November 30, 2010

Growing Bananas in Your Backyard

Even in temperate climates, you can grow bananas in your backyard. There are numerous edible and flowering types to choose from. In the northern climates, the plants must be grown in pots and brought indoors before frost hits the foliage. In South Florida, we can grow bananas easily in the garden, but the usual result of contented bananas is that they grow to a nuisance size too quickly. This can be remedied ( as you would expect me to say by now), by choosing the right varieties !  

Musa ornata
a flowering type

Musa 'Aeae'
one of the most desired bananas

Musa balbisiana
grown for fiber and flowers

Musa coccinea
a flowering species

Musa 'Pitogo'
Ping Pong banana

Musella lasiocarpa
Himalayan Banana
 I cannot say that there is a Banana Society, but the Rare Fruit Council members will gladly inform you about different varieties. As with almost every type of plant, there are numerous varieties to be had, from dwarf to giant to unbelievable. Some of the more recent introductions are plants with full-sized bunches of fruit on a small plant, sometimes as short as 7 or 8 feet. There are types with colorful leaves, some with unusual fruit types, and even some varieties with burgundy or striped fruit. There is a neat variety called Ping Pong, and another called Buddha Hands. There are bananas for eating, cooking, flower arranging, and fiber production. There are a number of varieties used as cut-flowers, too. For almost any size garden or container, there are banana varieties for you.

In most every type and species, bananas need copious amounts of water and fertilizer while in active growth. Bananas don't seem to be fussy about what type of fertilizer they get, they just need lots of it, and enough water and mulch to keep them from wilting on hot days. In the ground in warm climates, it would be difficult to overwater and over-feed these plants. Many years ago, I heard a commercial banana grower say that he placed a 50 pound bag of fertilizer next to each clump of banana stem, then turn on the water for several hours each night. It would be safe to say that he had really robust plants !

Musa 'Goldfinger'
one of the better tasting varieties
(A James Bond banana? )

Musa zebrina
'Blood Banana'
a foliage type
   One of the comments I hear about this blog is that there are so many varieties available that making a choice is becoming difficult. To this comment I say  "GOOD !" I would much rather have too many choices than too few. It may indeed be too hard to make an easy choice for landscaping in South Florida, but I suggest that for northern gardeners, the idea of growing beautiful bananas in containers is a welcome respite from the same old foliage plants we see in big-box stores. People choose amongst hundreds of choices for building homes, decorating kitchens, and choosing paint and trim styles. With so much good advice available on the Internet and from plant societies, why should choosing plants for a landscape be so much more difficult ?

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens  

November 23, 2010

Terrariums- Building The Ultimate Water-Conservation Garden

When I was researching this blog, I found a great deal on-line about growing plants in terrariums ( or terraria ), how to build them, and what to grow in them. Even more information is available about building vivariums, which are terrariums with animals inside, as we see so often with pet frogs or small lizards or other reptiles. The basics of building a terrarium have remained constants for decades. I remember building a terrarium almost 40 years using the classic tradition of multi-level construction, and the plants survived for almost 5 years before I had to disassemble it and replant it to accommodate the plants' growth. Some of the biggest mistakes I see in building long-duration terrariums is that people don't account for plant growth, give the terrarium enough light, or put in enough root drainage.       

an aquarium used as a terrarium 

A vivarium set-up
with Tillandsia bromeliads

an open top globe terrarium
with carnivorous plants

a closed  top terrarium

Calcined Clay

long fiber sphagnum moss

activated charcoal
for the bottom of a terrarium

peat moss

The old style of building a terrarium calls for layering the bottom of the terrarium container with a 2 inch layer of washed activated charcoal, covered with a layer of plastic window screen. On top of the screen, place a 2 or 3 inch thick layer of the planting mix of your choice, but a common mix is equal parts of peat moss, long fiber sphagnum moss, and an inorganic material such as perlite or calcined clay. The material made as Oil-Dri for mechanic uses will work nicely, as does the products made for drying sports fields, such as Rapid-Dry or many of its analogs. A mixture of these 3 ingredients makes a long term mix, suitable for many types of plants, including ferns, gesneriads, begonias, and carnivorous plants. With a fluorescent aquarium light these terrariums can grow many plants successfully that could not be grown as landscape plants. This is also a great way to grow plants that need cooler temperatures than would be seen outdoors.

