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A little slice of paradise

Published August 26, 2006

ZEPHYRHILLS - In the stunning heat of a Florida summer, Dick Fincke's garden is a little swatch of Eden.

Lush and green and vibrant with intense tropical color, it beckons from the street of this working man's neighborhood in unincorporated Pasco County on the outskirts of Zephyrhills.

"I like to draw people in, I want them to take their time," Fincke explains about his garden's meandering quality. It begins with a vine-draped wooden trellis and pulls the visitor past a soothing fountain and onto a path beneath the shade trees.

Fincke, 66, has earned the distinction of "master gardener" by the Pasco County Cooperative Extension Service. He is also the winner of a recent Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Water-Wise award for his creative conservation efforts.

Fincke and his wife, Mary Ellen, a medical receptionist, bought their small house on a modest lot in the early 1980s after moving to the area from South Florida - by way of the Florida Keys, where they once owned a family furniture business.

A friend told him to look around Crystal River, but he confused it with Crystal Springs and ended up driving around what was then a very rural town in a very rural Florida county.

For a man who had spent a few youthful years in the early '50s on his uncle's ranch in Deland, Zephyrhills felt like home. And the small, inexpensive subdivision, Piney Breeze, seemed just the fit.

"The house was just 2 or 3 years old, and our kids were still young when we bought it," Fincke remembers. "And I liked the neighborhood because it was rural, and Zephyrhills was such a pretty town with a nice high school."

Fincke, who honed his subtropical gardening skills while living in the Keys, soon planted a rose garden and created a small pool and waterfall from old whiskey barrels. He expanded the patio and deck area to create a soothing niche for drinking coffee in the mornings and relaxing in the evenings.

But he didn't stop there.

Over time, as neighbors sold off bits and pieces of land, or as a power company easement became available, he increased his lot size to nearly an acre. He began planting things that he knew would flourish, but required little water.

And no insecticides.

That's the beauty of it, says fellow master gardener and Zephyrhills resident Peggy Fortner.

"Dick plants things that are native and will live down here without requiring a lot of water," Fortner explains, pointing out that others in our ecologically fragile state should follow the same example. "We don't have enough water and we're watering our golf courses, I mean every town has a couple."

As for the insecticide-free gardening, she says simply: "Dick and I think (insecticides) give us diseases. By spraying the plants and putting them into the ground, you're causing people to essentially eat poison. We're eating cancer."


Fincke wants none of that. His garden grows with only the help of nature. At the peak of hot Florida summer, it thrives.

"I've got hundreds of plants in here: ginger, bamboo, plants that draw butterflies, night-blooming jasmine," he says. "I'm a collector."

So much so, that friends say he never sends anyone away without an armload of cuttings.

From the back porch, his yard winds and curves in leafy waves, like a robust Midwestern garden in summer. The land is lush with salvia, ferns, beach sunflowers, birds of paradise, and Turk's caps. Yet he hasn't watered all summer.

"It has as much to do with the soil and mulching," he says with a shrug. A sign on the back fence, says "Dick's Park," a gift from his daughter.

He built a charming cottagelike shed that houses his art studio, where he paints landscapes and folk art scenes of Florida. All around the garden, small, heartfelt touches beckon the visitor to linger: a globe-shaped sundial, a church-shaped birdhouse, a pair of glider swings, a couple of wooden garden benches.

"I tried to create little areas for people to sit and enjoy the view," he says.

In the middle of the day, a freight train roars down the tracks at the end of his small dead-end street. A plane heading for the Zephyrhills airport buzzes overhead. Monolithic power lines march like Vikings through his easement lot, and his property backs up to a Baptist Church gymnasium.

Yet Fincke, now retired from a series of jobs that included drapery installer for a major department store, notices none of it, preferring instead to create his living landscape, day by day, year by year.

He loves to garden on his meandering lot, he says, for what it feels like "when I go out there."

The children grown, the Finckes share the little three-bedroom, 1½-bath house with only their Lhasa Apso, Boo; a couple of friendly cats, Tipsy and Angel; and a collection of birds, including a shy cockatiel, Bubba, who only talks when guests aren't looking.

With all this, Fincke says, who needs a big house, anyway?

Plus, he's achieved his goal: creating a natural, junglelike Florida garden that prompts visitors to stop and look, rather than just walk straight up to the house.

"Oh, sure we could move. I've even looked over the years," he says with a shrug, "but I couldn't find anything that comes close to what we have here."

This little bit of paradise, created with one man's hands.

A garden that Fincke simply calls "the Lord's picture."

"I like to draw people in. I want them to take their time."

- Dick Fincke, master gardener

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:20:55]

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