Posts Tagged ‘Disney world’

Okay, folks, I realize I’ve yammered on quite a bit about our garden over the past couple of years. So let me apologize in advance for bringing it up again.

But trust me, you’d have plenty to say too.

To begin with, the garden we inherited from the previous owner was an unqualified disaster. Not only was it overrun with scraggly, deeply unattractive plants, including a diseased avocado tree that yielded a couple of bowls’ worth of homemade guacamole before giving up the ghost…

Vieques May 2009 019

…it was also ornamented with such choice items as a rusted Buick chassis, several massive blobs of cement that looked like petrified cow patties, and four concrete pylons we dubbed Stonehenge South.

That was the back yard. Sad to say, it constituted the good news on the horticultural front.

The yard facing the road was even worse, though in an entirely different way. Whereas the back yard featured an over-abundance of singularly unattractive features, the front yard boasted almost no features at all.


It was bare and rocky and unloved. And every time we planted something in it, said thing either expired of its own accord or got eaten by horses.

Or was dug up and thrown out by our gardener.

I’m not kidding. It was like we’d put an ad on Craigslist for “Worst Gardener in the Caribbean.” The guy who de-forested our garden and threw out our favorite plants even came with references, including an alleged stint as a gardener at Disney World. Come to think of it, he was pretty Dopey.

So we canned him and spent the next few months replenishing our garden and building a privacy fence…

Lattice fence May 2012

…at which point Hurricane Irene thoughtfully swept through and knocked our prize coconut tree right over onto the fence, splitting it in half.

We paid $700 to have that tree replanted and within two months it was certifiably dead. Then we paid $300 to have its carcass hauled away.

Next—well, next we hired a new gardener, who started out gangbusters. He and his cheerful, rawboned girlfriend completely transformed our garden in two days.



We could hardly believe our luck. But on the third day he came over with a chain saw and climbed up into our mango tree and boy, did I smell trouble with a capital T. Before long, several enormous branches came crashing down onto the other end of our lattice fence, pretty much flattening it.

I swear, something about that fence said, “abuse me.”

We tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. Nobody’s perfect, accidents happen.

Then one day about a week later the same guy severed our gas line while trimming the bougainvillea bush near the back door. That was almost the last straw, until Michael reminded me that an even-moderately-okay gardener is hard to find in Vieques. So we kept quiet.

But pretty soon the guy seemed to lose interest altogether. As in, he quit showing up.

Our garden reverted to its former self within a month. As Jane used to say, nature happens fast in Vieques.

We have a new gardener now. He came with sterling references and seemed like a truly great human being when I interviewed him by phone.

When we finally met him in person we liked him a lot. He seemed to think our ideas were great and said “perfecto” a lot. I’m a sucker for anyone who thinks my gardening concepts are anywhere within ten miles of perfect, so I was pretty much sold.

He trimmed and replanted our garden, wired together our doomed fence and generally made everything right again. We were in love.

Until the next time we visited. “I give your garden a nice haircut,” he announced the day before our arrival.

Oh no.

He wasn’t kidding. In fact, he had scalped it.

Dying plant

All the lush tropical plants he had installed three months earlier were now pruned within an inch of their lives.

“Why?” I asked him the next day.

He scratched his head thoughtfully. “They will come back very booshy,” he replied.

“I want them booshy now, while I’m here.”


So Michael and I went to the nursery the next day and bought a few hundred bucks’ worth of plants. After four or five hours of backbreaking work everything looked swell again.


After that, I told our maybe-not-so-fabulous gardener “no more haircuts.”

He laughed and said “okay, sure,” as if the whole thing was one big joke. Which, of course, it is.

Unfortunately, the joke’s on us.

Book Cover Idea compressed

If you enjoyed this anecdote, check out my book Tropic of Sunshine (www.tropicofsunshine.com)


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After breakfast the next morning I dialed Francisco’s number.

He picked up immediately. “Hola!” he sang out cheerfully.

“Francisco, this is Patrick.”

“Mi amigo!”

Clearly he was already sauced.

“Could you stop by this morning?” I screamed, straining to make myself heard about the ear-splitting background noise.

