Fight boredom with tropical flair
By JOHN A. STARNES JR.
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000
As a native Florida gardener born in Key West, I seem to have a love of "tropicalness." Yet a lot of my fellow natives and transplants from up North find the prevalence of junipers and ligustrums and oaks and pines a far cry from the island look we'd like our yards to evoke.
With several easy-to-grow, strategically placed tropical and subtropical perennials, we can give our yards true Florida flavor.
First, scatter about a dozen pink plastic flamingoes all over the yard. (Just kidding.)
Seriously, improve acidic sandy soil with nutrients and a cheap source of organic matter. My favorites are menhaden fish meal (it stinks for a few days but supplies the major plant nutrients) and dolomite. I sprinkle both on the soil about as heavily as Parmesan cheese on spaghetti, and I like Parmesan cheese.
I've also grown fond of an all-natural so-called "lawn" food called Ironite: a light sprinkling of it supplies the iron, zinc and sulphur all plants need. Ironite is also useful in acidifying overly alkaline soil. For organic matter, apply a 3-inch-thick layer of compost or wood chips from a tree trimming service or horse stall sweepings, or a 1-inch-thick layer of alfalfa pellets from the same feed store from which you ordered the menhaden fish meal.
To help the sandy soil hold moisture, you can also sprinkle a 1-inch-thick layer of cheap clay cat litter over the area. Turn all this under with a shovel (not rototilling), as you would in a veggie garden, and water well. Let it "ripen" for a week or two.
For a tall tropical accent, you can't beat traveler's palm and white bird of paradise, both related to the equally tropical-looking banana and perfect for framing a front yard. All three evoke the look of the Keys or Hawaii and will bounce back after a rare freeze. They like full sun; fertile, mulched soil; and having the occasional brown leaf removed with an old bread knife.
Replace boring bushes such as ligustrum and pittosporum and those prickly junipers with a lushly informal hedge of fragrant Hawaiian plumeria and mixed-color hibiscus purchased as inexpensive 1-gallon plants. They offer waves of color, and if planted 6 inches deeper than they were in their pots, they will better resist both spring droughts and occasional freezes. Both evoke the tropics more powerfully than almost any other easy-to-grow perennial, and both are widely available.
Buy several tubers of edible elephant ears (taro) at an Asian grocery store and tuck them 6 inches deep into the soil wherever you want tall tropical filler. Their big, arrowhead-shaped leaves echo PBS specials shot in the Amazon rain forest. Plus you'll have the option of digging up some of the new tubers that form every 18 months or so to prepare and serve, or just let them multiply for that Tarzan movie look.
Perhaps easiest of all is to buy assorted tropical and subtropical tubers and bulbs and plant them in the empty spaces between existing shrubs and perennials. Their lush foliage provides vertical design elements, and you get the annual bonus of beautiful flowers.
Crinums, amarcrinums, hymenocallis, curcumas and all the gingers grow easily in Central Florida. The gingers have the bonus of scented foliage that releases heady, spicy scents when stroked or crushed, especially cardamom and edible ginger. (Just plant a firm tuber from the grocery store produce section.)
To make the shady parts of your yard look like Jurassic Park, plant a few Australian tree ferns deeply into your improved soil, then mulch the area thickly with 4 to 6 inches of Enviro Mulch (made from the punk trees taking over the Everglades) or chipped wood mulch from tree-trimming services.
Take advantage of summer rains to get these tropical beauties established without using precious water, and the money you'll save on your water bill will help pay for these overlooked and underused icons of the classic Florida landscape.
John A. Starnes Jr. is an avid gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for the diverse regions of Florida and Colorado. He can be reached at: THE.GARDEN-DOCTOR@worldnet.att.net
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