The Mulchmeister

20190110_151300I could be the Mulchmeister, given the love/ hate relationship with mulch that I have nurtured for years. I love the appearance mulch gives the garden – a soothing blanket of hopefully brownish material, tucking all the plants in for good growth, saving water and helping keep weeds at bay.

Unfortunately, I hate to mulch. Below is the usual result of me buying 5 bags of bark mulch. After 3, I can’t deal with schlepping the bags around anymore and it stays in the garden so long the plastic bags are rendered rust colored from the iron in the well water. And the weeds! Arggh. Florida Jurassic weeds. Oddly, the bark is still fresh as a daisy inside the bag – making me wonder what is on the stuff and in the vegetables I grow?

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I am learning to love again with an old friend, pinestraw. Some call it pine needles, naturally shed by Pine trees! A good thing and more sustainable than chopping down and chopping up trees to use for mulch. It occurred to me to seek out pinestraw as I was working on a project in Atlanta, using pinestraw as mulch. For some reason, pinestraw is very uncommon in South Florida-even though it is harvested in North Florida.

I began the search and after a bit of asking around was gifted with 10 bags of QuickStraw, just in time for Christmas. Compressed and bagged for storage, I can move these around easily and am not ending up covered in mulch.

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I scraped the Jurassic weeds off, put down some brown woven (the key to long lasting fabric) weed control fabric and mulched with the QuickStraw.

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Ahhh, cozy plants, just waiting for everything to grow together.

GBFD – August 2017- Foliage of the Hellstrip

So, maybe I should ask who among us admits to having a Hellstrip? I do, mine is in the front garden along the edge of the road. About 10 feet deep, catching all the heat from the sun and pavement and not having the benefit of irrigation, I decided to plant this area with hardy, nearly indestructible plants, focusing on native plants.

 

The anchor plant in the Hellstrip is a Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursea simarouba) this usually gets some giggles. I like this tree and it has grown from a 2″ caliper twig to a respectable 6″ trunk in about four years. Mind you, without the benefit of regular water, I watered it, to establish it but that it. This tree is also called the Tourist Tree, if you look at the bark photo, the bark is red and peeling, like a sunburned tourist.

Below the Gumbo LImbo, Bromeliads and Native Perennials are planted. The natives were selected for their very fine texture which is fairly unusual among semi tropical plants. The Bromeliads are used for their extreme hardiness and textural contrast to the natives.

The Natives:

 

On the left, Muhly Grass, (Muhlbergia capillaris), the right is a Sunshine Mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa). The Muhly Grass seemingly grows almost everywhere, but many gardeners have difficulty growing it. I think the key may be locating it in a Hellstrip. Both of the plants will produce lovely pink flowers in addition to their fine texture. The other native in the garden is Beach Sunflower (Helianthus debilis)

20170720_185225The coarse green foliage of this plant is beautiful in its own right,  but really shines when contrasted with the finer textured natives.

The final members of my Hellstrip composition include Bromeliads, for their evergreen  color and contrasting texture to the native plants.

 

On the left, a Martin Bromeliad, medium sized and red, green and yellow striped. The center plant is a Painted Fingernail Bromeliad and the plant on the tight is a smaller red and chartreuse groundcover Bromeliad, meant to spread like groundcover. These are all passalong Bromeliads, two out of three gifted to me by friends. I am not certain of any botanical names, but I am certain they will thrive with little care making my Hellstrip seem a bit heavenly.

Mom Nature Lights My Fire

This plant appeared in my garden a couple of years ago. I thought it was some sort of Amaranthus blown in from across the Atlantic Ocean and decided to leave it to see what happened. Amaranthus can have some interesting flowers (Love Lies Bleeding, etc.) The foliage started getting red around the edges, confirming my thoughts, then the stems started getting woody. Maybe it wasn’t Amaranthus at all.

Then it flowered.

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Definitely not an Amaranth. Not a clue what it was. So, I took this to the Native Plant Society meeting and they said Firebush. Hamelia patens var patens? I said no, it couldn’t be, this is my Firebush, Hamelia patens. Orange flowers and the leaves are half as big.

