There are so many good things I could say about Pensacola, FL and why I love living here so much.  Our sugary white sand beaches, the historical architecture of downtown, and the sense of community felt at the Palafox Market on Saturday mornings to just name a few.  However, even with this list of a “few of my favorite things” about Pensacola in mind, there are still things here that I think could be done better.

Five years ago I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the country of France.  The Horticulture Club at University of Florida started a program to give students the opportunity of travel to different places to experience horticulture abroad.  I was one of the very fortunate students to participate in this program.

When I returned, I was filled with inspiration and acquired a new perspective on gardening.  It showed me the endless possibilities of gardening.  Even though five years have passed, I still daydream about my time there, which brings me to realize that here in Pensacola our gardens/landscapes are lacking.  I have seen what gardening can be at its fullest expression and I wish our town could do the same.

First, I don’t usually like the combination of plantings commonly used especially in our commercial landscaping.  They typically consist of annuals that stay very low to the ground.  It seems to be forgotten that we have a large variety of perennials with wonderful textures and heights to choose from.  This style of gardening is called carpet bedding plants, which was popular during the Victorian era in the mid 1800’s.  It’s usually composed of flowers of obnoxious colors, which leads to my next complaint: Flower color schemes.

While in college I was given a lecture about color in landscape design and thought it was a useless topic.  At that time I believed that all flowers were pretty and looked great together no matter how they were situated.  Since then I have learned this not to be the case.  After putting much hard work into several flower beds and finding they are lacking a certain something that I can clearly see in books/magazines, I have found that planning with color in mind is not such a bad idea.  It is an element that can really make a garden enchanting.

However, here in Pensacola I commonly find color schemes in gardens to be non-existent.  The other day I passed by a planting in front of a shopping center with beautiful pastels of white and lavender periwinkle, but then behind this cool flowing sea was bright burning yellow/orange Hibiscus.  I tend to like pastels or rosey colors in the garden, so when all I  see around town is orange, red, yellow, and flaming magenta, I am not impressed.  These colors have a place in the garden and I have seen them done well, but they are not all that is within the color wheel.

While in France I would physically have to stop to look at the flower beds that gave the towns their charm.  I could not get over the thought put into them.  Not just color, but texture and height arrangement.  It proved that my professor was right about considering color in your landscape design.

My biggest pet peeve here in Pensacola is undeniably our improper pruning skills.  I have spoken of “crape murder” before and how much I cringe during the spring.  Not only crape myrtles, but anything that grows larger than we like gets hacked back into dreadful shapes that unfortunately become the focal point of the landscape.  As a student I learned about styles of pruning that manipulated trees, but in a healthy way that created a work of art.  Pruning styles such as pollarding or espalier.  It was difficult to imagine what they looked like because all I had seen was pictures of these styles.  Then, while in France, I got to see them on a grand scale and finally I was able to appreciate what proper pruning could deliver.

A couple things I rarely see here at home that I saw in France was interesting cut-flower arrangements and integrating edible with inedible landscaping.  In Europe having a vase of fresh flowers in the home is common.  However, we tend to only invest in this pleasure when we have company to make our homes look their best.  The last nursery I worked for had an enormous greenhouse full of flowering plants that only I and one other person ever took the time to cut a few stems and throw in a vase to place on our desks.  At a chateau that I visited in France there were creative cut-flower arrangements everywhere!  I couldn’t believe how many there were.  I kept touching them to see if they were real.  They didn’t even use vases.  They mostly used baskets and decorated the openings with green moss.  People can barely remember to dust their fake plants here.

Also, we have unspoken strict rules about how are gardens should be arranged.  Vegetable gardens usually are not thought of something as beautiful as the flowers and are segregated from the rest of the garden.  I practice this myself, but just for the sake of maintenance.  Although, at a vineyard in France I took a double take when I saw artichoke plants in a formal garden bed!  It was striking, but still elegant.

The main problem my clients tend to have is visualizing the possibilities of a small space.  They cannot see beyond the blank canvas.  At one point I was this way.  My first apartment had an extremely small patio that could barely fit a table and chairs.  I complained to a co-worker one day that I would never have what I see in magazines.  She shook her head at me and said, “Oh there is plenty you can do with that!”  Even though I did do something with my small space, I never grasped this concept until I walked the small villages of France.  They took every opportunity to grow something in any nook and cranny they could manage.  We would be strolling down a cobblestone street with very little earth in sight and then out of nowhere there would be a towering rose bush climbing on the stone walls!  They were very familiar with the term “vertical gardening.”  The best part was that it wasn’t just a show for their neighbors to notice and envy, but a place for them to enjoy.  I spent a lot of time on a bus and nearly every small courtyard we passed had a bistro table that had chairs leaning up against the table to ensure the rain would drain off the seats.  This is how I know they were in constant use.  Why would you care if your seat is wet unless you frequently sat in them?

These scenes left an everlasting impression on me.  I brought their values home with me, which now have been implemented into my life and I have encouraged others to embrace them as well.  I love where I live and would be home sick if I left, but now I find myself longing for France.  So much in fact that I have decided to document my travels from France.  I tried to journal while I was there, but disagreeable room-mates and sight seeing exhaustion made it impossible.  Lately I have been struggling to keep my spirits up during some challenging obstacles I have been encountering, so I think a reflection of my time there is just what I need.  As I mentioned before, a Chinese poet once said that “to re-create something in words is like being alive twice.”  I wouldn’t mind living these moments again.

I suppose I will call this my “France Series.”  I will write about the places I visited in several posts and share with you my experiences there where I hope you will be transported there through my words.  Most likely I will be writing in present tense to give the writing a more “active” voice.  I look forward to our travels together…

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