I have been an avid gardener for most of my adult life, and my gardening personality is certainly that of a collector. Before we moved to Florida, I was primarily interested in collecting roses. I had extensive terraced rose gardens at two former houses.
After moving to Florida, my gardening shifted from a hobby to an obsession, however. When you can grow tropical plants, a whole new world is opened up to you. Exotic gingers, orchids, and ti can put even the most beautiful rose garden to shame. (This is a good thing, too, because the deer here will eat ten rose bushes to the ground – thorns and all! – in one night. Sadly, I learned this the hard way. I have two rose bushes on my front porch now, which is the only place the deer have not been brave enough to venture. They also love phlox. I had some stunning piles of phlox this spring, and then one night… all gone.)
I think I spend at least 15 hours a week working in the garden. It’s a tremendous outlet for creativity. It’s relaxing. It’s oddly social in our modern world of self-imposed isolation. If you put yourself outside in front of people on a regular basis, some are going to start changing their own routines to visit with you about what you are up to. I used to complain about how Southern manners were waning until I started gardening. It’s a short path to a much sunnier outlook on the world.
We live very close to the ocean, so I can listen to the rhythm of waves crashing while I work. And you get to observe and know the habits of wildlife, which also fascinating. I’ve resisted tearing down the elaborate webs of golden orb spiders just to see what they would become. (I’ve even named some of the spiders after John le Carré characters…. My family likes to tease me about my “pet” spiders. But really, if you have never seen the silken vortex of a mature orb spider, you are missing out on one of the natural world’s coolest phenomena.)
A lot of people tell me that my gardens “look like a lot of hard work,” but they certainly don’t feel like it. It’s heaven to be out there.
We do not get anything that resembles “winter” this far south. (We are on the same latitude as Morocco here.) I was devastated last January to see that a few hours of unusually chilly weather overnight had seemingly killed my collection of torch gingers. These are some of the most exquisite plants I have ever grown, and gingers broadly are now my favorite plants to collect. Imagine my delight this summer when large shoots of green started poking through the impatiens I had planted in the area as a substitute. They returned – all of them – and they are glorious.
I have planted three large drifts of impatiens and three large drifts of vinca. It was quite an effort to get these in place, as each one contains a few hundred individual plants. They are show-stopping even from a distance, however. Unlike gardening up north, impatiens can grow year-round here. I have impatiens that have grown to be over three feet tall and have lasted for years. With regular watering, the varieties that can tolerate the sun can even survive the full summer sun here. It’s amazing.
I can’t spend fifteen minutes in the garden without a neighbor stopping to talk to me. One neighbor stopped and said, “I just wanted to tell you that seeing your flowers makes me happy every single day. As soon as I pull into our neighborhood, I see your garden and I can’t help but smile. Thank you for making all this.” Another day, a woman I have never met approached me while I was walking on the esplanade along the Intracoastal Waterway. “I know you,” she said. “You are the lady with the flowers!” The power of planting in drifts.
I have planted a small bank of Hawaiian ti plants and intend to do another, larger one along a bit of jungle where we recently cut back the undergrowth. (That was a special experience, let me tell you…) These are wonderful plants to have. In addition to being gorgeous, the ti has traditionally held great religious significance for various groups of Pacific Islanders and were used in medicine. In Hawaii, they cook the roots and ferment the sugars that drain out, creating a sort of ti moonshine called Okolehao.
I have started planting large clumps of plants native to Florida, which attract a lot of pollinators. Some parts of the garden will attract so many butterflies that you can get swarmed. I’ve seen 40-50 dancing around one area simultaneously. It is something to behold. It’s like being in the butterfly enclosure at a botanical garden, except it’s your own property.
Firecracker plants are well-loved by both butterflies and hummingbirds. I also have some large banks of buttercups that pollinators love. (In fact, they are probably the most popular plants in my garden for butterflies.) They are difficult to get pictures of because they only like to open up in the early mornings here.
In previous gardens, I would try to mix plants together, as in cottage gardens in England. I’ve since discovered that planting large, interlocking drifts is my aesthetic. You don’t have the chaos of height and shape, but you also do not have the sterile, rigid views of formal gardens. One thing I have learned about gardening is that negative space is equally as important as plants. “Always be mulching” is solid advice. It’s useful to defend your paths between clumps of flowers too, especially if you have hedges behind them that require constant maintenance (as I do).
I am training an arch of bougainvilleas at the entrance to our porch, directly before our front door. I have three other bougainvilleas creeping up the house or along the railing of our front porch, but none of them want to bloom right now. I tell people all the time that gardening is much easier than many folks make it out to be – all you need to do is pay attention to what a plant needs and give it to them when they need it. (It’s like any form of love in that respect.) Well, I have abandoned trying to figure out what bougainvilleas want. I know they love potash fertilizer and they climb like gangbusters if they have a reliable supply of water. But when they decide to bloom is an absolute mystery to me.
My one big qualm with Florida is that we do not see any fireflies. We lived for a decade in Woodford County, Kentucky, on a large piece of property surrounded only by horse farms and bourbon distilleries. (We were literally down the street from Woodford Reserve and would see their barrels occasionally float down the creek on our property.) Out there, you would see so many fireflies in the evenings that it looked like someone had dropped an epic pail of glitter on the forest. On clear, starry nights, you could not tell where the fireflies ended and the stars began. We would pour a glass of wine, go sit out on our deck, and enjoy the show. I miss fireflies immensely. (To be honest, though, there are not many fireflies in the cities up there now either. We rarely saw them at our city house in suburban Lexington, which I imagine is because people now drop so many chemicals on their lawns.)