

He figures he'll aways forage for hidden treasures. And sniff the ones in bloom.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com

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