“Yes, sure.”

“I’d like to discuss the garden with you.”

“Yes, your garden. You like?”

“Not so much,” I said.


“What time can you stop by?”

“But you like your garden, si?”


“What you mean?”  He sounded genuinely hurt.

“Let’s discuss it when you get here.”

Loud slurping noises ensued, followed by a sloppy belch. “To me, it perfect.”

“To me, it not,” I replied.

Okay, time out.  Had I just uttered the phrase, “To me, it not”?  Why, oh why did I always fall into Francisco’s fractured speech patterns every time we spoke?

Obviously this dude was getting to me in a bad way.

“See you at 11,” I said, as briskly and syntactically as possible.

He arrived at noon.

Michael was ready to throttle him.

“Let me talk to him first, then you come down and have your say,” I urged, fearing bloodshed.

Francisco was leaning against his truck drinking a beer as I unlocked the carport gate. When he saw me approach he chug-a-lugged his morning brewski and tossed the empty can into the cab of his truck.

“Buenas dias!” he bellowed.


“Welcome to your new garden,” he began, gesturing grandiosely around the barren patch of earth that, in retrospect, had been a veritable Garden of Eden just two months earlier.

“You love?” he asked hopefully.

“No, Francisco, I don’t love.  It’s a disaster.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “What you mean?”

I pulled out my notes.  “Well,” I began, “let’s see.  For starters, you promised to plant a mature hedge of bougainvillea across the bottom of the driveway.  I wouldn’t exactly call what you planted ‘mature’,” I said, gesturing to the scraggly, 10-inch-tall specimens he had stuck into the ground at uneven intervals. “I’m not sure I’d even call them plants.”

“These will grew very fast,” he claimed.

“I don’t think they’ll grew at all,” I shot back.  Grew at all?  The one-time-English-major in me paused for a moment of quiet despair.

“And then there’s the hibiscus hedge,” I soldiered on. “Just call me curious, but is there any particular reason why you planted it out of sight behind the garbage cans?”

“This is good spot.”

“This is terrible spot.  Unless you’re a garbage man who happens to like hibiscus.  And now let’s talk about all the beautiful plants you removed.”

“What remove?”

“I’m glad you asked,” I said, smiling demonically, at which point Francisco finally began to look the teeniest bit uneasy.  “I have the list right here: one palm tree, three ferns, five Heliconias and seven Calatheas.”

“Not to mention,” I paused for dramatic effect, pointing down the steps towards the lower level, “the ten beautiful seagrapes you hacked down and replaced with $5 weeds.”

“Weeds!?” he screamed righteously.

Just then, as Francisco and I squared off across the driveway, rhetorical daggers drawn, the guests staying in the house below ours came clomping down the stairs loaded with towels, beach chairs and a cooler.

“Good morning!” I called out cheerfully, pretending for all that world that I hadn’t just been on the brink of murdering our gardener.

“Hey,” they muttered nervously.  And, without further ado, they crammed the beach things into the back of the car, threw open the gate and screeched down the hill in record time.

My guess was that they’d been eavesdropping through one of the back windows and had decided to escape before the real shooting began.

“Weeds!?” Francisco repeated, picking up exactly where we’d left off.

“That’s what I said, weeds,” I replied wearily.

As fun as this was, it was clear we weren’t getting anywhere.  I had said everything I wanted to say, and Francisco had offered a series of non-responses so unconvincing that only someone drunker than himself would have fallen for them.

But then I realized that I hadn’t said the most important thing of all:  “To be honest, we feel cheated.”

This got his attention.  First his face flushed bright red, then he looked as if he might cry.  “I no cheat you,” he whined.  “I honest.”

Michael rounded the corner of the house as Francisco spoke.  “Okay, if you’re so honest then prove it,” he said.

Francisco looked puzzled.

“Fix our garden.”

A bubbly sigh escaped Francisco’s puffy lips.

“Okay,” he said, dangerously close to tears.  “I fix.”

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Back in D.C. we couldn’t help wondering how our little garden project was coming along.

