The South Floridian Who Planted A Rose And Grew An English Garden, Part 1

It’s interesting to watch Victor Lazzari in his South Florida garden. At 6’1” and 290 lbs. of muscle and tattoos, he’s certainly a looming presence. It’s also where he happens to be the most comfortable, walking along the garden’s hidden paths, gently cupping roses in hands that are just as capable of lifting 350 lbs. at the gym, and inhaling each bloom’s sweet or subtle scent.

Most strikingly, though, Lazzari’s garden is done in the English style. Yes, an English garden is growing in South Florida.

Lazzari, who lives  with his partner, Brian, and Tyson the dog and Teddy the cat, has been designing landscapes since, well, forever. While a young teenager growing up in suburban Maryland, Lazzari discovered the work of the grande dame of English gardening, Gertrude Jekyll. By age 16, a neighbor hired him (for $50) to redesign and install a backyard flowerbed — and the spark of a career in landscape design was ignited.

Initially, Lazzari thought he would write about gardens for magazines and newspapers, but shortly after joining the journalism program at the University of Maryland, he soon became disillusioned. On the verge of dropping out and becoming lost, he had a chance encounter with a professor in the school’s Landscape Design and Management program. With little experience and a few submitted designs, Lazzari was admitted into his new major and received his Bachelors degree in 2003.

Since then, he’s gone on to achieve his Masters in Landscape Architecture and a Masters certificate in Agroecology, both from Florida International University. At the same time, Lazzari also became a certified personal trainer and for years he’s straddled two worlds, creating JungleGymFL. Under that umbrella, he’s able to satisfy both of his passions: landscape design and personal training.

Always, though, was the dream of designing and planting an English garden, partly just to do it, partly to show other South Florida gardeners that climate constraints do not have to limit gardening possibilities, and fully to share his passion with others.

In addition to being active on social media, Lazzari opens up his garden for tours to local garden clubs. During one such tour several years ago, which was my first visit, Lazzari spoke of the curved borders and island beds in his front yard, each filled with pastel-colored flowers held aloft on long, graceful stems. The rest of the yard was a blank canvas, and Lazzari talked excitedly about his vision and plans for the remainder of his half-acre lot.

Recently, Lazzari held another tour for a different garden club. The garden transformation is astounding, with overflowing beds and borders wrapping around the house and embracing the property. It’s clear his passion hasn’t diminished over the years.

As enjoyable as it is to explore his design, plant selections, and color choices — as well as the abundance of bees and butterflies — it’s just as much fun to eavesdrop on his impassioned conversations with other garden club visitors. Lazzari welcomes each newcomer, shares his knowledge, answers each question, and always encourages others to garden.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Man: I know you have a real love for Gertrude Jekyll. What about her and her work impresses you?

Victor Lazzari: Let me divide the answer to this question into its two components: 1) her as a person and 2) her work.  Both are amazing and worthy of exploring.  Both also require us to understand the context of the era in which she lived and practiced garden design, which was the height of the Victorian Era.

As just a person (and I use that phrase loosely — “just” a person is a serious understatement), Gertrude is incredibly inspirational  You could basically call her the original “Independent Woman Who Don’t Need No Man.” The original “Girl Power.”  Seriously, just pick your feminist slang phrase — all of them pretty much apply to Gertrude.  During the Victorian Era, most women were expected to marry a man, shut their mouths, obey their husbands, be good little housewives, and basically do as the men in society told them to do.  Gertrude came along and gave a big middle finger to that patriarchy.  She remained single her whole life; that alone was remarkable in her day.  And she owned her own house, by herself — a freaking mansion at that.  And she started her own business as a landscape designer — again, without a man — and made it profitable until the day she died.  And not only was she wildly successful as a landscape/garden designer — enough to live in a huge estate as a single woman her whole life, during a period in history where this was unspeakably against the norm — but she was also an extremely skilled writer (she wrote 15 books, and published over 1000 magazine articles), painter, wood carver, sculptor, weaver, photographer… the list goes on.  Oh, and did I mention that all of this happened while she was going blind due to a hereditary disorder?  So not only was she talented, but she did it all as a single woman.  While going blind.  Over 100 years ago. When single women were deplored rather than praised.

OK, so hopefully that painted a pretty good picture of why Gertrude Jekyll is an admirable person by any standards. Now let’s tackle the second part of your question: what is it about her work as a landscape designer that impresses me?

The short answer is her iconoclastic use of color and texture. The long answer again draws back to the Victorian context of her work. Gertrude Jekyll lived during a time in landscape architectural history when most gardens were limited to something called “carpet bedding,” which was the use of large masses of flowers in a single color to create low geometric patterns on the ground. Gertrude hated carpet bedding because she felt that it robbed flowers of their natural individual beauty. She wanted each flower to stand out artistically through its own God-given uniqueness, regardless of whether it was short or tall, bulky or fine-textured, bell-shaped or daisy-shaped, etc.

