August 31, 2010

Gingers for the Subtropical Garden

Costus igneus, a dwarf ginger
Alpinia purpurata ( red) and Alpinia purpurata 'Eileen MacDonald' (pink)
Burbidgea schizocheila
Curcuma zedoaria, a Hidden Ginger
Gingers are a great group of plants for a subtropical garden, and there are some which are remarkably cold-hardy. In fact there are several genera which are sub-alpine, growing well in coastal areas of Washington or Pennsylvania ! For our purposes here in Miami, there is a world of choices, more so than Heliconias, and with almost as much flash. As with many plants, there are giants and dwarfs, and mid-sized plants for any garden. Most of them are good garden plants, but some need strict dry rest periods, such as the Curcuma group and a few others. Most gingers are undemanding in their care, needing consistent moisture and a good supply of slow release or organic rose fertilizer. Gingers vary in their sunlight needs, but a bright, filtered-sun location is a good start for most types. Some, such as Monocostus uniflorus and Costus igneus, like fairly heavy shade. Gingers and Heliconias often grow well together, and usually take the same water and fertilizer regimes. Consider planting a few gingers in your garden, and make sure to propagate a few for your friends. For any sized garden there are gingers for you. Have fun with the rainbow of colors, and experiment with a few of the seasonally dormant types. Look up the gingers with fanciful names like Jewel of Burma, Dancing Lady, Chinese Keys, and Scarlet Fever and marvel at the diversity of plants you can grow.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

Alpinia purpurata 'Tahitian'
giant flower head, courtesy of Montoso Gardens
Puerto Rico

Shampoo or Beehive Ginger
Zingiber Spectabile 'Apricot'
Dimerococtus strobilaceus
a  giant ginger to 15 feet

August 30, 2010

Glorious Gardenias

Gardenia 'Miami Supreme'

Unquestionably, Gardenias are one of the grand garden plants of modern times. Their fragrance
is always evocative and personal, recalling some memory of where you first encountered it. For
so many people, the first Gardenia flower they encounter is as a corsage or in a wedding
arrangement. Some gardeners will try to grow the plants as windowsill plants, or as garden plants
in the southern subtropics. As with so many plants, this plant group has quirks, and once
understood, Gardenias are actually fairly easy to grow. It is providing the right conditions that
causes some headaches......

Most every gardenia I have grown likes acid soil, plenty of organic matter, a continuous
supply of fertilizer, and attention to pests. In other words, grow this plant like a tea rose !
Modern hybrid roses and Gardenias like the same growing conditions, so if you grow one, you
can grow both ! 

In Miami, good organic soil with controlled-release fertilizer mixed into it will be a good base to plant
your gardenias into. One local tactic is to mix coffee grounds into the soil, as much as you
can get ! Organic rose fertilizer is also excellent, and can be mixed into the soil with Dynamite or
 Osmocote. Grafted Gardenias will live longer in the nematode-rich soils than will ungrafted
Gardenias. Once planted, a soil drench with an insecticide product containing Merit will get the
plants off to a good, insect-free start. Plant your Gardenia where it will receive at least 4 hours
of direct sunshine, but with a little afternoon shade. Prune after flowering to make a nice bushy
plant, and remember to add liquid iron supplements to the soil 2 or 3 times per year.

There are many new Gardenias on the market, some of which have different shapes and colors,
including yellow, from Vietnam and southeast Asia. The Tahitian Gardenia is a good landscape
plant choice for Miami, and thrives in a good sunny area. Spend a little extra time on ground
preparation for your Gardenias, and the results will be worth the efforts. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

Gardenia 'Vietnam'
Gardenia 'Kleim's Hardy'

