The clever cultivator

Published June 2, 2006

NEW SUBURB BEAUTIFUL - Denise Rasmussen is the type of gardener who isn't afraid to try something different, even if the inspiration comes from a garden tour in Alaska, as one did recently. The striking, topiary-like geraniums there made her reconsider the possibilities for her own front yard, where her prized, and much admired, red geraniums brighten the exterior of her home.

That willingness to bring in fresh ideas made Rasmussen an ideal choice to lead major fundraising efforts for the aging Tampa Garden Club on Bayshore Boulevard. The 1969 building, given its coveted waterfront location, has always been "a treasure,'' said Kathy Echevarria, the club's immediate past president. But three years ago, the building needed extensive upgrades, and the money to achieve them was not there and, frankly, had never been.

"We were land rich and cash poor,'' Echevarria said.

Enter Rasmussen, who suggested the club look outside its membership, which draws exclusively from the 16 neighborhood garden circles throughout Tampa. Rasmussen founded the Friends of the Garden Club and called her friends and her friends' friends.

Knowledge of gardening was not a prerequisite, she said with a chuckle.

"It wasn't easy to get the mentality of the garden club switched in that direction,'' Echevarria said. "But she made a believer out of all of us.''

The result? In her two years leading the fundraising committee, Rasmussen and co-chairwoman Joanne Frazier raised more than $100,000 for the Tampa Garden Club. That money has gone directly into upgrading the building, resulting in an increase of bookings for weddings and other gatherings.

"We found that all you have to do is ask,'' Rasmussen said. "People are very generous.''

Rasmussen remains on the committee, which has raised more than $150,000 to date. And the garden club - officially the Tampa Federation of Garden Club Circles Inc. - is doing more to involve the community. It will mark National Garden Week next week with a youth program to teach elementary students about gardening.

Without Rasmussen's dedication, the club would not have been able to upgrade the building and continue its programs, Echevarria said.

"Denise is energetic. She's young. She's a career woman. She works very hard at what she does,'' Echevarria said. "That's a reinvention, in a way, of the garden club lady of 50 years ago.''

Rasmussen chuckles again when she hears she has been called young - she's 54 - but there's no denying that she has plenty of energy. Gardening is her main outlet. A flight attendant with Delta for 30 years, she is away an average of 13 days a month. After a couple of days being "cramped up there in that recycled air,'' she can't wait to get outside and begin working on her yard.

"This is our Shangri-La,'' she said.

Rasmussen and her husband, Jon, moved to Tampa from Fort Myers 30 years ago. Their 1926 home resembles a storybook cottage with its turrets and gables but has a decidedly Florida feel with its striped awnings and a sunny yellow and white color scheme. Jon does the mowing and blowing and jokes that he is "allowed'' to have his little corner of the yard, where he grows tomatoes and corn. The rest belongs to Denise.

Not long after moving to the neighborhood, Rasmussen joined New Suburb's Amaryllis Garden Circle and has been tinkering with her garden ever since. The only original element is the shade-giving elm in the back yard, which she and Jon estimate is 50 years old. Residing in the elm is a huge orchid that grew from a cutting from Jon's parents' yard in Fort Myers. Twice a year it blooms spectacularly with 125 to 150 lavender flowers.

The back yard is enclosed by a brick wall covered with vines of creeping fig, but neighbors - and their children and grandchildren - are always welcome. Jon loves to lure friends over by firing up his grill and smoker. For years, they have hosted parties at Christmas and egg hunts at Easter. They also were known for their elaborate Halloween haunted house, which once drew more than 350 children.

People often pull into Rasmussen's driveway to ask about her garden. She usually gives them the same response: Creating a welcoming garden in the Florida heat may seem intimidating, but it shouldn't be.

Look around, see what you like and just try.

"The way I do it is I test,'' she said. "What works, works. If it doesn't, it doesn't. ... Mine is a work in progress. I add a little every year.''


AGE: 54

PARTNER: Husband, Jon, of 30 years.

TRAVELING FOOLS: Denise is a flight attendant for Delta; Jon is in the financial services industry. Both travel so much for work that "sometimes we end up in the same city,'' Denise said.

IN THE GARDEN: She joined the Amaryllis Garden Circle in New Suburb Beautiful about 25 years ago and once served as its president. That earned her a seat on the Tampa Garden Club's board of directors.

GARDENING TIP NO. 1: "It's not too bad to start with a (design from a) landscaper,'' she said. "You can add your own little corners of touches.

''TIP NO. 2: Home improvement stores are a good place for novices to shop, but more experienced gardeners tend to go to nurseries. "You learn through seeing what you like, testing and then buying a little better garden plants,'' she said.

RULE OF (GREEN) THUMB: "I always look at what the city does in their medians, and if the city can grow it, you can grow it.''