Decades in the making, this Longwood resident’s backyard is a tropical oasis like no other
Longwood’s Charles Schmitt will tell you that his green thumb and knack for gardening is genetic, inherited from his parents. But the tropical wonderland he’s labored over and loved for the last 40 years is more than just a by-product of genes. It’s a manifestation of his daily devotion and passion. Charles has transformed his half-acre backyard from flat, bare land into a colorful tapestry of plants and trees from tropical countries around the world.
His garden weaves together lush flora, soothing waterfalls, fountains, koi ponds, greenhouses, and an exotic bromeliad collection of more than 200 species connected by winding, shady trails. By day, the garden beckons you to relax and transport yourself to a happy place. By night, beautiful mood lighting accompanied by gentle music from surround-sound speakers eases you into the evening. Throughout the garden, there are several spots to sit down, pause, and absorb the beauty, maybe with dinner, a glass of wine, and good company.
“I like to say we have the best restaurant in town,” jokes Charles, a recently retired dentist. “I just love to keep improving the garden and making it better. When guests come over, they say we have a mini theme park back here.”
Charles began his garden takeover soon after he, his wife Nancy, and two children moved from Ohio into their Longwood residence 40 years ago.
Shortly after the move, Charles learned that a patch of land at the end of Markham Woods road was about to be cleared to make room for a new restaurant. All the trees on the plot would have been destroyed, but Charles had a better idea.
“I went down there, and I dug up all kinds of trees and put them in the car and brought them home,” he recalls with a grin. “There was not a tree in my whole yard before I got started.”
Though Charles has planted and designed the majority of his backyard paradise himself, additions over the years such as the koi ponds and trails required professional help. To date, he’s brought in more than a dozen truckloads of dirt to give his garden height and create its undulating trails. Most recently, Charles began consulting with naturalist Randall Quirk, a tropical plant designer based in Winter Park.
“So many plants today are disposable, but not in this garden,” says Randall. “You’re not going to find many backyards like this. Charles has done an incredible job. In this home, plants are considered treasures. Charles shows tremendous respect for them.”
A veritable handyman, Charles has devised his own watering system for the garden, a wiring configuration for the lighting system, and a daylong process to prepare for an impending freeze during the colder months. He also propagates bromeliad pups (offshoot plants that grow from the base of the bromeliads). When the pups reach a certain size, they can be harvested, planted, and cared for on their own.
“If Charles gets an idea, he runs with it,” says his wife Nancy. “He’s our MacGyver.”
Nancy and Charles make a great team. Nancy’s a pro at handy tasks like fishing wires through conduit, and she helps Charles execute his vision. One of their favorite things to do is pick up treasures that complement the backyard during their travels, like a cheerful frog statue from Charleston, South Carolina, that sits near the outdoor bar.
Though the garden is now set up for a degree of self-sufficiency, in the early mornings Charles can often be found clearing out pine bark and doing cleanup work for several hours.
“I enjoy the escape in my garden and the sweat and the work,” he says. “It’s my pride and joy.”
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