To accomplish this, Gertrude turned towards the rustic cottage gardens created by lower class people who could not afford expensive carpet bedding. She then raised the concept of “cottage gardening” to a state of heightened elegance and meticulous planning. In her garden designs, each and every single flower was chosen so that all of the flowers next to it would perfectly complement it in terms of not just flower color, but also form, texture, opacity, and season of bloom.  The idea was to create living paintings, where each mass of flowers looked like a brushstroke of color weaving in and out of each other just like a painter would compose a painting on canvas.

She was a true master of using color in the garden. She knew exactly how to manipulate each and every color, along with the different hues and shades within specific colors, in order to create certain effects in the landscape. Probably the most spectacular example of this was the Main Flower Border at her own property, Munstead Wood, in England. It is a single “border” (the British term for flower bed) that is 14-feet wide and over 200-feet long, with thousands upon thousands of flowering annuals and perennials arranged in such a way that the colors start with pale grays and lavenders at one end, then gradually get warmer and blend into shades of yellow and orange and scarlet in the very center of the bed, before finally becoming softer again and ending in a medley of pale blues, whites and silvers at the other end. To be taken on this journey of colors changing gradually but noticeably and harmoniously, over 100 years before the advent of CAD technology and all the other modern tools landscape designers can use to compose their designs, is both stunning and humbling.

I realize that’s kind of a long answer, but Gertrude’s revolutionary outlook towards garden design completely changed the nature of English gardening from that point onward. English gardening thereafter became synonymous with these beautifully crafted flower gardens where color, texture, opacity, and all the other aspects of individual plant species are arranged in perfect harmony with one another.   She is really the one woman who started it all, and I am forever grateful to her legacy.

Granada. Photo by V. Lazzari

NGDM: When and how did your dream of designing and planting an English garden in South Florida take shape? 

VL: I started studying English cottage gardening in general, and Gertrude in particular, when I was about 14 years old and living with my parents.  This was the mid-1990s.  My parents owned a McMansion with a quarter acre around it, and my dad (who was always grateful to be relieved of yard work) basically said I could plant whatever I wanted around the yard as long as it looked good.  Those mid-‘90s years were my first attempts at English-style gardening and gave me some good practice.

Munstead Wood. Photo by V. Lazzari.

In 2007, I relocated to South Florida, and was inundated with what I call the “Jurassic Park Look” — all the oversized tropical things that people plant here in great excess.  The novelty of bananas, philodendrons, agaves, palms and so forth amused me for my first couple of years working as a landscape designer down here, but I actually got bored with it really quickly.  Every landscape was the same.

Mrs. B.R. Cant. Photo by V. Lazzari.

So after just a few years of living and practicing garden design here, I started yearning for the soft, feminine, blousy English-style gardens that I studied and designed up in Maryland. I didn’t want to move back — I love living in South Florida for many reasons — but I increasingly craved that “northern” garden aesthetic and dreamed of how I could create something like that here.

My dream took a positive turning point in 2013, when Costa Farms, one of the largest flower growers in North America, hired me to redesign their two-acre trial garden in Miami for their upcoming “2014 Season Premiere” event, a huge public gala where their experimental trial garden is open to the public for a few days every January.

I had heard of Costa Farms before but had never been to their offices or seen their trial garden.  When I was shown the trial garden during my interview for the job, my jaw dropped: Two acres of nothing but flowers.  No palms, no crotons, no bromeliads — just a seemingly endless sea of herbaceous annuals and perennials, artistically arranged into a beautiful working garden.  Daisies, salvias, petunias, pansies, snapdragons, foxgloves… even some South Florida staples like coleus and pentas.  This was the moment I had been waiting for since 2007 — solid, living proof that you can indeed have a soft, feminine, romantic English-style garden composed almost exclusively of flowers in tropical South Florida.

I have to take a moment to thank the two people at Costa Farms who mentored me during my brief tenure as the trial garden designer: My immediate liaison and mentor, Justin Hancock (who is now working with the prestigious Monrovia plant company in Oregon) and Angelica Cretu, the head of Research and Development (which oversees the trial garden) at Costa.  I was only with the trial garden redesign from September to December of 2013, but during that time I learned so much about which “English-looking” plants and flowers do well here in South Florida, which strengthened my aesthetic as an English-style landscape designer.

NGDM: Were there naysayers? 

VL: A few, yes.  But most of the naysayers were just like I was prior to 2013 — not really haters as much as they were just ignorant of the fact that you can have an English-style garden here, as long as you know how to design it, what plants to choose (and which ones to avoid), and when to plant what things (seasonality is a large component of success with this design style here).

Most people were surprisingly enthusiastic when I told them I was trying to create an English garden in the tropics.  Just like me, there’s a large chunk of the gardening public here that actually wants something different than the “Jurassic Park Look.”  These people have been my crutches when I’ve had moments of doubt, because while it’s certainly achievable, it does require thoughtful planning and execution.  It’s work.  But if it’s something you want, you don’t mind the work.  Just like back when I was living in Maryland, and there were gardeners who had extensive orchid collections and who had to really put some legwork in, horticulturally speaking, to keep them alive during a sub-zero winter.