Gardenia taitensis-Tahitian Gardenia
Gardenia tubifera, photo: Top Tropicals

August 27, 2010

Choosing a Landscape Architect

Landscape architect plan
Choosing a landscape architect to design a garden or a landscape for you is a daunting task. There seem to be hundreds of companies to design whatever you want. I can frame some of the questions you should ask before you  get quotes. Keep in mind that such firms are in business to make money, and their natural tendency is to make as large a project as possible. A clear definition of what you want to do and a realistic budget can help smooth the process. Your first line of refinement questions should be:
  1. what exactly do I want from my landscape?  Be incredibly specific about the feel and result you want to get out of the finished landscape, ( shade, sun, grass, water features, stone areas, vegetable gardens, etc.)
  2. what is your budget ?  Have you priced some of the items you want ?
  3. are your expectations realistic for the money you want to spend ? 
  4. have you researched the plants you want to install ?
  5. have you visited other public or private gardens to get ideas ? Photographs help define your interests.
  6. do you want a garden enhancement or a full re-work of the area, including irrigation and drainage?
  7. have you "looked into the future" to predict how the trees and plants will look in 5 years?
  8. do you plan to be at that house for a long time ? If not, then the design may change to reflect the short-term ownership. Many designers like top pack a lot of plants into small spaces for the finished look the day it is completed, but the long term maintenance of overly dense landscapes is a big problem.  
  9. do you really need a landscape architect, or just a good landscape contractor ? The price will differ markedly, just as with a building architect versus a building contractor.
  10. Many landscapes need a reduction in plantings, and perhaps a change-out of plants to reduce maintenance. Sometimes you need to look at what to remove and not what to add.     
These are basic questions to ask before you get quotes on a landscape with a hefty price tag, plus a set of plans written by a qualified architect. Certified Landscape Architects have the initials CLA after their name, or ASLA ( American Society of Landscape Architects). The training and education requirements are long and comprehensive, so be prepared for a price tag commensurate with the experience.
Landscape architect plan graphic

Landscape architects are trained in many facets of landscaping, including details such as drainage, composition, electrical and irrigation installation, landscape lighting, pools, aquatic areas, elevation problems, urban landscape laws and many others. Landscape Designers are usually concerned with just plants and landscapes, sometimes diversifying into "hardscape" items like lighting and ponds. A Landscape Designer may be just what you need for a garden enhancement, as opposed to the more structured training of a credentialed architect.

Computer graphic landscape design

In short, an architect may be the perfect person or firm to hire for a landscape with multiple details, or for a full scale re-design. A Landscape Designer may be the right person for a garden area or enhancement project, and a qualified landscape contractor will help with installations of pre-set plants, providing installation services plus guaranteed survivability. Choosing the right person for the right size job is as important as choosing the right plant for the right place.

     Craig Morell
     Pinecrest Gardens      
Landscape design, small scale

August 26, 2010

Angel's Trumpets-A Wonder of the Evening Garden

Angel's Trumpet plants have been around for almost a century, and are less common now than in previous years. Brugmansia  is the botanical name for this genus of spectacular plants. These plants have one of the most magnificent evening fragrances of any plant I know of, and deserve a place in more gardens than we see today. Angel's Trumpets have a range of colors, grow even in coolish subtropical areas ( throughout the coastal Gulf states, from Orlando south to the Florida Keys), and are fairly pest-free. These plants are worthy specimens in your planting scheme, and I have marveled at plants well over 50 years old in mature landscapes.There are types to fit most gardens, from fairly small and compact such as the variety 'Cypress Gardens' to a fast and beefy type such as 'Frosty Pink'. They are good companion plants to gingers, heliconias, bananas, and some palms that like lots of water and fertilizer.

The plants have certain needs to grow well, and are not a set-and-forget plant. As with all plants that grow fast, these plants are heavy feeders, but are not at all fussy about what fertilizer they get. I heard one grower refer to them as "hogs", meaning they needed a lot of feeding. The main points to remember about these plants are that they need everything in abundance: fertilizer, water, mulch, heat, light, and humidity. If you deliver these things, you'll be amazed at the return on your investments ! These plants epitomize the old saying 'you get out of it what you put into it'.

Brugmansia 'Peaches and Cream'

Brugmansia 'Cypress Gardens' 
The plants used to be more popular, but recently have gotten a bad reputation. The plants are in the tobacco family, and like most members of that family, the leaves contain alkaloids similar to coffee and other species. Some homeowners fear the plant will be a danger to children, but I caution readers that a very large number of common landscape plants have chemicals in their leaves as natural defense mechanisms. Many houseplants and popular seasonal flowers are troublesome if ingested, but we know about the traits and steer clear of them. Education about plants is a powerful tool, which should be used more often than it is. One wizened teacher in Gainesville told me that "if people are in the habit of grazing on their landscape they should not be gardeners."

