Eighty-five-year-old Elaine Pittman’s love affair with gardening began 7 1/2 decades ago.
“My father gave me my first piece of a garden on Long Island when I was about 9 years old.
“Every spring, I would go to all of the neighbors around the block and ask for the little seedlings that they didn’t want. I had snow-on-the-mountain and bachelor buttons, and you name it,” said Pittman, who lives in Lutz.
She can barely remember a time since then when she wasn’t getting her hands dirty.
Throughout her life, she spent spare time digging in soil and coaxing beauty from the earth.
Now, gardening is part of her daily life.
And, in Florida, she can do it year-round.
Behind her house, she has a potting shed, where she has stacks of pots, a sink and potting soil — in an assembly line of sorts.
“I do have a sink full of water here. Certain plants require clean pots. I just soak them (pots) in bleach and detergent here,” she said.
She takes plants that others discard, or pass along to her, and she divides them into smaller plants, which she then tends in her backyard.
She’s nurturing all sorts of plants, including begonias, amaryllis, coonties, crotons, kalanchoe, maple leaf hibiscus and crown of thorns.
She was in her shed, one recent day, putting her skills to work.
She picked up a leather-leaf fern – a scraggily looking thing, but Pittman saw its potential.
“I always tell people I’m one of these idiots, something breaks, I can’t throw it away. I have to put it in dirt,” Pittman said.
After eyeballing the leather-leaf fern, she decides it will make three or four smaller plants.
She prepares a pot for the first cutting.
“I use coffee filters in the bottom of the pot. It keeps the dirt from washing out,” Pittman explains. She picks up the filters at The Dollar Tree to keep down her costs.
When a pot has a tiny hole, she uses a clump of dryer lint to keep in the dirt.
Then, she takes the first cutting from the leather-leaf fern. She holds it over the pot and begins adding potting mix. She holds the cutting in the center of the pot until she’s added enough soil in the pot to support it.
Next, she adds a “teensy” bit of systemic insecticide, then more soil, and then a small amount of fertilizer.
“I don’t believe in using as much fertilizer as they tell you. They want to make money,” Pittman said. Plus, she notes, too much fertilizer isn’t good for the environment.
At her age, Pittman said, she’s not able to make her own potting mix.
“I can’t do my own hard work because the body is too old,” she said. And, she added, “Arthur is not a good friend,” Pittman said, referring to her arthritis.
So, she enlists help.
“I have some young friends that are strong,” she said, and they make her potting mix for her.
And, while she can’t move as fast as she used to — she still manages to grow and sell hundreds of plants every year.
Her prices generally range from $2 to $6, with a few exceptions. “The most I’ve ever charged for one of my plants was $15,” Pittman said.
She sells most of her plants at a booth at the GFWC Lutz-Land O’ Lakes Woman’s Club yard sale and at two flea markets held at the Old Lutz School each year. The club’s yard sale is scheduled for March 3 and March 4, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., on both days, at the Old Lutz School, 18819 U.S. 41 N., in Lutz.
Proceeds go to the woman’s club, which, in turn, donates the money to Christian Social Services, which operates a thrift store and food pantry in a building that looks like a red barn, at 5514 Land O’ Lakes Blvd.
In recent years, Pittman has sold $1,000 in plants a year to provide donations. She said she likes to help Christian Social Services because they feed people who are hungry.
Pittman provides the labor, and the space to cultivate the plants, but she said the work she does relies on the generosity of others.
“People give me plants all of the time when they redo their yards. They’ll bring me the extras. “When my daughter cuts her hibiscus, she brings me the cuttings,” she said.
It’s also not uncommon for her to find plants, pots and other supplies left — anonymously — in front of her garage.
She takes those offerings and puts them to good use.
Pittman has never sought attention for her efforts to create beauty, and to help the poor.
But, it’s a project that seems to align nicely, with a quotation by an unknown author that the Lutz woman finds inspiring: “If there is any hope for the world, it can only be found in personal kindness.”
Published February 8, 2017