They Dig Naples
It has all the elements of a riveting film noir. A powerful politician in a wealthy town with a proclivity for shoveling dirt at odd hours. His beautiful blonde wife with the cascade of thick curls and lilting Southern accent. The muscular black sapote, of deep-rooted tropical ancestry, harboring a sensuous secret, and a reporter asking too many questions. A chain saw … a deeply shrouded path overhung with the deadly Angel’s Trumpet vine. And the raven-haired photographer whose lens recorded it all.
Alas, the clues are deceiving. If this were a movie, it would more likely be a Deep South antebellum romance, flavored with tall glasses of peach-infused iced tea, homemade banana bread (from bananas on the plantation) and a chintz-drenched parlor shaded by a spectacular magnolia tree.
The politician turns out to be the quintessential Southern gentleman, John F. Sorey III, on the eve of his swearing-in as mayor of Naples. His lovely wife, Delores, is a Southern belle through and through. While she does in fact yearn for her very own girly-sized chain saw, she most assuredly does not qualify as the dangerous femme fatale in a film noir.
Look at That Adorable Home!
For nearly two decades, passersby have been charmed by the Soreys’ artful home on Gulfshore Drive: a marriage of soft Caribbean pastels and traditional Southern architecture. There’s a wide, columned verandah accented with pineapple balustrades and white wicker furniture. Old Florida cabbage palms and stately royal palms cast their fringed shadows over the prettily manicured brick walkway. Showy profusions of Angel’s Trumpet flowers cascade over the porch railings. On the north side, lush green banana trees are sporting clusters of miniature pink fruit. On the south side, a Jurassic-size vanilla orchid snakes its thick tendrils around a magnificent mahogany tree. An enormous shade tree bearing strange, heavy green fruit towers over the two-story home. Masses of bromeliads flaunt their pink and yellow spikes, while orange and yellow star fruit hang just overhead, juicy and ready to eat. Noticeably absent is a blanket of green lawn.
Passersby on foot might also catch a glimpse of an interesting sculpture or objet d’art tucked into the landscape. Neighbors are often waved in by the gardeners themselves, to sample some newly ripened exotic fruit.
On this particular day, the Soreys have graciously invited Gulfshore Life’s readers for a peek at their extraordinary garden. But first, the social graces must be attended to, and there’s small talk while the iced tea is being poured.
“How long have you been gardeners?”
Delores answers first. “Oh, he’s the gardener. I’m the indentured servant. He does the planning and the creative part. I do yard work.
“Actually, I’m a farmer,” Mayor Sorey says. “Of course, this being Naples, I can’t be a farmer. I have to be a gardener. In my senior year of high school, I had a pickup truck and two acres—one for tomatoes and the other for lima beans, corn, okra and other produce. Six days a week, I’d get up at 4 a.m. and drive into Nashville to make my grocery sales. Upon my return at 9 a.m. or so, I’d pick vegetables until dark, and end the day with my sweetheart here (married 47 years now), sorting them in the garage.”
“Sorting vegetables,” Delores laughs. “Those were our dates.”
Delores carefully places dark, fragrant slices of banana bread on a platter. “You must taste this. It’s homemade by Chris Rideoutte. Her husband, Jim, is executive director of the Naples Players, and John serves on the board.”
“I send bananas home with Jim, and Chris sends back banana bread,” John says. “It’s a great swap!”
John and Delores raised their son, John, and daughter, Scarlett, in Tennessee and Georgia, while he built and ran his natural gas, specialty lubricants, industrial gas and building material businesses. He has long been interested in alternative energy resources, water conservation and organic gardening. They arrived in Naples in 1992 with an idea of building a home spacious enough to accommodate the visits of newly minted grandchildren. They looked forward to a slower and gentler lifestyle, enjoying the arts, and maybe growing a few banana trees.
Things worked out only partially as planned. The genial couple found such a warm welcome here that they immediately became immersed in the community. Soon they were accepting leadership roles, including the Naples Art Association, the Naples Players, Audubon and several charities, as well as John’s successful tenure on the Naples City Council. As for those few banana trees, well, let’s take a stroll.
Delores brings along a basket, and John grabs a long-handled fruit picker.
“When we bought this property,” the mayor says, “there was no landscaping. We cleared the scrub, leaving only the sabal and coconut palms and this mahogany tree that dominated the lot. We originally created a rough master plan, but we soon gave that up,” he says, laughing.
A Walk Through Family History
There seems to be a story behind everything in the Soreys’ garden. Delores points out a lush asparagus fern cascading from an old stone urn, merging with the wild landscape and sending shoots into the earth. “This fern is more than a century old,” she says. “My grandmother transported it from town to town in a covered wagon—can you imagine?”
Another early priority for the Soreys was finding a permanent spot for their treasured Orinoco banana trees. Everywhere they lived, they would plant them outside each spring, only to dig them up and house them in the basement over the winter.