There is no need to fear the plants; they will not affect a casual gardener no matter how aggressive the pruning or contact with the plant.   

Brugmansia 'Lemon Ice'
Brugmansia 'Frosty Pink'
There is a species of Angel's Trumpet that shows up in garden seed catalogs, and I wish to make mention of it, since it also shows up in local plant sales. Brugmansia sanguinea comes from the Ecuadorian highlands, and really prefers cooler temperatures than we have in South Florida. I saw this species growing to perfection on the San Francisco coastline, bathed in chilly fog, and have also seen it at over 10,000 feet of altitude in the hills around Quito, Ecuador. As beautiful as this species is, I recommend it only for people who live in Mediterranean climates where the weather is moderate all year, with a long cool winter.

Give Angel's Trumpets the resources they need, and they will give you abundant flowers with an ethereal texture and heavenly fragrances.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

Brugmansia sanguinea

August 25, 2010

The Dwarf and the Giant- A Tale of Confusion, One Impostor and Two Poincianas

Royal poinciana- Delonix regia
One of the most spectacular trees in the world is a Royal Poinciana ( Delonix regia) at full bloom. It would be hard to beat the grandeur and spectacle of a 75 foot diameter tree emblazoned with a mantle of brilliant red-orange flowers. The tree is one of the most iconic summer season trademarks of Miami. Many flowering tree experts still rank this as one of the top 10 flowering trees in the world, and it grows beautifully with minimal care here. Hailing from Madagascar, the tree may well be more common here than in its home country, due to deforestation and development. There are 3 or 4 yellow varieties of a Royal Poinciana, and numerous tones of orange, red, crimson, and even a pumpkin-colored flower type. The yellow-flowered version of Delonix regia are a far cry from the smaller flowers of the "other" poinciana, the ill-named "Yellow Poinciana (Peltophorum pterocarpum, 

Yellow Royal Poinciana- Delonix regia
Yellow Poinciana-Peltophorum dubium,

If you have the space to grow it, the Royal Poinciana is an anchor tree in a landscape. Yet with all its accolades, and like other large trees, it has some flaws. The tree gets quite large, has shallow roots that spread a long distance from the trunks, and the trees shed leaves and twigs all year long.

With these traits in mind, don't discount planting the tree on your property if you have room, just deal with and understand the drawbacks. Don't plant the tree near a pool, house, pavement or driveway. Give the tree a 20 or 30 feet radius of clear space around the trunk for future growth. Understand the tree's habit of going almost dormant in winter, to make ready for flowering in the warmer months. Remember that the tree sets 2- foot long seed pods. You can grow other plants under a Royal Poinciana, but plant species that don't mind getting a slow rain of small leaflets on them. Many of the running ferns like Wart fern, Macho ferns and Fishtail fern seem to enjoy the "aerial mulch" that descends from the sky. Royal Poincianas don't need or want a lot of irrigation, so park the tree on a well-drained area without sprinkler heads.

Dwarf Poinciana-Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Dwarf Poinciana-Caesalpinia pulcherrima

One of the mis-named plants in landscape horticulture is the Dwarf Poinciana, ( Caesalpinia pulcherrima) a fairly distant relative of the Royal Poinciana. It is not a dwarf version of a Royal Poinciana. The two trees are in the same Legume family, but are fairly distant relatives. It is a small tree, usually less than 15 feet high, from the Caribbean, and with a thorny trunk. Sometimes called a Bird of Paradise Tree ( equally confusing), the trees come in different color forms, from the usual red-orange to a brilliant yellow, to a rose/brick-red color. These are great trees for small properties, and are very easy-care types, needing a lot of sunlight and well-drained soil, but not much else. The trees don't shed twigs, have invasive roots , drop big seed pods, and the trees flower most of the year.