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Firebush and Friend

Then it dawned on me, there is a great deal of arguing about the true native Firebush. I  usually ignore this kind of argument being more designer than botanist, but think I am agreeing with the Hamelia patens var patens crowd. The orange flowering one is supposed to be from the Caribbean somewhere instead of Florida. Given the seemingly magical appearance of the patens var patens in my garden, I think that the red one is the native.

Mother Nature really is a good designer, she placed the Native Red Firebush in a bed of red and yellow Heliconias behind some yellow Beach Sunflowers and across from some red Bromeliads. Perfect.

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Now if everything would just grow together. And be happy.

 

Bromeliads for the Treasure Coast- Divide and Conquer

I have learned a great deal about Bromeliads since starting my garden four years ago. Prior to moving to Florida, I only knew a few varieties of Bromeliads and this was from designing shopping mall interiors in the eighties. Guzmanias were (and still are) a great plant for interiorscape. Oddly enough, while they will grow here, I have no Guzmanias. I think they are kind of boring. I like the kind of indestructible, passalong, highly reproductive Bromeliads. The kinds you don’t see in shopping malls. The more unusual the Bromeliad, the better. This could prove to be a bad idea in the long run. I could grow really old here and end up with Martian Planet landscape.

Bromeliads above are: the flower of a Painted Fingernail Aechmea, a common passalong in South Florida, the spotted one is a common Neoregelia (from a garage sale) of some sort, the burgundy one is Burgundy Aechmea. The below Bromeliad is a ‘Blanchetiana’, another Aechmea passed along to me from a neighbor. All thrive here with little care.

My latest venture in the garden has been to add swirling patterns of shells and rocks weaving through the garden. First, I like shells and rocks and second, I detest mulch, not for looks, but for me having to schlep bags of bark through the yard – usually when the weather is tropical steaming. I really just won’t do it and go back inside and plot some other indoor task. The result of this is weedy unkempt beds. So the strands of rocks and shells are being woven through the garden and ribbons of groundcover and tightly planted perennials are going to be installed to hopefully cut down on the maintenance (weeding) and the mulching. I have placed cardboard boxes under all of it to hopefully break the weed cycle.

The correct time of year to divide Bromeliads is the beginning of the growing season, which in South Florida is Fall/ Winter. I have been working on doing this and have divided several and (here’s a surprise) bought some pups last week at the botanical garden. Neoregelia Martin and the popular Blanchtiana Aechmeas have been divided and installed in their shell garden. Both these Bromeliads flourish in full sun, the Blanchetianas are available in Orange, Lemon and Raspberry. I have an Orange and Lemon, I am not quite sure about the Raspberry. The divided Bromeliads are in the left picture; here is a close up of Martin, who is a Neoregelia – doesn’t flower, but the foliage and sun tolerance make Martin worthwhile to have in the garden.

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I am trudging onward in dividing, but have yet to conquer.

Proper Attire for H***strip Gardening

I learned a new term this week: Hellstrip. Hellstrip refers to the baking hot area between the street and sidewalk or driveway. A book has been published about these gardens and there is a Facebook page. Hellstrip has hit social media! Usually narrow and not easily watered these areas require some special consideration and are difficult for gardeners to conquer.

I had not realized I even had a HELLSTRIP and the truth is I kind of like it. When my husband and I bought our house there was a Jacaranda in the strip that could literally be seen through. The top of the tree had been blown out and the crotch had rotted to the point you could catch glimpses of the house through the trunk from the street. Fearing an unstructurally sound tree, I had the Jacaranda removed. What grew under the tree might kindly be referred to as sand spurs.

The sand spurs took a bit of work to get rid of as nothing really kills them except removal and they reseed heavily. Gallons of vinegar later and with the construction of a new driveway, I had a blank palette.

With a bit of research and observation I determined the plant list and began to install.