Through the years we’d learned to deal with a deficit of information about what was going on in our little corner of paradise when we weren’t actually there, and although we knew we weren’t being deliberately kept in the dark…

…it led to some frustrating moments.

Sometimes we asked the same question three times and got no answer; other times we got three different answers.  Most days we felt like our most important job was to “keep sending money, no questions please.”

But since Francisco was new to our team we decided to test his communication skills.  After all, he had allegedly worked at Disney World, where the level of accountability was surely higher than your typical Vieques construction site (as I recall, Snow White ran a pretty tight ship).

Who knew, he might even slip up and throw us a scrap of information or two.

Luckily he had a cell phone (unlike many people we’d hired in Vieques through the years), and on occasion he even answered it.

And yet despite the fact that our Spanish had improved a bit over time, we weren’t up to the task of framing detailed horticultural questions.

And alas Francisco’s English wasn’t nearly good enough to make up the difference.


In desperation we emailed him several drawings we’d made of our garden ideas (yes, amazingly he had a computer and a cell phone—move over, Steve Jobs).

He called me at work the next day.  “Your drawings I like.”

This sounded promising.  “Great!”

“But too many plants you want.”

“Excuse me?”

In the background I could hear loud, brassy music and assorted sounds of revelry.

“To make this much plants, I need more checks.”

Oh god.  “More money?”


“How much?”

He named an amount almost exactly twice what we had originally agreed on.


“Si.  The plants on this island is no good.  I bring truck to Fajardo and buy plants in Puerto Rico.”

He’d already lost me with his request for “more checks” and now he was asking me to believe he couldn’t buy perfectly acceptable plants in Vieques.

“How about Arte Tropicale?” I asked.  This was the nursery a mile from our house where we’d already bought tons of healthy bushes and shrubs.

“They is crap.”

“No, they is not,” I said in measured, ungrammatical tones.

I was definitely losing this battle.

The music on his end seemed to swell just as our call began to break up.  “Okay, but make it beautiful!” I screamed.

“Beautiful, si,” he said, chuckling slightly.

Uh oh.

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Our relationship with Francisco, our Disney World-trained gardener, started off with a bang.


Michael and I were lounging in bed one morning drinking iced coffee and watching an old movie…

…when we heard a deafening crash from the general vicinity of our driveway, followed by a volley of colorful-sounding Spanish curse words.

Throwing on t-shirts and shorts we dashed to the balcony where we were greeted by the sight of an enormous white mega-truck cozying its dented nose up to our prized mango tree.  Tiny puffs of smoke seeped from under the truck’s hood and curled upward around the tree’s lush foliage.

Beside the truck teetered a portly middle-aged man in a faded red wife-beater and voluminous cut-off shorts that reached down almost to the tops of his bright white socks.

Spitting out yet another choice profanity, he removed his baseball cap and flung it to the ground.

A damp silence followed.

“Hola?” I hazarded.  The man looked up at me in bemused wonder.

“Your tree, it hit my car.”

“Uh huh,” I murmured, awestruck by the speed and efficiency with which he had removed himself from the blame equation in his little mishap.

I could clearly learn a thing or two from this guy.

“I’m sorry,” I said, apologizing for our tree.

Michael gave me a Look.

“No problem,” Francisco replied with a shrug, tossing his fender into the back of the truck.

Five minutes later we were face to face.

Seriously.  Face.  To.  Face.

I’ve driven past distilleries that smelled less like beer than our new gardener.  His breath was sour almost to the point of sweetness; his body smelled like small animals had burrowed into his armpits and expired.

“Mucho gusto!” he beamed, grabbing our hands in his big sticky paw.  “Your garden, I will make it like a paradise.”

This sounded promising.  I nodded enthusiastically, reflecting that maybe he didn’t smell so unpleasant after all.

“Come,” he urged, swinging open the monolithic door of his truck.  “I show you my work.”

The truck’s cab was crammed so full of empty beer cans we could barely excavate a place to sit.  It was also occupied by two fairly large dogs who didn’t seem completely delighted to share their space with us.