These trees should be much more common than they are, yet for some reason they are not often seen in urban landscapes. Perhaps the reason is that young seedlings are rather gangly, and don't "canopy" for several years. Perhaps the thorns deter buyers, but they are hardly as risky as some cactus species.

My suggestion is to try one or both of the trees, depending on your property's size. For smaller properties, the Dwarf Poinciana is a brilliant focal point in the landscape, with cheery flowers almost all year. Larger properties and many urban landscape areas can show off a Royal Poinciana in its full regalia. Once again we have a range of options for a flowering tree, once again we have a society of experienced and dedicated people to support flowering trees, and the climate in which to grow either of them to perfection. The Tropical Flowering Tree Society is the national leader in such trees, and is based here in Miami, possibly the world leader in flowering tree diversity.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens             

August 23, 2010

Whatever Happened to all the Hibiscus ?

'Molten Lava' Hibiscus
Decades ago I recall seeing a lot more Hibiscus than I see today. What happened ? Hibiscus were such a part of the landscape, along with Ixoras, Mussaendas, Heliconias, and other iconic plants of the area. Being an inquisitive person, I looked into the "Great Hibiscus Decline", for lack of a better term. I found several confluent factors, and some interesting results. 
Some of the factors include pest problems, and also include market forces, coupled with mass production techniques. The major reasons for the decline in Hibiscus have been introduced pests, primarily Gall Midge, Pink Hibiscus Mealybug ( REALLY hard to eradicate), whitefly, and nematodes ( parasitic root-infesting worms). In a word, Hibiscus have bug problems, but with modern pesticide chemistry,  and some older pest control tactics the pests  are manageable.      
Hibiscus schizopetalus- nematode resistant species
'Anderson Crepe' Hibiscus-nematode resistant hybrid
'Lafrance Pink' Hibiscus- nematode resistant hybrid
Nematode control is a bit more difficult, but still possible with organic controls that focus on enriching the soil, especially acidifying the soil, as well as adding specific ingredients like crushed crab shell, incorporating coffee grounds into the soil, and maintaining as rich an organic soil  as possible. Planting resistant types like 'Anderson Crepe', and 'Lafrance' are good ways to maintain hibiscus in your yard without a lot of maintenance. Organic rose fertilizers are excellent at helping to control nematodes. One of the reasons Hibiscus are less popular is that they require more care in the nursery at every stage of production, as well as being harder to handle on the retail garden shelf. The flowers last only a day, and if the plant isn't in flower at the moment a customer sees it, it may not sell. Many of the flashiest flowers, like 'Molten Lava', are slow growing, and usually are sold as grafted plants which cost more than the 'garden variety' types do. 
With all this extra care, one could ask 'why bother growing Hibiscus at all ?" My answer is that sometimes certain plants are worth the extra effort. Not everything is easy to grow, or effortless to maintain, but we should regain the interest to grow some of the more challenging plants. Long, long ago, a famous gardeners once said "if you're not killing a few plants now and then, you're using all your skills." This may be a strange statement to some, but it makes sense. Try a few new plants, and some of the old standby types as well. You may recapture the interest in gardening, and bring back a bit of history.   
'Nairobi' Hibiscus

August 20, 2010

Orchid mounting techniques

Lady of the Night Orchid on a tree trunk
Growing orchids and other tree-dwelling plants adds a nice element to a landscape. In some designs, the gardens extend from below ground level ( aquatic gardens), up through the trees and even into the tree tops ( climbing plants). My interest is to educate people about the numerous options of each level of gardening, and orchids are one of my favorite groups. One thing is certain about orchids: nowhere in the world are orchids found naturally growing in pots ! Most of the flashier iconic orchids are epiphytes, growing naturally on tree or rocks in the tropics. With this in mind, we can replicate these conditions by mounting orchids onto trees or on prepared solid media like cork bark or coconut fiber logs. It is really useful to know just how your mounted orchids are supposed to grow. Some orchids need moisture and shade, such as Phalaenopsis, whereas others like very bright sunlight and occasional watering, such as Brassavolas. How do you know what conditions your plants need ? Ask an orchid society member ! They will steer you to the right information. Once you match the right plant to the right conditions, then you can begin mounting orchids.

