What an artist does with paint, Charles Roppolo does with canna lilies and hibiscus, hostas and lantana.
“I’d call myself a landscape artist or, I guess a good word for it would be exterior decorator,” said Roppolo early one weekday morning, his ever-present white coffee cup in hand.
That’s how he travels his compact yard each morning, sipping his morning brew and pinching a dry leaf here, moving a potted plant there.
It’s second nature to the 68-year-old retiree of the state Department of Transportation and Development. He’s been working in the yard since he was a young teen when his family owned acreage in what used to be the country.
“We lived on what became the old Fun Fair Park property,” said Roppolo, recalling with a laugh how his mother threatened to leave his father when he built the family’s 6,000-square-foot brick home on the property at the intersection of Florida Boulevard and Airline Highway.
“Florida Street was gravel up to that time,” said Roppolo. “But we had a lot of property, and we had some guys who would work out there, and I learned from them. And my mother had a rose garden.”
It was the start of a love affair that has never ended.
In fact, Roppolo is still so excited about digging and planting, he can’t stop himself from helping others. At least a half-dozen of his neighbors in Shadows Lake subdivision, where he and wife Linda moved six years ago, and dozens of others in the city and beyond have benefited from his eye for color and design.
“I don’t like to sketch out a plan. It’s usually when I’m working that ideas hit me,” said Roppolo, who outlined the parameters of his own backyard garden one afternoon with a weed trimmer.
That was child’s play compared to the yard he kept at the couple’s previous home in Sherwood Manor subdivision where they lived for 27 years.
“I had a kidney-shaped pool and it looked like a park setting,” he said, adding with a laugh, “The day I built that pool was the happiest day of my life. The second happiest day was when I filled in that pool.”
For this new, much smaller yard, Roppolo had so many ideas, he said he felt overwhelmed.
“I had to call my nephew, Randy Pitalo, who has worked with me for many years, to come over and help,” Roppolo said.
With the thermometer ticking near the 100-degree mark these days, it’s hard to keep even slightly cool outside. And, while the mercury doesn’t really budge in the Roppolos’ backyard, it feels cooler. The trees, plants and colorful flower beds create such a lush setting you’d swear there’s a breeze coming from the lake just yards away.
And, while anyone with an unlimited budget can create a garden oasis, that’s not how Roppolo works.
He’s a giver and a taker when it comes to plants or cuttings. Pointing to the two corkscrew willows on the bank of the lake, he said they came from cuttings from his sister’s trees.
“I bet we’ve started more than a hundred willows off her trees,” Roppolo said.
He shops the local nurseries and is always looking for a deal. You can work wonders with paint, he said, pointing out the fiberglass fountain near his front door that he painted black.
“Now it looks like wrought iron,” he said.
You won’t find the exotic or hard-to-care-for plants in the Roppolos’ yard. They came from local nurseries or friends.
It’s how he uses them that creates his stunning landscape.
“The thing people need to understand is that your yard doesn’t have to look all one way. You can have different gardens at your home. We have a New Orleans courtyard in the front and a tropical garden with Oriental touches in the back,” he said.
Gardens, however, don’t take care of themselves, so be aware of how big a commitment you’re willing to make when planting your yard, he advised.
“Landscapes change not monthly, but daily,” said Roppolo, adding that it’s easier to pluck one or two weeds a day than to let it go for weeks.
Some of the most important questions to ask at a nursery is about a plant’s characteristics — how tall will it get, how much will it spread, how much sun or shade does it need.
“The local nurseries here are great,” he said. “So don’t ever be afraid to ask a question. If you have a plant that’s not doing well, bring it in and ask them what’s wrong.”
Roppolo said he likes to play with design and one of the easiest ways of adding color to a bed is with a plant in a pot.
“And, if it doesn’t work, you just move it,” he said.
For the New Orleans-style look of the front entrance, Roppolo used the fountain to one side of the red-painted walkway, and a small bed edged on two sides with neatly trimmed boxwoods on the other.
Pink and yellow lantana and a pineapple lily add to the landscape, as do pots filled with impatiens and lipstick vine.
In the backyard, the feel is tropical as the flower beds take slow curves around a concrete patio stamped and stained a bronzy brown and edged with brick.
Five sable palms tower over the beds, where Roppolo has scattered plants that bloom in Technicolor brights — the hibiscus and canna lilies.
But it’s the greenery in shades from chartreuse to almost black that breathes life into the space.
Some of his favorites include the dark green of chocolate chip ajuga groundcover and the gossamer fuzz of white velvet. There are the heart-shaped leaves of alocasia growing tall and the variegation of the yellow-green hostas lighting a small corner.
To one side, Roppolo has created a small formal seating space, trimming sweet olive trees into a squared off backdrop to a stone cherub perched in an old birdbath stained a dark color and filled with burgundy and green coleus. Rose bush topiaries and red caladiums complete the space, which Roppolo has decorated with iron chairs and two white planters which date to 1947 and were his mother’s.
Only a foot away, Roppolo used banana trees for a backdrop to a small Asian garden, with a concrete pagoda and the spiky leaves of delosperma tumbling through small boulders.
There’s another bed where mountain hawthorne is shaped into leafy orbs, while dwarf nandinas sprout new bright green leaves in another spot.
Somehow it all comes together with splendid results.
But, Roppolo said, it’s always a work in progress. He points to one area where a new palm will soon go in, and another where he’ll soon move pots.
“You can always change things up,” he said. “And that’s what’s fun about it. That’s what gets me excited.”
Roppolo’s garden tips
Charles Roppolo gets asked for gardening tips so often, he started a Facebook page, Solutions by Charles, to give advice. So “like” it to get ideas. Or you can email him at Charlesropp@gmail.com to ask a question.
Here are some of his best tips:
• To enhance beds, use a variety of colorful plants. Variegated liriope, canna lilies, coleus, nandina and hostas are a few of his favorites.
• When blooms droop and die, dead head them (pinch them off) to promote new growth.
• During the summer, spray plants bi-weekly with a water soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle-Gro.
• Watering in the summer is critical to avoid having the root ball dry out. For plants that are visibly drooping and thirsty just spraying water isn’t enough. Slowly trickle water from a hose in the container or at the base of the plant until it’s revived.
• For trouble spots in your bed where just nothing will grow, add a garden pot or container. Use good potting soil and a colorful annual. To add dimension, throw in an ivy vine and suddenly that dead spot becomes a focal point.
• Edge your beds just as you edge your sidewalks. Clearing out an inch or two around the bed and packing the mulch tightly (a push broom is great for this) will make your beds really stand out.
• You can plant year round, but the best time to start major work is in the fall when the roots are dormant. Use a root stimulator to encourage growth in winter and prevent shock in summer.
• When buying plants, ask questions. Be sure the plant is right for the area you have in mind. Find out its characteristics, such as how tall and wide does it grow? Does it spread or clump? Is it very invasive? Does it take sun or shade? And finally, what about the root system? For instance, roots from cypress and willow trees spread like wildfire and should never be planted by sidewalks, patios or home foundations because they might crack them.
• Pick your project before you buy and make a list of what you think you need to complete it. This is especially true for beginners … start with small projects, say adding a small fountain or statue with some flowers and groundcover around it. Place a bench on your patio or front porch, select a few pots and group them together with annuals.
• Don’t be overwhelmed when you go to the nursery. Walk around and get to know it, meet the staff and ask questions. Tackle one project at a time, especially if you’re a beginner. Finish a couple of small projects before you take on ones that may take a couple of days.