In the overnight hours before landscape designer Victor Lazzari opened his English-style garden to members of a local garden club, a cold front made its way down the entire length of the Florida peninsula. Wind and light rain arrived in the darkness, but by morning, a cool breeze had pushed away any lingering clouds, unveiling a brilliantly blue sky. The typical South Florida humidity was yesterday’s memory.
In other words, it was a perfectly proper English day in South Florida — and Lazzari’s garden seemed to know it. Zinnias shimmied on their stems, fern fronds bounced on breezes, roses displayed their finest ruffles, and visitors wore light jackets with their shorts. In the middle of it all, answering questions, pointing out specific varieties, and wearing his straw hat, was Lazzari. (Our conversation picks up where Part 1 ended.)
Nitty Gritty Dirt Man: What’s your earliest or fondest gardening memory?
Victor Lazzari: That’s easy. I was about five years old and accompanied my dad to a Hechinger, which was the Mid-Atlantic predecessor of Home Depot. We had to walk through the outdoor garden center, and I got to pick out my very first cell pack of annuals while we were there. I still remember them. . . they were magenta petunias, and I was so giddy that my manly, bearish “man’s-man” of an Italian father let his young son buy flowers, and never once said no or called me a sissy for wanting to do so. To this day, 30-some years later, literally every time I see the wavy-edged trumpet blossom of a petunia and breathe in the sweet scent — a mix of rose, dust, and sweat, the smell of high summertime in Maryland — I am suddenly five years old again, marveling at the simple quiet beauty of flowers and their power to lift up the human spirit in countless ways.
NGDM: I have to say something about your roses. Personally, I love them and hate them — great flowers and scent, but way too many things to worry about, from pests to fungus. Yours, though, are exquisite. What’s your secret?
VL: I can make this one relatively easy: experiment and share notes. One of the things about roses is that they are incredibly complex from a genetic standpoint. The roses we grow in gardens today are descended from hundreds of species that range in habitat from frigid northern Europe to subtropical southern China and Japan. And there are literally hundreds of thousands of hybrid rose varieties now in commerce. With genetic background this diverse, the rose varieties themselves are also just as diverse in terms of where they will thrive.
For example, there are roses that, because they are largely descended from subtropical Chinese species, simply thrive in South Florida with minimal care — and, of course, these make up a big chunk of my own personal collection. Contrariwise, there are other varieties descended mostly from European species that need winter chill to grow and bloom well, so I have none of these in my garden.
I’m always experimenting, though. I always purchase 2-3 specimens of each variety so I can rate their performance in South Florida. If all three become quickly diseased, or fail to bloom well, I scratch the variety off my list entirely and throw them in the trash. If one performs poorly but the other two are thriving and full of flowers, it could just be that one of the plants was a bad nursery plant from the start.
Again, though, experimentation is key. For example, “Poseidon” is a rose developed by Kordes, a German rose breeding company, and in theory shouldn’t grow or bloom well in a climate like South Florida, where it’s nothing like Germany. Well, “Poseidon” is a top performer in my yard, has little problem with disease, and blooms magnificently, especially in the cool season from December through early May.
NGDM: You’re a very big guy. What’s more difficult to do: bench press 350 lbs. or gardening?
VL: [Laughing] Thanks! I wasn’t always a big boy. Naturally my body wants to be tall and skinny, so just as with my garden, growing my body has taken years of work and proper planning and “fertilizing,” if you will. The analogy is accurate, actually — just like most plants won’t grow unless you feed them their proper plant nutrients, it’s virtually impossible to pack on muscle mass without proper human nutrients, too.
That said, gardening is way, way harder than bench pressing 350lbs! A set of heavy bench pressing is a grueling task, but it only lasts for maybe 30 or 40 seconds. With gardening, sometimes I’m doing hard physical labor from dawn to dusk. I love every moment of it, but it’s way harder than any gym workout I’ve ever put myself through. Sometimes, after hours of kneeling in the dirt, my lower back hurts so much that I want to scream. Why do I keep doing it? Because I love it — even if it hurts sometimes! When you’re surrounded by natural beauty, and you hear the twitter of birds overhead and see butterflies doing their dance right next to you, and feel the wind in your face and inhale deep breaths of flower fragrances, you figure out ways to not care about stiff knees and lower back pain.
There was once a meme I saw on the Internet, related to fitness and personal training. It’s a picture of a woman, clearly exhausted from a grueling workout and on the verge of tears, but she’s finally down to the dress size she wants to be at for her wedding. The caption reads: “I didn’t say it would be easy. I said it would be worth it.” That’s pretty much how I feel about fine gardening. I didn’t say it would be easy. I said it would be worth it.