Tropical Gardening in Florida
by David in Key West
I live in Key West, Florida, and the terrain we have to work with here would challenge any gardener. Tropical gardening is not easy here.
The yard we developed was basically a poured concrete slab patio 30 x 35 feet surrounded with planting beds five feet wide bordered by a solid wood plank fence six feet tall. The “planting beds” had been filled to a depth of twelve inches with developers topsoil, and contained mostly arid scrapings from fallow farmland in South Florida. Beneath the beds was solid oolitic fossilized coral limestone. At least it drains pretty quickly.
The developer had planted seven specimen palms, two ixoras, and an unruly areca palm. All of the palms showed chronic yellowing, and required almost weekly cut backs of dead fronds. Three very poorly chosen (and non-native) Hong Kong orchid trees had been planted along the back fence line; after five or six seasons they were hurricane-ravaged twisted verticals with odd limbs throwing few flowers and lots of dead leaves onto the patio area. Their leaves stain concrete very well.
Poorly Planted Bougainvilleas
Two poorly-sited bougainvilleas had been planted to train along the fence tops and over the gate entrance. The bases of the plants near the gate had reached circumferences of eight to ten inches, and the old wood had woody thorns of three inches (and more!) in length. Not really what you would want to welcome guests. The vines themselves weighed enough to make the fence planks sag, and regularly fell off the fence during wind events.
A solid stand of invasive Southern Shield fern had filled in the areas between the specimen plants and threatened to overtake the patio itself. The effect in the yard was a massive clump of overgrown, exotic and tropical weeds.
The first order of business was to remove the inappropriate orchid trees, two of the palms which were overshadowed by others, the bougainvilleas, and the areca palm. The remaining palms were trimmed up to a horizontal plane and the trunks were booted; palm fertilizer was administered to work on the yellowing. The Southern shield ferns were all lifted and removed from the site. All of the other wastes were mulched and yielded almost three yards of organic matter which was distributed around the planting beds.
Trucking in Organic Compost
A further five yards of organic compost were trucked in 160 miles from the mainland and added to the planting beds. This compost contained chicken and cow manure as well as mushroom compost and topsoil. It cost a fortune, but contained everything you could wish for in some planting beds. Once this was forked in and turned, the beds were bermed about two feet higher than the patio and left to settle for the four month rainy season. Weekly weeding and turning controlled some very wild looking visitors from the mainland!
During the rainy season, the ixoras were trimmed and shaped to give better forms. They tend to be bushy and squat when left to naturalize, and produce few blooms. The lower branches were trimmed back to the trunk, and selective cuts were taken to open up the upper branches. This produced a nice, open tree form, and they responded by producing hundreds of large blooms and much richer colored foliage.
Halyconia and Buttonwoods
A ten gallon halyconia was planted dead center in the back bed of the garden to establish a focal point for guests entering the gate. The rain and amended soil had the plant almost tripled in diameter within 120 days, and fronds had increased from six to eight feet to almost 16 feet tall. The first blooms followed about a month later.
Two eight-foot standard silver buttonwoods were planted in the back corners of the lot. These have dense, silvery grey-green foliage and form a nice counterpoint to the exotic greens and reds of the halyconia and the deep greens of the ixoras.
Between the halyconia and the buttonwoods, masses of deep red giant cordylines provide a mid-level structure and depth. Groups of three crotons with variegated yellow, green and red foliage were planted in front of them to bring the planting down to the three foot level and provide a Caribbean touch.
The side bed, between the bamboo and the largest specimen palm is straight and narrow, but forms a circular area as it goes around the palm tree and ends at the gate. This was a big question mark, since it makes up such an important planting area. We decided to start at the fence itself and work down.
Bougainvilleas Along the Fence
The fence beside the gate was 22 feet long. We reinforced the entire length, and added risers above with cross members that go up and over the gate itself like an arbor. Two bougainvilleas have been planted at eight and twelve feet from the gate, trimmed to three leaders each, and braided together to form standard stems that reach to the six foot height. These are secured to the fence posts with adjustable ties to accommodate increasing girth, and all thorns are removed as they develop. As the leaders grow, all side shoots are removed, and the leaders are trained to the outside of the fence with adjustable ties. The intention here is to have woody, well-trained leaders that provide a strong horizontal line along the top of the fence and over the gate. Bougainvilleas can grow a foot a day once they get going (or at least it seems like it!) so this is currently a twice-weekly maintenance issue until the clean leaders are developed. Wish me luck; it’s like herding cats.
In front of the bougainvilleas, we allowed about 18 inches for maintenance and again planted the giant red cordylines in masses. A row of variegated crotons follows the curve of the circular area, and silver wormwood artemisia is planted in front of that to tie in to the buttonwoods in the back planting area. This has formed a nice dense mass around the base of the palm tree, but the circular form seems a little Victorian and contrived rather than tropical. We will have to address this area again later.
The bamboo area seemed to need more of a lush tropical feeling, so we opted for elephant ears in the back with taro in front of it. Considering that it a straight line bed, the enormous leaves of the elephant ears and the dark purple color of the taro leaves makes for a lot of interest and different heights. Boring, I know, but it will also develop over time with some specimen plantings.
Uplights at Night
Uplights were set at the bases of the palm trees, the halyconia, the bamboo and the buttonwoods, and they pick out the foliage and provide some dramatic effects at night while offering soft navigation lighting from the gate to the staircase into the house.
The current to-do list involves taking down every third fence plank and trimming about half an inch off the width to get a little more air flow through the yard in the hot summertime.
So, aside from the major clean-out and back-breaking soil amendments, we have a pretty magical garden in just two short years. Other than the bougainvillea, it’s all pretty low maintenance. If you take the time to get the soil right, you’ll have pretty good results gardening in coral rock. I enjoyed my first attempt at tropical gardening.
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