NGDM: What are three easy steps the average home gardener can do to create the feel and look of an English garden in their area?

VL:  First, learn to appreciate the seasonality of different flowers, especially cool-season flowers, which is by far going to give you your greatest selection of material from which to create an English garden in the tropics.  One of the biggest issues with gardeners here is cultural. Because it’s warm and sunny 12 months a year, people expect their gardens to be unchanged and pristine 12 months a year.  People here balk at the idea of planting a flower that will “only” bloom for 3-4 months before either dying or going into dormancy.  They forget that for the rest of the country that experiences winter chill, that is the norm rather than the exception.

Second, seek out plants that have a fine, wispy or “open” texture or opacity. One of the reasons that so many South Florida landscapes have what I would deem a very hard, almost “aggressive” look to them is because most large-leaved tropical plants (think most tropical shrubs, bromeliads, agaves, gingers, etc.) are not just large-leaved, but very dense as well.  The combination of a large-scaled texture plus a dense opacity gives a plant an unyielding, “aggressive” feel.  Consider a planting of Green Island ficus next to a planting of gaura (Oenothera lindheimeri).  Both are good performers in South Florida, both can be maintained at about the same height, but one of them is dense and unyielding while the other is open and wispy and waves around in the slightest breeze.  That kind of blousy openness and movement is one of the things that gives an English garden its charm and sort of “femininity” if you will.  So, next time you’re in a garden center, try to seek out plants that have a fine texture, movement, or an overall softness in their look.

Finally, experiment! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “oh, that plant won’t grow in South Florida” from people — and I have it not just growing but thriving in my yard. I’ve had plenty of failures along the way.  In November 2017, I planted about 1000 seeds of flowers I thought would do well and thrive in a South Florida winter, but nearly everything died. It was too cold for the zinnias I chose, but still too warm for pink calendulas.  But along with the failures have come successes.  Tall ageratum does great here in almost every season.  Vining sweetpeas do well as winter annuals.  The lavender tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis) is supposedly a West-Coast-only plant but one of my friends has one that’s 12′ tall.  The worst thing a gardener can do is tell themselves “no” from the start, without even trying.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview with landscape designer Victor Lazzari.

15 thoughts on “The South Floridian Who Planted A Rose And Grew An English Garden, Part 1

  1. enjoyed every word!!! Kevin, I’ve always enjoyed your writing and Victor, I admire your willingness to try what most say won’t work and be so successful! I admire your vision and knowledge of plants and hope to get another yard tour! sounds like you’ve done a lot from when I saw it last!

    • Hi Dianne. You’re more than welcome. My plan is to keep this space COVID-free, so it will always been an escape. If you’d like, feel free to poke around at some earlier posts. Please, stay safe during these crazy days.

  2. Kevin, great post. Much to read/contemplate, yet with much home time these days, great topic.
    I hope that you are well and safe at home.
    My garden will keep me sane during this time. The weeding will keep me cursing. 😉
    How about you? Diane

    • Hi Diane. I am so thankful to have a garden, and even more thankful that I enjoy weeding. To be able to shut out all of the noise and pretend, if even for a little while, that the day is “normal.” Joe and I have hardly ventured out for about three weeks — and I’ve we’ve turned self-isolation into an art form. Please, stay safe in your part of the world. 🙂

      • Kevin, Yes, indeed. I even visited the garden center (considered essential retail) when I was in town today and came home with 8′ stakes and mulch for blueberry tulle project and to top coat the Buxus transplants. I too spent time on hand and knees popping out errant dandelions and other invasives. Don’t worry, there are plenty of dandys in neighbors’ yards, so the bees will be happy. Just “not in my garden”. 😉 I forgot all about the global madness, and only quit my tasks when showers began. Now to form daffodil bouquets for tomorrow’s farmer’s market. Thank you for your comments! Diane

  3. Hi Kevin, Enjoyed this post even though we are in a different planting zone. Lots of the ideas carry over. You have also done an amazing job learning to garden in a new climate.
    I am outside every day that weather permits here in NY. We are so fortunate to have an outside place to be now.
    Stay safe!

  4. Pingback: The South Floridian Who Planted A Rose And Grew An English Garden, Part 2 | Nitty Gritty Dirt Man

  5. Hallo Victor and everyone I am writing from Whitley Bay in North East England in lockdown. Have you been to the Gertrude Jekyll designed garden on Lindisfarne, an island off our coast here in Northumberland? A really challenging site – windy, sunny, fretted by sea mists but she made a wonderful walled micro garden. It has been restored – when I get out I will send photos.
    Magical island and another example of her talent.
    The sun has come out and I am so happy to have my tiny green garden . To potter about in during these hard times. Newcastle upon Tyne and Northumberland’s dramatic weather is famous, but we love a garden.
    Your blog and the ideas our lovely. Keep up the good work.

    • Hello Vanessa. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll pass along you comments to Victor. I hope you and yours are well and staying safe in your part of the world. Happy Gardening!

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