Note to self: Take a neighborhood vote before making any changes to the garden

Rest in peace, impatiens.

I have a lot of passions and hobbies. I read a new book every other day or so, have a massive telescope, and love to cook (and visit new restaurants). But my most consuming passion is gardening.

I fell head-over-heels in love with gardening over a decade ago when we bought a house in the country among the rolling thoroughbred horse farms outside Lexington, Kentucky. After reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we plowed a half-acre of land to build the biggest vegetable garden you have ever seen. (No joke, that book will give you some dangerous gardening ambitions. We had FIFTY-SIX varieties of tomatoes in our garden. Do you have any idea how many tomatoes that produces? We started throwing them at each other like juicy red bombs after a while, before we learned that we could donate fresh produce.) I earned enormous blisters chopping limestone with a mattock in order to plant a rose garden overlooking a large creek. It was totally worth it.

I’d like to think that I have matured since then, grown a little wiser and moderate, but I really haven’t. My garden philosophy has always been go big or go home. Enter my specimen garden in Florida.

There are many good reasons to move to Florida. There are still pristine beaches here. The wildlife (and the people) are rather exotic and entertainingly unpredictable. You can get a Cuban sandwich anywhere in town. Tourists pay substantially all of your taxes.

To me, one of the biggest draws was being able to have a garden all year long and to be able to collect tropical plants. Kentucky winters were rough on me psychologically, I’m not going to lie. To look out over land that was drifts of roses and azaleas and see drifts of snow is probably the most depressing thing I can think of, short of something awful happening to a loved one. I tried to survive the winters by looking at flower catalogs and reading books on garden design, but that only exacerbated the problem.

When we moved here, I tore out all the boring landscaping shrubs on our property and planted everything I found in nurseries traveling up and down the coast that seemed fancy and tropical. I started collecting gingers. I made a bank of Hawaiian ti. I went nuts.

But nothing came close to my collection of impatiens. Now I know that when I say impatiens, you think of the little flowers planted in rows in medians outside shopping malls. But in Florida, I discovered that I could grow impatiens that were over three feet tall and would last for years. I made a line of these flowers all along the front of our house with colorful canna lilies and a massive cape honeysuckle from South Africa (not pictured, but they have showers of bright orange flowers).

My gardens quickly became famous in the neighborhood. Every weekend, I would be out working in the yard and ten or fifteen people would come over to talk to me while I worked. I had to give tours around the back yard where the gingers were. People would stop me around town to rave about my green thumb. It was great.

Well, I did something really, really bad yesterday.

I ripped out the impatiens to plant dipladenia, which is a bushy version of mandevilla. Before I planted the new plants, the whole front of the garden was completely bare where the impatiens had been. Cars would drive in front of our house and lock up their brakes. I started to think I was going to get a welfare call from the police.

This morning, I went out to plant the new border and a man stopped to talk to me. He was genuinely angry with me for removing the impatiens. He was actually shaking as he spoke. How are you supposed to react in such a situation? I tried to explain to him that they were starting to look spent and I wanted a change. He got angrier. They were perfectly fine, he said, maybe they needed a little fertilizer. He told me the new plants were not going to be as lovely as the impatiens and I should put impatiens back. I told him that they were no longer selling them in the stores. He took that as further evidence of my poor decision-making. Other cars started to slow down as we chatted, and I thought for a moment I was going to have a mob on my hands. I started to thank God that I am not on Next Door.

You don’t understand, he said. I walk down here every day just to look at your flowers. He knows others who do too. How could you do this to us?

Am I running a public garden here?

I tried to assure him that the process of rebuilding was part of gardening and he should trust that the new garden would be as beautiful as the original. After further rebuttals, I was like, crikey, I can’t resurrect the flowers, get some therapy already.

I had no idea that my whim to pull out the impatiens would be like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. I don’t even want to go outside now on the chance that I might get yelled at again. I don’t even want to think about what’s going to happen if the dipladenia don’t take off. We might have to move.

Banana trees and a new love of Latin

Today has been a rather unusual day in our household. (Do we ever have normal days though?)

This morning, Elise told me that she wanted to spend the entire day working on her Latin, which is suddenly her new favorite subject. In the past, we had done “math only” school days. She’d wake up, put on her “math day” t-shirt (a shirt she bought at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that says B greater than average via a math problem) and hit the books. I could not believe that Latin has replaced math. True to her word, she worked her way through several chapters of Latin and spent the afternoon addressing us in Latin. She says she needs a t-shirt that says something in Latin.

Mandatory “math day” attire.

Since she was occupied and I was in-between work for our clients, I decided to make a Persian feast for lunch, with shawarma, tzatziki, flatbreads, a salad of tomatoes and cucumber, and a mixture of figs and apricots crossed with plums (they just sounded bizarre and fun while we were out shopping). The food filled the house with the most amazing aromas, and honestly it still smells divine now. I used to cook tagines all the time, and I missed the intense combinations of spices.

My first attempt at shawarma (before being shredded).
And my first attempt at tzatziki ever.
Summer fruits.

At the end of the day, Elise and I took a walk along the esplanade in our neighborhood, which follows the Intracoastal Waterway. She devoted herself to catching lizards while I watched the boats returning from the Atlantic Ocean.

Lizard collecting. (Yes, she only studies the lizards for a while and then sets them free. Our only rule on nature walks is that we do not capture any pollinators.)

As we were walking, a woman we did not know beckoned us into her backyard to show us that her four or five banana trees were now loaded with dozens of ripening bananas. (She was very proud of her banana trees she said, and just needed to share the moment with someone. As an obsessive gardener, I can relate.) This was fascinating to both Elise and me, since we had tried to grow a banana tree in a pot on our front porch this summer. It either did not like the pot or its spot or access to water, because it did not flourish. I asked her if the banana trees did well through the Florida “winter,” to which she responded that she had not had any problems with them except through the two recent hurricanes. She said the hurricanes always destroy the banana trees. When I find a new plant in a nursery one of these days, I will plant some in our backyard. The woman told us that the best fertilizer for banana trees was surplus bananas. Elise has been going around explaining this curiosity to everyone who will listen.

An impromptu lesson on cultivating bananas.

Equally interesting is seeing how exactly banana trees develop fruit. The bananas grow along a sort of flower-rope that dangles down toward the ground. Nature is unbelievable sometimes! We have the loveliest neighbors here in Florida.

A close up of the “flower-rope” that bananas grow along.

Walking away, Elise said to me, “imagine how many banana splits that nice lady gets to make now.” Indeed.

A bonus picture of Elise for friends and family.

A game of chess with Dad while waiting for food at our favorite Mexican/Caribbean restaurant.

A Saturday picking out bonsai trees

Elise has wanted a bonsai tree for about a year now, ever since we met a man selling bonsai on a trip to Key West. We decided to indulge her today and drove out to Schley’s Bonsai and Supplies in DeLand (about an hour away from us). As it happened, the owner was hosting his Summer Bonsai Festival. We learned there’s a club devoted to bonsai in DeLand (and perhaps we might join, though that’s a bit far to go for meetings).

Jason’s bonsai farm did not disappoint. He has table after table of bonsai as far as you can see.

The tables of bonsai are beneath a canopy of these
ancient live oaks, with piles of Spanish moss.
I loved this tree from the Japanese garden, hanging down into a koi pond.

Elise found a bonsai and I did too. This is my dainty little crepe myrtle, which is actually about 25 years old. I put it in the library. Jason said that in Japan there are families that have passed down bonsai from father to son across centuries. Isn’t that incredible to think about?

This is the tree Elise picked out.

My Florida gardens – an update

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 CarrĂ© 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.)