Many carnivorous plants grow very well in terrariums, as do many of the understory West African and Asian Begonia species. Jewel orchids, rainbow ferns, many mosses, miniature gesneriads and numerous other plants grow well in terrariums. Wet the soil and water in the plants using distilled water to avoid any calcium build up from well water. Rainwater is excellent for terrariums, but often breed algae.  

These little glass gardens can be wonderful additions to an indoor area, adding a nice soft touch of green in an office or home environment. Don't let direct sunlight shine into the terrarium, or you will quickly find out what "the greenhouse effect" really is !  If you wish to use an older term for terrariums, tell your friends that you are constructing a small Wardian Case. Sometimes using an older term gets people to think a bit more..........

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens      


November 22, 2010

Gesneriads-  Not Just African Violets Anymore

Nematanthus hybrid
Gloxinia perennis

Chirita hybrid


When I talk about gesneriads, most people think of their grandmother's African Violets. In all honesty, I used to think that way too. Then I moved to Florida, and was introduced to some outstanding gesneriads for landscaping and container culture. Naturally there is a gesneriad society, and like many plant societies they are ready and willing to help with your questions about gesneriads. As with so many plant groups, there are sizes and colors to match any growing need. 

One of the many surprises in this group was Gloxinia perennis , which grows just beautifully as a landscape plant here, even in fairly hostile conditions. There are many gesneriads which grow well as hanging baskets, some are suited to terrarium culture, and some are great for wet-wall usage. I skipped African Violets in this column, since there is a huge amount of information available about growing African Violets, and not so much on the other gesneriads. One of the local growers here, Tim Anderson from Palm Hammock Orchid Estate, grows many gesneriads really well under begonia culture regimes. I tried Chirita hybrids outdoors here for several years with great success, and I have a number of other gesneriads to trial in the coming years. 

Gesneriads for the most part can be treated like ferns, meaning that they like a well-drained but moisture-retentive mix like Pro-Mix BX or Fafard 3, even and frequent irrigation, and slow-release fertilizers like Osmocote or Dynamite mixed into the soil. In our area in South Florida, I've grown them very well in slatted baskets, lined with sphagnum moss, into which I put the soil mix and plants. Kept moist and in a bright / filtered light environment without wind, the plants grow beautifully. I park the plants next to basketed ferns, and they get along great. 

People have an idea in their minds that gesneriads are fussy plants, suitable for conservatories or botanical garden glasshouses. As with so many plants, a little knowledge, some new hybrids, and a renewed look at growing plants a new way or trying them again will yield success. Once again I will make the pitch for you to contact a gesneriad society, and they will definitely help. In looking for these plants via mail-order, be sure to let the vendor know your growing conditions ( indoor, outdoor, greenhouse, etc). and you'll have a better chance at success. Once you tap into the information pool about almost any plant, you'll find that you will know more about both the plants and your growing abilities.           

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


November 18, 2010

Dendrobium lindleyanum
a small plant with a big show
The Dazzling World of
Dendrobiums- the Miniatures

In so many plant groups, there are numerous variations on a theme, primarily in the realms of plant color and plant size. I've talked with gardeners and growers who have complained for decades that they couldn't grow what they wanted because the plants got too big, or they didn't have a "real" garden. In this blog I will address miniature Dendrobiums ( under 12 inches tall) that can answer the call of space-challenged gardeners. These are plants with a big return of flowers on a small plant.

In most cases, there are plants to suit any size gardening endeavor. There are variations in size in orchids, bromeliads, gesneriads, palms, ferns, cacti, and almost every other plant group. I have blogged about many of these groups, so my advice is to do some research about what options are available to you so that you can have the garden you want. The most important aspect of planning a garden is choosing the right plants. Finding the right plants is another matter, however..................( for a different blog).