Cattleya mounted on a palm trunk

Cork Bark pieces with wire hangers
Choose a long term material to mount orchids on such as cork bark, cypress planks, or a rough-barked tree. Steer away from Citrus trees, since they don't like being watered very much. Clean all the old potting medium off the orchid or bromeliad, and place the plant against the tree. Some experienced growers use a bungee cord to hold the plant in place while they do a proper job of tying down the plant. Nylon stockings, heavy fishing line, vinyl coated copper wire, plastic nursery tie-tape, electrical cable ties  and manila rope all make good tying materials. The important thing to remember is that you are trying to hold the plant firmly but gently against the mount without cutting into the roots or rhizomes of the plant. I've seen some growers who used stainless steel tie wire, which cuts into the orchid and the tree, with disastrous results. The secret to success is to make sure the plants are firmly against the mount without any wobble in the plant which would break the newest emerging root tips.

Dendrobium established on driftwood mount

There are myriad orchid choices for growing in the arboreal landscape here. Your local orchid society can provide great hands-on information, since the growers live nearby in most cases. Experiment with a few inexpensive plants to see how well you and your plants get along. Once you succeed, you'll have opened a new door into another level of horticulture.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

Dendrobium on buttonwood wedge

August 19, 2010

Orchids in the Landscape- Part 2- Tree Dwellers

 Brassidium Shooting Star orchid
( an Oncidium relative)

As a kid in Milwaukee in the middle of winter in February, I remember seeing some glorious pictures of gardens in Miami, with orchids all over the trees. I thought "what a cool idea, not needing a greenhouse to grow orchids !" Now I work in a public garden in Miami where I can mount thousands of orchids at will, provided I choose the right plant for the right spot.We are lucky that we live in one of the rare areas on the continent where we can grow tree-dwellers.
Cattleya dowiana v. aurea

If you want a good reality check, travel to a northern city in the winter to see what kind of plants are available in the big-box stores. When you return to Miami, you realize anew that we have a terrific climate in which to grow so many plants. The tree-dwelling orchids ( easier to say than epiphytic orchids) are a great group of plants which can be mounted to trees or wood posts. There are literally thousands of epiphytes available to grow here, quite possibly the largest group of plants in all of horticulture. It would take 100 blogs of extreme length to cover most of them. I'll try to pare down the galaxy of tree-dwellers to a few basic groups to start with.

Cattleya trianae

Using big-box store inventories as a template,
I included photos of the common types available locally. All are good candidates for tree mounting, and can grow without a lot of care once established. All of these plants like a good sunny spot, but with a little shade from the overhead afternoon sun. The basic groups are Cattleya, Dendrobium, Vanda, and Oncidium .
Dendrobium Ise

The main things to remember about mounting orchids is to firmly affix them to a rough-bark tree
or palm with something that will hold the plants tightly without hurting the orchid or the tree. These techniques will be covered in the next episode of this blog. Once mounted to the tree, you'll need to tend to the plants every few days by watering them with a hose or rain head so the plants produce new roots. The plants also need fertilizer. You'll be surprised at how long the roots will be when the plants get established ! Some orchids conduct photosynthesis through exposed roots, which would explain why some orchids really don't do well in pots.

Fertilizing orchids is easy, but does require a few tools. My favorite choice of tools to feed orchids is a Gilmour hose end sprayer, a device you fill with water and a few tablespoons of fertilizer such as Peters 20-20-20 or Rapid-grow or a range of others. Spray the plants with liquid fertilizer every 2 or 3 weeks in the warmest months, every month in the winter. Add a few tablespoons of Epsom Salt to the fertilizer in the summer months to help keep the plants really green.Vanda orchids in particular like a lot of water and fertilizer, at least every day for watering and once a week or more for fertilizing. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how much orchids can add to your landscape, and how little care they need once established. You can have that extra-tropical look so many people dream of in your own backyard. I have a slightly larger backyard than most people do, but it' still a pleasure to work with orchids and tree dwelling plants of all kinds.
Oncidium sphacelatum

Craig Morell                                                    Pinecrest Gardens
Ascocenda Su-Fun Beauty
( Vanda relative)