CREEPING FIG welcomes all who enter.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN A NOT-SO-FARAWAY LAND, John Gray had a dream to create two English-style cottages and surround them with carefree, informal gardens. After four years, he and his family turned that dream into a reality. The small plot of land gives host to two picturesque cottages complete with high-pitched roofs and vines clinging to the authentic, English-inspired stucco walls. Walkways canopied with lush vegetation lead to a backyard where utility and beauty are blended just like the English gardens of long ago.

At first, John’s mother, Dawn, was skeptical about the cottage garden concept. John describes her as “the typical Southern lady” who wanted symmetry in the form of ligustrum trees and rows of azaleas and boxwoods. But today she sings a different tune, as her face lights up when she describes the joys that their informal gardens bring into her life. Her grandchildren, Miles and Gray Albright and Lily Anna Gray, gladly share in the planting, harvesting, and taste-testing of the fruit from the small vegetable garden. Dawn echoes so many other gardeners’ feelings of satisfaction.

“I always wanted to have a garden like this,” Dawn says, smiling. “But I didn’t know how to do it.”

between the two homes.

Careful thought and planning was given to the homes and landscapes that John designed. A three-foot retention wall and a dry creek bed were installed to re-direct the flow of frequent summer rains. However, John laments he didn’t put his visionary plan for the garden to paper since he admits his plan changed as the garden evolved.

“I like to mix the unusual with the ordinary,” says John.

One unusual element John discovered for his garden is the Monarda didyma (“Jacob Cline”) or Jacob Cline Bee Balm. When the large, red flowers of these plants open, hummingbirds and butterflies flock to absorb the nectar. So maybe it’s a good thing to not stick with a plan.

A VOLUNTEER CELOSIA stands out in the border of Limerock Ruby Coreopsis.

John has established background plantings of azaleas, podocarpus, and other evergreens to set the stage for a variety of Florida perennials. Feathery plants are mixed with spiky ones. The bold leaf of the giant Rudbeckia is a sharp contrast to its neighbor with the delicate foliage. Tall butterfly gingers are nestled in the background while the dancing girl ginger has a front-row seat along the dry creek bed.

In this garden, the caregivers welcome change and the garden offers new gifts each day. In their little corner of England by way of Ocala, the Gray family works as a team to accomplish its goals. Once a year, they conduct what they call “The Winter Clean-Up,” which involves trimming back plants that have been damaged by Florida’s uncertain frosts.

FERNS, DANCING GIRL GINGER, Salvias, and young Lily Anna
flourish under the Grays’ supervision.

“I only prune what they tell me to,” Ashlie, John’s wife, laughingly comments, admitting that everyone is responsible for weeding.

 A quiet, soft-spoken member of this team is Larry Gray, John’s father. The garden provides Larry the escape that we all desire. He willingly installs and tweaks the irrigation system, finding great joy in “bringing things back to life,” as he says. Routine meandering through the flowers, herbs, and veggies gives Larry’s observant eye a chance to eliminate any unwanted critters.

TEA FOR TWO? Tea time is anytime in Lily Anna’s garden.

Curious visitors are frequent. Cars slowly pass to see what’s new on the street side of the garden. Questions are welcomed by the Grays with a humble reply to the unending compliments.

“It’s just a work in progress,” the family says in unison.

The Grays’ garden is as emotional as it is a visual inspiration. Lily Anna runs barefoot on velvety centipede grass as she plays hide-and-seek with Nana and Papa. John surprises Ashlie with fresh flower arrangements cut from their garden. Grandchildren discover the complete metamorphosis of a butterfly is nothing short of a miracle.

Passersby are inspired by the garden’s beauty and simplicity, which will be passed on from generation to generation through the gardens that the Grays created.

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