Dendrobium linguiforme

Dendrobium cuthberstonii

In this division of the genus Dendrobium, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of species. Most are well under 12 inches tall, and some are as small as 1 inch tall or less. The glorious Dendrobium cuthberstsonii is a small plant with a big flower that can last as long as 3 months on the plant. The species comes in decorator colors, and will never outgrow its spaces. There is, of course, a slight hitch: the plant need a lot of cool to cold weather to bloom well. It grows to perfection in coastal California, and I've seen many outstanding plants on the east coast. It is NOT a good candidate for Florida growers, even with artificial cooling, unless you invest in chilling equipment.For the right growing areas, this is a great plant, For Floridians, let's be comfortable with those species that will grow well for us. For us in Miami, we can grow a great array of Dendrobiums  on tree trunks in outdoor areas all year. 

Dendrobium capituliflorum
 Many of these species grow to perfection on slabs of cork or in teak baskets. I'm beginning to like this group a lot more than I did 20 years ago, mainly due to space restrictions at my apartment ! These mini-jewels are yet another tool in the "toolbox" of species we can grow in our plant collections. You can have the colors and fragrances of the orchid world in small spaces, just do some research at your local orchid society. They will help at every opportunity.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

November 16, 2010

The Chinese Evergreen Group- Aglaonema and Company.

Every year there are several big horticulture trade shows. Each year there will be a "new " plant on display,  often a plant that has been grown a long time ago, now enjoying a resurgence in popularity. It is getting increasingly difficult to really "wow" someone in the retail plant market, although in my opinion plant breeders have done a pretty decent job in the last 2 decades. In these trade shows, we'll see something like Zamioculcas zamiifolia as a "new" plant, (although it has been in cultivation for at least 50 years.) Dieffenbachias have made a comeback, and in the last 5 years or so, Aglaonemas have also made a comeback. Sometimes there are new cultivars of something long in cultivation. One witty nurseryman called this type of plant a " heritage" plant, meaning that if you wait for 2 or 3 generations of people to pass through the plant world, lots of old plants are "new" to the new customers.

One of the nicest aspects of modern Aglaonema breeding is the influx of Thai and Indonesian plant selections. Greg Hambali is a well known plant collector in Indonesia, responsible for introducing dozens of new cultivars in the horticultural trade. Some of them have incredible, flashy, surreal colors. In our local nursery trade, several of these plants are coming into the retail market to supplant the old standby varieties like 'Silver Queen' and ' Emerald Beauty'. Only time will tell if these newer varieties are as easy to produce and care for as the older varieties are.         

Indonesian selection

Indonesian selection

Aglaonema costatum
a miniature species
There are dozens of selections in this group available for the interior landscape business. Many of these make good landscape plants in the subtropics where the plants won't be exposed to freezing temperatures. At Pinecrest Gardens we use these plants as bedding plants and as decorative potted plants. Some of the selections can grow to 2 or 3 feet tall, whereas some of the more compact types, like A. costatum, stay under 6 inches tall forever, and rarely grow out of an 8 inch pot. Most of these plants like shady growing conditions, with bright filtered light early mornings, and no direct afternoon sunlight. Even moisture and regular fertilizing makes for strong plants indoors and out.    

'Key Lime'

Aglaonemas are "new" again, and we should harvest these "new" plants for our gardens, especially for those who have a lot of shade.
In our situation at Pinecrest Gardens, they fill an important niche in our shade gardens, underneath tall canopy trees, in raised planting beds, and as potted plants.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Rain',  
an Aglaonema look-alike

 'Emerald Beauty'

'Silver Queen', and industry standard

November 15, 2010

Selaginella Ferns- Easy to Grow, Hard to Find

Here in the humid subtropics in Miami, we can grow a lot of plants as landscape plants that people in many other areas of the country grow as houseplants or landscape plants. One of the most attractive but little known plants is the Selaginella Fern group. The plants often crop up in plant collections and conservatories, but only in this part of the country are they seen in retail garden stores. Botanic gardens often have them at their sales, but not very much has been written about growing them in the home garden. Most of the species are easy enough to grow, and there are several native US species, most of which are temperate. The really flashy ones are Asian, and one in particular, S. uncinata , is the gorgeous Rainbow Fern often seen in terraria. As a landscape plant here, it is fairly easy to grow provided you give it continuous moisture, preferably allowing it to climb all over the ground. When the sun shines on the plant, the fronds light up in brilliant metallic blue-green-aqua.

