There’s Nothing Quite like Gardening in Florida

Part One: The Plan, The Journey, and the First Two Months

“Oh, it’s wonderful to be able to retire . . . and you’re moving to Florida! But won’t you miss the change of seasons, your roses, and the spring bulbs?”

Our northern friends were probably concerned about our decision to move South, but no more than we were. I must confess, I was a little wistful about leaving forty rose bushes and a long border of perennials. 

Florida GardeningPin

My husband and I were full of qualms about moving so far away, and we wondered whether we’d like the climate or if we would be satisfied. But when we read the information sent to us by various Chambers of Commerce, we were ready to press southward to someplace in the midsection of Florida.

Seventeen years in Wisconsin, and ten or twelve in New Jersey, had given us a thirst for longer growing seasons. We wanted a ground where you didn’t need a pickaxe to dig a hole. We no longer enjoyed the cold winter months. 

Although we were enticed by greener pastures, we agreed not to sever our ties in the North completely. We would spend the summer in Canada, as we have done for more than forty years, and we would visit our old friends.

Moving To Florida

Some months before we moved, we gave much thought to the kind of garden we would like to have. We bought Watkins and Wolfe’s Your Florida Garden. We wrote to the University of Florida’s Department of Agriculture for pamphlets on palms, shrubs, and citrus fruits, and landscaping hints. We avidly read every piece of literature we could get.

Then, we packed and rid ourselves of everything we felt would be unnecessary. Our minds were a jumble of moving costs, routes, plants, towns, fruits, geography, and so was our conversation. But, we reached Florida.

We lived in a motel for a month while we looked at every available house and lot—with emphasis on the lot. Finally, we found what we wanted in Maitland, a pleasant little city located in a lake-dotted region. Our house stood on what had been an extensive orange grove which was subdivided into “estates.”

The builder had thoughtfully left a few of the old orange trees. And our land had several tall, gaunt, lichened-covered specimens, hung with Spanish moss and a few green oranges. We had dreamed of mossy oaks, but these were lovely and more fruitful.

There was a lawn of sorts—a very strange lawn at that. To walk on it was like walking on green hay: spongy and crisp. It was St. Augustine grass, and we later discovered that it was a choice of food for chinch bugs.

Although the town was full of palm trees of different species, there were none in our yard. We had talked of having coconut and date palms for food as well as beauty and mood. But when we learned these trees never fruited here, we settled for a banana tree. The leaves were ragged and not very impressive when we bought them, so we tucked them in the back of the lot.

Known For Citrus Trees

Florida wouldn’t be Florida without a variety of citrus trees. In addition to the oranges, we wanted a grapefruit and tangerine, and after reading the booklets we considered several others. Citrus fruits ripen in all seasons, and we thought this would be the most convenient arrangement for us to have.

Now, we did read about rootstocks on which citrus trees are grafted or budded, and when we decided on the best kind to have, we went to a local nursery. Once there, we settled for what they had and we’re not quite sure what rootstock we have. In any case, in addition to the orange trees, we bought a tangelo, a tangerine, and a sweet kumquat.

Nurseries In Florida

Speaking of nurseries, they are as plentiful as bees in a hive. They range in size from several acres to small side yards. Everything is grown and sold in cans, so you could start a garden with shrubs and trees in full bloom.

The nurseries have enormous can openers that bite into the rim and, when pressure is applied, slip down the side of the can with a clean cut to the bottom. After three quick cuts, the can is bound with a cord to keep the soil in place. Then, you take your purchase home and you can plant without disturbing the root structure.

We arrived around the middle of September, and it is now mid-November. Two amazing months! The nurseries are filled with banded tomato, pepper, and plants of every kind. Some we are told won’t live in Florida, but they are sold and bought with trust. Many perennials are treated as annuals like Shasta daisies, which dislike hot summer weather.

The soil here is so sandy and easily worked you don’t consider the effort in digging. There is a persistent temptation to overprint which usually wins out. Thus, borders expand, plants grow taller, thicker, and wider, and must be cut back or moved. By the way, it’s easy to move plants if you use Wilt-Pruf which helps to seal in moisture.

Generous Floridian Neighbors

Our neighbors are the most generous. We were showered with seedlings and cuttings, including some lovely geraniums and a large mango seedling. We planted that seedling in a prominent location, but when we read it required a grafted stock to yield good fruit, we quickly moved it neat. the banana tree. In its place, we substituted a grafted Zill. I still water the seedling, just in case.

Persimmons tasted so delectable that we bought a homely little sapling. Because it’s deciduous, we should have hidden it with the banana and the mango seedling, but space for hiding grows less and less, so it sits in as inconspicuous a place as possible, and baldly awaits foliage.

Floridians—meaning those who have lived here for at least one year—apologize for the lack of color in September and October. They needn’t. Duranta hangs with golden marble-like clusters. Ixora are bright scarlet. Rain trees are a cloud of yellow and gradually turn red. 

The princess flower (Tibouchina) has opal leaves of velvet and large purple blossoms. Then there is cape honeysuckle, many clerodendrum, blue plumbago, and dainty yellow thryallis which nestles near blue and yellow allamanda. Coral vines hang on trees, trellises, and fences—and when I put several cuttings in a dull blue bowl of water they are beautiful.

Making Ready For Planting

Azaleas begin to flower in September; in early November the bougainvillea presents a magnificent display. Hibiscus—with giant blooms that last only one glorious day; pink, white, or red poinsettias dominate the countryside; orange blossoms provide not only color but fragrance.