First, a native and very drought tolerant tree, The Gumbo Limbo. Gumbo Limbos are wonderful Shade Trees but pretty basic. Then to the underplantings, I searched native beach plants and looked for extremely tolerant passalongs, here is what I found:

The Sunflowers and Muhly Grass are native, the rest are imports that are very drought tolerant. Worst comes to worst, I can make some tequila from the Agave..

Dune Sunflower Helianthus debilis

Dune Sunflower
Helianthus debilis

Painted Fingernail Bromeliad

Painted Fingernail
Bromeliad

Blue Agave

Blue Agave

Martin Bromeliad

Martin Bromeliad

Muhly Grass

Muhly Grass

The composition might seem a bit weird, but I have color year round and throw some water around every now and again. All the plants are doing well, with no irrigation whatsoever and growing in the poorest excuse for soil I have ever encountered.

Now, the question, the attire for Hellstrip Gardening, I propose this:

Animal Print Bustiers

Animal Print Bustiers

Maybe worn with Combat boots? I’ve been meaning to get a tattoo, maybe of my favorite Bromeliad….

 

Building a Seashell Driveway

The Before Picture

The Before Picture

My husband and I bought a distressed property in South Florida. The driveway was really distressed. It took an archaeology dig to figure out where it had been and what it had been. After a bit of detective work we found a ‘Chattahoochee Stone’ pea gravel drive with a turnaround in front of the house. About 70 % overgrown with apocalypse proof weeds. The front yard became a free for all ad hoc parking area. Nobody could tell where they were supposed to park.

Part of the reason we bought this house was the garage was in the back. This is unusual in South Florida. Garage doors are usually a dominant feature of the front of the house. In some places it seems as if someone got a gigantic copier and started printing out houses with prominent garage doors. Later it dawned on me the reason for this is to provide the least amount of stormwater running off the concrete paving (the shortest possible driveway) and given the flatness of the terrain, it was also a short run to slope the driveway to provide drainage back to the street. It is also the cheapest way to get a lot of houses on a piece of property (i.e. Making the developer more money)

My husband retired and we decided to forsake the traffic and cold of the big city and moved 600 miles south from Atlanta to South Florida. The namesake of our existing driveway material, the Chattahoochee River, is a major feature in Atlanta.  The headwaters of the Chattahoochee are in the North Georgia Mountains, then it winds through Atlanta eventually pouring out into The Gulf of Mexico on the panhandle of Florida.

The driveway needed a renovation, however, it seemed a bit ridiculous, not to mention wasteful, to import pea gravel 600 miles to South Florida. Additionally, I was not enthralled with the brown pea gravel, having found it to be a fiesta of weeds in my previous garden and it cost at least 3 times what I had been paying for it in Atlanta. Based on the appearance of the existing drive it was nirvana for weeds. Not a good idea in South Florida.

The search began for new material for the driveway. The local rock here is limestone; crushed rock primarily for road construction. The rock is lumpy, starts out white and eventually looks very dirty. I didn’t like this option, but it was cheap. My next thought was pouring a concrete driveway, but, as a Very well seasoned Landscape Architect  (yes, I meant to capitalize Very for emphasis) I could tell the drainage just wasn’t going to work. In the event of rain, there would be too much water running off the driveway with nowhere to go. With the exception of the floor of our garage, not a good plan.

The driveway needed to be made of a pervious material so the rainwater could soak back into the ground rather than running off. During the course of my concrete drive design/pricing exercise I met a grading contractor who told me it was possible to build a shell driveway. What I couldn’t (and still don’t) understand was why there weren’t any of these driveways around. The only answer is they went out of style. People had been seduced by the evil brown pea gravel from the faraway Chattahoochee River.  I can only guess why. I did recall, however, over the course of my career people have waxed on romantically recalling the crunch of the pea gravel in their (perhaps very wealthy and with many yardmen) Grandmother’s yard.  This reminiscence is usually related to formal boxwood gardens in the Deep South. They never had to pull the weeds or pay for imported pea gravel.

