In Avondale, there is a front yard of cabbage palms, saw palmettos and winged elms providing a textured canopy of greenery for wildlife striving to survive in a neighborhood of bright green lawns and well-coiffed azalea bushes. Two wooden shadowboxes perched on posts pop out of coontie palms. Each box frames a poem to provide passersby a reason to stop and reflect. The yard looks wild, but upon closer inspection there is a linear balance to its design, providing a structure for the thriving native plants.

“This is really about Old Florida,” Pam Ingram, says about her yard. “It is about the vernacular of place.” She describes herself as a student in the garden, and her husband, Jake Ingram, the teacher. Jake is a former landscape architect whose work spans across the the Panhandle, in communities such as Sandestin, as well as St. Joe Company developments (think Watercolor), just to name a few. The company developed each of its communities with a philosophy based on the notion that things needed to be “of the place.”

“I use the word planting instead of gardening,” Jake says when it comes to growing native flora. “People are always looking for a no-maintenance garden, and native plants are a good place to start. They are self-reliant. Since they grew up here, they have all the stuff they need.”

Over a decade ago, Jake and Pam purchased their home in Avondale and transformed their conventional yard into a garden sanctuary for humans and critters alike. What once was a long slope of sod now is a shaded world of its own.

“Having movement in the garden is wonderful,” Jake says as he watches a bird perched in a tree. Their front and back yards are different by design and purpose, but similar in the fact that they are both teeming with life.

 

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Native Florida plants dominate the front yard at Pam and Jake Ingram’s Avondale home

 

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A firespike plant adds color to Pam and Jake Ingram’s Avondale backyard garden

 

A wide driveway leading back to a garage was transformed into a raised bed garden flush with vegetables this winter. The Ingrams originally built the beds from untreated pine, which deteriorated after about three years. They decided to rebuild them to last, and contracted a welder to build the beds from cut steel. The result is just a smattering of industrial aesthetic in an otherwise very organic and flowing garden. A rambling wooden fence surrounds the garden and outdoor dining area, breaking up the space between it, a compost area and a small pool.

“Jake had painted Chinese symbols above the gate that read “No mistakes in the garden,” but he realized, after he had painted them, that Chinese is written backward,” Pam says with a laugh. For the Ingrams, gardening is a journey of trial and error.

“You can’t be afraid of experimenting and starting over if you want to garden,” Pam says. “The most important thing going into it is that it is going to be a surprise. You have to be adaptable.”

They agree that there are no total successes or failures when gardening, and that more than anything it is a constant learning process that forces you to slow down and be mindful. The couple spends hours outside, working together and enjoying the meditative nature of the labor.

“Gardening is restorative, for kids and adults. You don’t have to be out in the woods [to be with nature], it can be right back there,” Jake says pointing to his backyard. Children in the neighborhood often come and work in the Ingrams’ garden, happy to explore and get their hands dirty.

Birds, squirrels, crawling bugs and butterflies fill their yard throughout the day. The Ingrams’ property provides wildlife with food and protection in a busy urban core neighborhood. “If everyone just planted a few native plants in their yards, we could create a sort of wildlife corridor,” Pam says. In that way, they suggest that we could not only all have tiny natural sanctuaries to enjoy ourselves but also provide resources to help restore the natural balance within urban neighborhoods.

But before you get started, Jake says, “Learn what grows.” Gardening in Florida is a wild adventure not for the faint of heart.

 

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On March 25, the Ingrams’ garden will be on the Garden Conservancy Tour in partnership with the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens. For information on tickets visit cummermuseum.org