“When we were first married and living in Tennessee, Minute Maid had a promotion [whereby] you could collect orange juice labels to get a free orange tree,” says Delores. “We put our tiny tree in a pot when John-John was just six months old. Here’s the tree, and John-John is now 43.”
The visitors admire a cluster of hand-painted birdhouses on tall white wooden posts. “We discovered birdhouses like them on Scarlett’s college campus years ago,” John says. “I made these for her as a Christmas gift. There are no birds at the moment. A family of bees has recently taken up residence.”
The northeast corner of the garden is home to the mayor’s miniature banana plantation.
“Everyone knows I love banana trees,” he says, smiling. “So people bring me plants. Right now we have 11 different varieties. My favorites are still the Orinocos. They’re heavy and make fabulous banana bread. The Jamaican reds are beautiful and also delicious. Sorry they’re not looking their best right now, due to the recent cold, wind and rain.”
What about that gigantic Norfolk Island pine, at least 40 feet tall, listing at such a precarious angle? The Soreys exchange a look and laugh. Definitely a story there.
“Remember, John? That was Christmas, 1983 in Nashville,” Delores says.
“We had just refinished the floors. It had been raining, and John wouldn’t let me drag a Christmas tree into the house. I was not happy with him. But we bought this six-foot potted pine and decorated it with ribbons. It turned out very pretty.”
John picks up the tale. “Hurricane Wilma blew through here in 2005, and knocked it sideways. The first few years it had much more of a lean to it. Now it’s starting to straighten back up.”
It’s clear that just about anything, no matter how unlikely, will grow abundantly for John Sorey. The mayor points out a tall, healthy mango tree. “This is a Kent mango, one of the best tasting mangoes in the world. By July, we’ll have five different cultivars of mango ripening on this one tree.”
The visitors are anxious to see the black sapote, or chocolate pudding fruit. With long-handled fruit picker over his shoulder, the mayor strides ahead, only to stop abruptly to scrape a clump of gooey brown matter from the sole of his shoe. “Ugh,” he says. “That was a perfect one. It must have just fallen because it wasn’t here earlier. You have to pick them just before they’re ready to hit the ground. No, no, don’t try to taste that one; I’ll pick you a fresh one.”
The farmer is clearly in his element as he reaches to pluck several dark green round fruits from the sapote tree. For a few brief moments, it seems, the rest of the world has ceased to exist.
A Chat with the Farmer
How do you feel about organic gardening?
Glad you asked. Except for the rare emergency—a blight or infestation—it’s all organic. I use horse manure and organic wood chips. No synthetic fertilizers. I haven’t used pesticides for two years now.
Any advice for new gardeners?
“One of the most common mistakes we tend to make in Southwest Florida is over-watering. If you see a lawn covered in dollar weed, you know it’s being watered too much. It’s such a temptation. In summer, things are dry, we want to water. A better choice is to plant things that are tolerant of our dry soil. Use less sod and more mulch.”
“Another misconception is that if a little fertilizer is good, more fertilizer must be better. That not only doesn’t work, it’s a waste of money and it’s unhealthy. The chemicals leech into our drinking water.
What do you enjoy most about the garden?
John: “I love to figure out better ways to do things. I’m very interested in [the creation of] cultivars of palms and bananas that will be resistant to lethal yellowing. But my greatest joy is to share all this fruit—just knowing that lychee fruit is $20 per pound in the store and I can give whole bags of them away.”
Delores: “It’s come to the point where I have to leave bags on our neighbors’ doorsteps and run.”
Y’all Come Back, Now
It’s time to leave, sadly. Now we see the purpose of Delores’ basket. She has gathered a bounty of exotic fruits to send home with the visitors. “Please take them,” she begs. “We don’t know what to do with it all.”
The last words come from Mayor Sorey: “Set that sapote on the counter and when it turns light brown, scoop out the pulp and put it on vanilla yogurt. Delicious!
“And please come back in July when the lychees are ripe!”
He Says/She Says
So what exactly are the roles of the Florida Master Gardener and his so-called “indentured servant” in this garden?
Delores: “Oh, we’re diametrically opposite. He likes wild and natural. I like neat and manicured. I love flowers. I finally stopped waiting for John to plant any and now plant my own. He did put in the magnolia. I had to have my magnolia. A Grandiflora—the real Southern magnolia.”
John: “I like everything in my garden to serve a purpose. Flowers don’t serve a purpose. But I do tolerate some, because she has to have her flowers,” he says, nodding at the voluptuous border of impatiens along the
Delores: “I wanted to get into some of the bigger trimming, so I asked for a chain saw for Christmas. Just a baby one. My daughter thought it was a great idea. But John said
John: “I do not intend to make any trips to the emergency room.”