I thought the shell was a great idea and, of course, did a bit of research. The shell used for constructing the driveway is mined about 20 miles north of my house. It is a byproduct of mining sand; five different sizes of material come out of the mine and are used for construction. The sand is used for construction and the shells are sorted out by size and intended use. My driveway is topped with ⅜” graded shell.

Shell driveways, properly constructed, last a long time. The construction method is as follows:

Grade the area and remove about 5-6’’ depth of existing soil. Compact the existing soil to receive the base material. Provide restraints around edges of driving surface to hold the loose driveway material. My driveway has pressure treated pine timber and Black PVC Landscape edging that act to hold the shell in place. I have seen drives edged with concrete curb or pavers set in mortar. This looks great and is, of course, a lot more expensive.

French drains were installed under the driving surface in areas where the water collects as it drains off the roof during a large cloudburst. Another South Florida peculiarity, no gutters, but some scuppers…you must cope with whatever comes off the roof, wherever it comes off the roof. Fortunately, I like rocks and Rain Gardens.  The drains were made from old solid walled laundry baskets with the bottoms removed then the contractor dug holes and placed them underground, filled them with gravel and topped the whole thing with filter fabric. The old gravel from the existing driveway was reused to fill the drains.

To build the driveway a 2-3” layer of crushed shell (this looks like coarse sand) is laid on top of the existing soil and pressed into place with a Bobcat. This is topped by a 2-3” layer of shell placed with a Bobcat and pressed evenly. The crushed shell course binds to itself and creates a pervious base layer. The shell course provides the driving surface. Maintenance requirements are spraying weed killer (I use the non toxic homemade vinegar solution) and raking it out every now and then. The materials firm up a great deal from cars driving on them and rain, but it is still a loose material.

I am pleased with the appearance of the shell driveway and it’s functionality. It drains perfectly and looks great. The shell also gives a great local, beachy feel to our property. And it looks really clean. It is also a very sustainable project, the majority of the materials arrived from within 50 miles of my house. The shell is a reuse product from a local mine. The driveway is pervious and most of the stormwater drains back into my property. I have two guest parking spaces and a turnaround for use when backing out of the garage. Pleasing the environment and me.

The Shell Driveway

The Shell Driveway

Muhly Grass – Muhlenbergia capillaris or filipes

Muhly Grass

Muhly Grass

I planted Muhly Grass recently for its interesting pink mist fall flowers and reputation for indestructibility. The Grass started blooming nearly as soon as I planted it in September and has been slowly filling out with misty pink plumes. This is an interesting grass – it grows as far north as Massachusetts west to Kansas and south to Florida. A huge range, at least 5 USDA hardiness zones, apparently with a native habitat on the edges of marshes. I found in previous attempts that it is virtually impossible to grow in heavy clay soil. So, it should be really happy in my front yard atop a sand dune.

I am getting a feeling I might have to water it a bit. Plants that are designated drought tolerant with conditions usually are not as drought tolerant as you would like.

Another common name for this is Sweetgrass, supposedly when dried it has a sweet fragrance like hay. I haven’t noticed the smell, but I haven’t dried any either. I think I prefer the Sweetgrass name to Muhly Grass. Muhly sounds like beer or something. Muhly Ale?!

This grass is the source of material for basketry by the Seminole Indians in Florida and the famous Sweetgrass baskets of the Low Country of South Carolina. The Low Country basketry tradition was started by slaves from West Africa imported to the American South to work in the rice plantations in the 1800s. The tradition continues and to this day sweetgrass baskets are made and sold in the Low Country. The grass is sewn in ropes, then coiled to make a basket – a time consuming task that produces a beautiful basket.

According to the Seminole tribe website they started making sweetgrass baskets 60 years ago. Their baskets are based on grass from the Everglades, which is dried and constructed in a similar way to the Low Country baskets.

Given that I now possess a mass of Muhly I might try a basket. I suspect this is a lot harder than I think it is.. and my backyard has been blessed with an overabundance of Muscadines (a native grape) – the local wildlife population eats all the fruit, but I have such a large amount of grapevine I may take up basketweaving or wreathmaking..