Imagine apologizing for a lack of color!

One day we visited the county agricultural agent with three boxes of soil taken from locations where we intended to plant roses and camellias and some other items. The pH content was astonishingly high. 

We were told to use either sulfur or aluminum sulfate. We chose sulfur, not only because it is cheaper, but because we remembered reading that aluminum sulfate might cause some troublesome side effects.

In October, a trench was dug for the roses we had ordered: Peace, Pink Peace, Torch Song, and White Knight. We were bound to disprove the idea that roses reject Florida. In the bottom of the trench, which had been cleared of sand, we placed a bed of magazines. 

We heard that magazines helped to retain moisture and it would also deter leaching. When we visited the county agent sometime later, he laughed and said, “It can’t hurt ’em none.” Imagine having well-informed rose roots.

Back To The Trenches 

We filled it with compost—hastily made with Activo—huge amounts of peat, organic and inorganic fertilizers, and sulfur. The trench was stirred and watered for a full month before the roses arrived. We planted them ( bare rooted) with all the pomp and fuss of a fiesta.

We have our share of annuals and perennials: gerbera, Shasta daisy, stokesia, snapdragon, and stock. We planted about a peck of Easter lily bulbs and a hundred or more pansies and rain lilies. A friend gave us some daylilies which we included around some lonesome azaleas.

We plan to have a redbud and we’d like to get a dogwood to remind us of the North. White dogwood will grow here, but the nurseries won’t offer it until spring.

Nurserymen show spring bulbs in abundance but they must be kept under refrigeration and then treated as annuals. We haven’t tried these bulbs yet, but we know spring will not lack loveliness despite the absence of tulips and daffodils, and scillas. There will be no snow to call forth the snowdrops, and we will have to forego the ecstasy of finding them. But, there will be other compensations.

Vegetables have not been ignored. We have set out tomato seedlings, and a dozen strawberry plants have a bed all to themselves. Colorful pepper plants have been included in our vegetable garden.

Three nail kegs packed with sawdust kept moist, and fed with chemical plant foods, will be an experiment in hydroponic planting. In two of the kegs we have started tomato seedlings; cucumber seeds are in the other one. Perhaps this method might give more flavor than is usually found in Florida-grown vegetables.

We bought several little gardening aids which we find to be invaluable. With so many different unfamiliar plants it was important to have name plates for identification. We bought a good supply of them, but it is fast dwindling.

In the garage are several bags of various fertilizers. There is Spanish moss to be used in case of frost. There are plastic multipurpose sheets. Wrapped in plastic are queer packages of treated, sphagnum-moss wrapped cuttings of hibiscus, new colors of bougainvillea, tea plants, and new camellias.

The landscape in the back of our “estate” is a grove of tall mossy orange trees. The earth is good and yielding. Seeds sprout easily and grow with little coaxing. We have sun and rain. We have only one complaint: there are not enough minutes in the day.

Part Two: Time, Patience, and Effort’s Reward

Since those first tempestuous months three years have passed; three joyous years of experience, knowledge, and satisfaction.

We have friends, many of whom share our interest in gardening. We share our superfluous plants with them and we swap little tricks of the trade. Altogether, we are delighted with our surroundings and by this time we are very much at home.

You’ll be interested in our garden. For the most part, it has been a success but has had its share of failures  – and this I suppose is true of gardening everywhere.

A Few Additional Plants

Roses

Roses – there are roses aplenty and more have been added. We had to dig out some sullen bushes that seemed to resent the heat. The roses have been most gratifying to us, and to our good neighbors who took such good care of them during our Canadian vacations.

We planted the redbud and it grew so fast and spread out so much that we had to cut it back drastically. The strength of Lancelot was needed to pull apart the daylily roots which were planted in a long border in combination with pink-hued azaleas.

Mangoes

When we traveled North this summer, we carefully packed about two dozen nearly ripe mangoes to take to friends. Every one of them was perfect. On several frosty nights, the little mango tree had to be covered and kept warm with a light bulb. But, who minds covering a baby on a cold night? Remember the first little gift seedling? It did not last.

Tomatoes

The hydroponics required too much hauling in and out of the garage whenever frost threatened – so last year we planted our tomatoes on the south side of the garage. We continue the chemical feeding, and when it’s too cold, we cover them with whatever is at hand. There were half a dozen tomato plants to supply us and our neighbors, but this year they were attacked by blight. Later on, we’ll get the southern-grown strains recommended by the county agent.

Orange Tree Varieties

We have added several other orange tree varieties. Temple oranges hang from the tree for weeks without losing any of their delicious flavors. We’ve packed bushels of them to ship to poor snowbound northerners. Did you ever wonder what happens to the fruit on the topmost branches? There are fruit-picking outfits to take care of that detail. 

They come with high ladders and pick only the fruit on the out-of-reach limbs. Best of all, they buy what. They pick and pay the prevailing market price. It’s not much of a financial asset, but it is nice to know that the fruit will not be wasted.

Only a gardener can share a gardener’s joy. To watch little marble oranges develop; to cut back vines and shrubs because of overabundance and luxuriance; to carry a bunch of giant pansies or a huge Peace rose to a neighbor, and to bring back a slip of something else to be started under a fruit jar, is incomprehensible foolishness, perhaps, to those who worry about the world’s turmoil.

But, is it foolish? Somehow I am convinced it most certainly is not.

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