Noticing my concerned expression, Francisco declared the dogs “crazy friendly.”  Which would have been a lot more convincing if one of them hadn’t begun to growl ominously every time my leg got within an inch of his drooling snout.

Whistling merrily, Francisco gunned the truck into life and before you could say “gag reflex” we were on our way, bouncing along to god knew where.

Our destination, it turned out, was a small house in a ravine whose garden Francisco had apparently designed.

I must say it was pretty impressive.  Everything looked healthy, orderly, logically-placed.

In brief, it looked like a massively-upgraded version of our own garden.

And soon after we arrived back home we struck a deal.  Francisco promised, for what seemed like an inordinately hefty sum, to transform our garden in stages over the next year or two, starting with the small beds skirting the driveway.

During the quick walk-through that followed Michael and I pointed out the plants we wanted Francisco to replace—and, very emphatically, the ones we wanted him to keep.

“Don’t you want to take a few notes?” I couldn’t help asking, knowing how little I trust my own faulty memory nowadays.

“No need,” he replied.  “It’s all in here!”  And with that he tapped his bald, sweaty pate.

“Make it beautiful,” I said, drawing as close to his face as I dared.

He smiled blissfully. “You won’t recognize, I promise.”  (This forecast proved sadly true.)

And then Francisco enveloped us in moist, rancid hugs and climbed back into his truck, which he proceeded to wrangle to and fro in our driveway until at least half our gravel had been relocated.

Happily our tree chose not to leap into his path this time around–and with a cheery wave he was gone.

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Second thoughts can be wonderful things.

Take our plans to put in a new pool.

Once the glow of my Bloody Mary-palooza had worn off…

…and Michael had taken a long hard look at the numbers, we decided it was a tad premature to think about putting in a pool after all.

But there were plenty of other things to occupy our time—and empty our bank account.

To wit: when we returned to the island in May we were struck by how seedy the garden had become.

Admittedly, in Vieques a garden could become overgrown in approximately two minutes.  Jane claimed you could actually watch plants grow on the island, and we almost believed her.

I know I’ve told you about our breadfruit tree before, but humor me one more time:  the thing grew so fast we had to have it topped every four to six months to keep it from blocking our view of the big island.  And when I say “topped,” I don’t mean a couple of feet each time; I mean ten feet or more.  Every six months.

Think about it.

When we bought the house its garden boasted an amazing array of trees—avocado, lime, banana, papaya and mimosa, as well as the aforementioned mango and breadfruit—not to mention many smaller shrubs and plants that flower at various times of the year.

But in the intervening years a few of these trees had met their maker.

The biggest loss was our avocado tree, which stood in isolated splendor in the middle of the side yard.

One winter it had looked perfectly healthy…

…the next it was leafless and gaunt.

We couldn’t figure it out.  How could such a large, seemingly robust tree suddenly bite the dust?

Our neighbor, red-nosed and cheerful as ever, diagnosed termites, which struck us as highly unlikely until we walked around to the side of the tree he was pointing to and were treated to the sight of a massive termite nest perched high in its ghostly branches.

Further investigation revealed an almost hollow trunk.

Goodbye homemade guacamole.

Next our small but attractive papaya tree began looking frayed around the edges, and soon it had to be removed too.

The place was a mess.

And now it was time for action.

We had never really had a gardener per se—Jane had just asked her handyman to mow the yard and trim the shrubs when they crossed the line from “picturesque” to “out of control”—but it occurred to us now that maybe we needed one.

And yet–a gardener.  Really?

It sounded so lah-ti-dah, so unlike our lives in D.C. where we cleaned our own apartments, washed our own cars and tended our own little balcony gardens ourselves.

But the house in Vieques was a business, we told ourselves—a business whose success depended on things like curb appeal.

Okay.  Now that we had convinced ourselves we needed a gardener, how to find one?

As always, we asked Jane first, but she had no suggestions for us.  So we called Corinne, our neighbor in the house below.  She didn’t have any ideas either, but she knew someone who absolutely swore by a guy named Francisco.

According to Corinne’s friend, Francisco was a professional gardener who had been trained in Florida.

At Disney World in fact.

That should have been our first clue.

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