Garden Paradise

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I think the ancient Persians were the original purveyors of the term paradise. It translates to something along the lines of walled enclosure. I agree that a walled enclosure can be a garden paradise, but I find my idea of garden paradise has changed over time.

My first garden was about 100 square feet behind an urban townhouse my husband and I had when we first married. My husband had bought the townhouse when he was single. The garden consisted of a 8 x 8 foot slab of concrete with a telephone pole in the middle and dirt around the sides; he used it as motorcycle parking. There were french doors that looked out on this not very scenic view.

I built a garage for the motorcycle incorporating the telephone pole, bricked the slab of concrete and put 2 tree form roses in big pots at the back of the spaceparadise found. Unfortunately, the tree roses only looked beautiful maybe two months out of the year. But those two months were spectacular. This also cured my desire to grow roses for the most part. The townhouse was sold and we moved to the suburbs for space and quiet.

My next garden was more ambitious a – 1/3 acre suburban lot with a vegetable parterre, water garden, a waterfall and perennial beds. I enjoyed creating the garden, but, after 17 years, it was just too much work. The couple who bought the house were 10 or 15 years younger, had 5 kids were excited about the garden and planned to add a pizza oven.  Paradise found and lost again..

The Vegetable Parterre

The Vegetable Parterre

The Vegetable Parterre was another one of those things that looked great two months out of the year – but had the added bonus of providing vegetables and herbs. Eventually the parterre disappeared and it was mostly a kitchen garden with herbs.

The Fish Pond

The Fish Pond

I enjoyed the fish pond for a number of years, but it leaked, and leaked and I fixed it and fixed itthis cured me of water features, in the ground anyway.

My current garden paradise is a work in progress. My goal is more hardscape, more perennials and less maintenance. Still working on it…

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Winter Containers for South Florida

Here comes the Work Shop

Here comes the Work Shop

My husband likes to work with his hands, when we moved to South Florida there wasn’t enough room in our house for a workshop so we had one craned it. The picture is the shop being lifted over the house..I’ll get to the containers in a minute.

The shop ends up looking a bit like a trailer but with some landscaping and a porch it fits in. These sheds are fairly common in South Florida, I have never seen them before – they are even built and attached to the ground to resist hurricanes.

The whole adventure left me feeling a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Maybe in reverse.

After all this, my husband who has clearly been living with me too long decided he wanted some flower pots (containers if you are a landscape professional) on his shop porch. I put some containers together with the usual suspects last year sometime – yes, the annuals last that long here. It seems crazy to me as well. They last so long you get tired of them. When I lived further north I always did the containers twice a year, changed the colors with the seasons and enjoyed the variety.

Imagine my surprise when the old summer reliables, Bronzeleaf Begonias, rolled over and died in the summer heat. Time to revise thinking to plants that live in say, the Sahara. Pentas and Lantanas. I had gotten bored with Lantanas in Atlanta and really still am, they just smell funny. If I want fragrance, that is so not it.

The Lantana and Pentas were pooping out so I was trolling around in our yard to see what I could find to replace the spent annuals. One of the fun things about living in Florida is you never know what you might find growing in the yard. Boston Fern grows wild in the side yard so I dug a start of that and then found some Purple Wandering Jew (Zebrina), a Burgundy Bromeliad and an unknown groundcover Bromeliad (from a garage sale) that needed to be divided  and added them to the ‘Florida Friendly’ (this is a Florida Extension Service sort of approved plant) chartreuse Sedum that was already in the pots. As an aside, who ever heard of a sedum that does well in partial shade – this does. Whatever it is.

Groundcover Bromeliad and Sedum

Groundcover Bromeliad and Sedum

Voila, a purple and chartreuse themed container garden. The Bromeliads seem to be perennial in containers – the big Burgundy one was divided from a container I have had on my front porch for a year or so – I started with one and now there are three in there. You just never know what you will find growing outside…

Newly planted containers

Newly planted containers