There are varieties which grow closely along the bark on tree trunks, other varieties that resemble little lace parasols strung out along lines on the ground. Most of the tropical species make groundcovers easily enough. Some of the temperate species look like miniature Spruce or Fir trees a few inches tall.

In almost all species the culture requirements are the same: provide plenty of moisture and "freckled" light meaning that you should not have direct sunlight at any time, just the shifting patterns you'd see under an oak tree. Most of the Rainbow Ferns grow well on acid, organic soil, although many grow on limestone rocks to a brilliant effect. If you take the time to track down some of these ferns, and provide them with the conditions they need, you'll find them easy and rewarding to grow.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


November 12, 2010

Whatever Happened to All the Poinsettias in Florida Gardens ?

Poinsettia hedge

A modern poinsettia inflorescence

a montage of poinsettia varieties

an "old style" poinsettia hedge with narow bracts
 These Mexican natives thrived in our climate of hot,rainy summers, and cool, dry winters. I remember seeing pictures of people proudly showing off their Poinsettias, usually on the south side of their homes, ablaze with color in winter. For many homeowners, they were just ordinary landscape plants with sticky sap, needing pruning every late Summer and little care after that. Gardeners would propagate them easily by cuttings in the spring, and the plants grew to magnificent dimensions. In dry winters I saw thousands of homes with great splashes of red in the landscape.

I noticed that a lot of people looked at my blog about what happened to Hibiscus in Florida. The comments about the disappearance of old Hibiscus reminded me of the nearly total loss of Poinsettias. I've been asking University of Florida Extension agents  for a long time about the mass disappearance of these gaudy yet iconic plants. The answers seem simpler than I would expect:
  1. insects and nematodes have decimated the plant 
  2. the stalwart varieties that used to be grown as garden plants are highly susceptible to modern insects and nematodes. 
  3. modern insects chew up the stalwart poinsettia varieties, and the insects are highly resistant to "conventional" insecticides. 
  4. new poinsettia varieties don't grow as landscape plants as well as the old ones do.
This is a classic case of how the "old varieties" are unable to keep up with modern diseases and pests. Or, said in a different way, the pesticide-resistant pests have wiped out plants that have been here for decades, if not centuries. There are new insect pests in Florida of Gumbo Limbo Trees, Crotons, Ficus, Coconuts and a wide range of other stalwart varieties of landscape plants. The big question would be how to arrest this trend of new pests annihilating old plants. The only long term solution is to breed and select plants resistant to the pests and diseases. The Catch-22 is that by the time the breeders get around to producing new plants, we have a new range of pests and diseases introduced to overcome.

If you wish to grow some of the old style of Poinsettias, use a very well drained organic soil, in a location with all-day sunlight. The organic soil will help retard nematodes ( omnipresent microscopic parasitic worms in the soil) which thrive in dry sandy soil. Plant new plants in May or June, and fertilize monthly with palm fertilizer. Tend to pest problems with organic pesticides like soap/ oil sprays to control whiteflies and mealybugs. Prune the plant heavily every 2 months to induce a lot of branching, then stop pruning by Labor Day. Reduce irrigation after Labor Day to the point where you water the plant only when it wilts. Poinsettias and Bougainvilleas can be tended to on the same schedule, and can grow side by side.

Give your Poinsettia plenty of room, some gentle neglect, attention to pests, and diligent pruning, and it will reward you with a brilliant show of color for months. Perhaps we can start a renaissance of Poinsettias, with a modern twist.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens               

