Behind fences, in the backyards of houses at the Jersey Shore, James Sarappa turns on his yellow boom box, finds "Moon River" or a soothing waltz, and plants eye-popping tropical flowers in huge ceramic pots that sit alongside sparkling pools.
Call him the Jersey Shore's flower whisperer, or, as he would say, flower groomer.
Sarappa focuses on backyards in Longport, Margate and Ocean City, where his customers pay him handsomely to create oases.
"I talk to all the plants and put on easy listening love songs for them. A happy garden is a beautiful garden," Sarappa said, as he offered a tour of several Shore properties where unusual combinations of flowers flourish in attractive containers.
Behind one house, orange canna lilies hugged peach-and-yellow-hued hibiscus plants and lantanas in a stone pot while a nearby container displayed a trellis covered with trumpet-like red dipladenia above a purple spiderwort plant that sprouted tiny pink flowers.
Sarappa's high-end clients also hire him to water and to fuss over their potted plants. The service includes springing into action when a summer storm approaches. He quickly heads to their properties and puts the pots in a garage or other safe place until the winds die down. He also trouble-shoots when he sees pests clinging to leaves or detects signs of other plant distress.
Sarappa, 53, created this niche landscape design business 20 years ago. He has two workers and an assistant and has grown his customer base to about 100 through word-of-mouth.
He wears a T-shirt with his motto, "Feel the Passion," and shows off bloom-packed potted plants and the Phoenix roebelenii palms arranged around the pool at his own summer home in Longport.
Sarappa got his start in the plant business by doing landscape design for a garden center in Somers Point years ago. He decided to launch his own company, James Andrew Designs.
Marcus Nistico, his right-hand man, joined Sarappa's company 11 years ago. Nistico said they want their clients' backyards to look impeccable and sometimes water wilting plants that they were not hired to nurture just to make sure they all survive.
"We hate to see a plant die," said Nistico, who previously cut lawns.
A pair of leafy tropical trees that sit in slender yellow vases on one front porch offers a glimpse of their work and catches the attention of passers-by as they trudge to the beach.
Sarappa also beautifies private ocean-side decks, such as that of Gerri Rastelli, whose family company, Rastelli Foods Group, began as a butcher shop in Philadelphia. "I started with James 15 years ago and my flowers always look gorgeous," she said as Sarappa demonstrated a technique for keeping the flowers lining her deck in constant bloom.
At the end of the summer season, Sarappa empties his clients' containers and either puts them away until next year, or creates autumn arrangements that feature ornamental grasses, fall flowers, and colorful gourds.
He charges $100 to $1,000 to create a plant container, depending on the size and plant variety, and sets up custom service contracts to maintain the potted plants throughout the season. The cost varies depending on the scope of the work and frequency of visits.
"I sometimes get phone calls at 1 a.m.," Sarappa said. "If an unfortunate storm comes through at night and knocks the plants into a driveway, we have to move them and return later with new containers and re-plant them." Other times, he said, there have been calls about a potted plant that landed in a swimming pool after high winds.