November 10, 2010

Miniature Bromeliads for Landscaping

Bromeliads are one of the most diverse and easily grown plant groups available to South Florida gardeners. There are nearly 2000 species and thousands of hybrids available, but the selection of miniature bromeliads is a smaller list indeed. Several mail-order nurseries sell a variety of such plants amongst others. Tropiflora in Sarasota, Michael's Bromeliads in Venice, Tradewinds Tropicals in Homestead sell these wonderful plants, as do many plant collectors. Bromeliad Society plant sales are goldmines for these neat little plants, most of which will do well in hanging slotted baskets or mounted on pieces of rough wood. Given the vast array of plants available, I am classif ying 'miniature' bromeliads as plants under 6 inches tall and less than 8 inches wide. In the last 2 decades there have been many hybrids using a miniature parent and a full-size parent, resultiung in the best characters of both. Neoregelia 'Fireball' is an excellent parent, and lends a compact, branching habit to its progeny, as does Neoregelia 'Olens'. Frequently these plants grow best in very bright light, are rather drought resistant, and make good groundcovers.   

Neoregelia 'Fireball'
grown in semi-shade

Neoregelia 'Fireball
grown in strong light and direct sunlight

Neoregelia 'Zoe''

Neoregelia 'Olens'

Neoregelia ampullacea

Vriesia scalaris
In the world of really small bromeliads, there is the petite Neoregelia ampullacea, an ultra-compact plant that can grow for many years in an 8 inch clay pan. Its progeny show this trait, and often have brilliant colors in strong light. Vriesia scalaris is an excellent candidate for tree-mounting in a shady tree. This miniature species appreciates frequent watering and fertilizing, rewarding you with colorful penduloius flower spikes that last for weeks. It can be grown to wonderful effect in a slotted wood basket and treated like a Phalaenopsis, using the same potting mix and growing regime.

New hybrids are introduced every year. Bromeliad shows and sales occur throughout the state frequently, usually within an hour's drive of wherever you are. Bromeliad collectors, as with many hobby enthusiasts, are readily willing to give you all the information you need ( sometimes a lot more) to get the right plants for the right garden places. The Bromeliad Society of South Florida  ( is the oldest bromeliad society in the country, meeting in Miami every month.

As with so many plants, there are lots of choices, and lots of information to help with those choices. To qoute an old mentor of mine from 40 years ago, "Use your options ! There's lots of them !"    

Craig Morell
Pinescrest Gardens


November 8, 2010

The Rennaissance of Crotons

'Mrs. Iceton'

'Yellow Mrs. Iceton'

In the last 5 years, I've seen a real resurgence in the popularity of crotons. In some areas on the west coast of Florida, crotons have been a major anchor plant choice of landscapes for decades. Perhaps the croton nurseries were there 50 years ago, and the plants became available to homeowners. Perhaps the rocky soil in Miami prevented a wider variety becoming available, or it may be a simple demand-supply curve problem that prevented a wider array of plants becoming available earlier. Nonetheless, there are dozens of varieties of crotons available in good supply these days. There is a nursery in Miami which specializes in crotons, producing several dozen varieties from cuttings. New seedling-grown varieties crop up all the time in large collections. Here at Pinecrest Gardens we have over 100 varieties of crotons, most of which are named, some of which are wild seedlings.

'Mona Lisa'




There are varieties for sunny locations, container culture, deep shade locations, and almost any variety of conditions in between. There are landscape varieties which turn into small trees, and some newer varieties that are ultra compact, sitting nicely in pots for years at a time. I have not seen groundcover-crotons yet, although some varieties can be maintained at 12 inches high for many years. In South Florida, there are at least 50 varieties available for sale at public garden sales and in nurseries, and easily 400 named varieties in private and public collections.

In decades past, crotons were just another landscape plant, suitable for sunny dry areas, and often cropping up in old neighborhoods who did not have programmed urban landscape maintenance. Today there are dozens of varieties for sale, some of which are decent indoor landscape plants. There is a Croton Society to help promote the plants and to try to keep the names of these highly variable plants as straight as possible.

'Irene Kingsley'
Crotons are no longer just for filling space in the back yard. They can be used very effectively as focal-point plants, container specimens, small-garden or Asian Garden candidates, and almost every possibility in between. Take a new look at crotons, especially in the south parts of Florida, California and Texas. In other areas, crotons make decent houseplants in a sunny window. I learned of crotons in Milwaukee 35 years ago, where their brilliant colors made a real difference in a window in the dreary gloom of February. They can make a difference in your garden as a permanent resident. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens