September 28, 2011

Growing Standard Water Lilies Successfully

'Red Flare'
a tropical night bloomer

 Water gardening has become very popular in many areas, and justly so; the availability of great aquatic plants has never been better. Years ago, water lilies were the domain of large gardens and large ponds. The availability of plants at retail garden centers was poor at best. In recent years, the production of water plants has increased, but the quality of plants at retail centers is still less than it could be. I wonder if the supply:demand curve may have something to do with the lack of education on the customer's side of economics. I believe the true reason is more subtle: people don't want to get wet ! Locally, people feel that water gardens are high-maintenance mosquito attractors. The mosquito problem can be solved easily and economically by adding a few surface-feeding fish like guppies, gouramis, paradise fish or mosquito fish.  There are wonderful ways to have a great water garden in a small space, but homeowners need to be educated on a few details.   

'Star of Zanzibar'
gorgeous flowers and beautiful foliage
 As with so many facets of gardening, research and education are key to success. There are lots of on-line, local water gardener, and university resources to use to find out which plants will grow well in your climate. All waterlilies are in the genus Nymphaea. Some of the hardy lilies need a cold rest to grow well, whereas some of the tropical types won't tolerate much cold at all. There are giant and miniature types in each group, and even some which will grow in a small water tub. Growing water lilies is actually pretty easy, but many people fail in the care of the pond and environment around the lily. The crown of the lily should be no more than 12 inches below the surface of the water, preferably 6 inches underwater. The lily pot should be big enough to allow for a year's growth, and some lilies can get BIG, well over 10 feet across. This means a serious tub of soil for the plant, not a 4 inch pot. Many large public gardens have lilies planted in shallow tubs as much as 6 feet across to allow the plants enough room to grow to maturity.     

professional water plant grower at
Missouri Botanical Garden
Australian species N. gigantea
 Small water tubs and ponds change water temperature very quickly. Large ponds change water temperature very slowly, which can be bad news when cold weather comes; the ponds will heat up very slowly. Solar-powered aerators can be a big boon in keeping water circulated throughout the pond. Potting soil can be used in a waterlily pot, but many growers prefer calcined clay mixtures, which look like clay-colored coffee grounds. These clay materials allow roots to penetrate the medium while still allowing oxygen into the root system. Fertilize your plants with slow-release fertilizer such as Dynamite or Pond Tabs 2 or 3 times in the growing season. Press the fertilizer into the mix near the stems and cover up the fertilizer with soil. Once exposed to abundant sunshine and in proper soil with fertilizer, water lilies can grow amazingly fast. The biggest problem people run into is that the water quickly turns green. This usually a short-term algae bloom, and will subside as the lily pads grow to cover the water surface. Water lilies thrive in sunshine, algae cannot grow in shade. As the leaves cover the water, the algae disappears.     

the very dwarf 'Helvola' hardy lily

the very giant 'Missouri' tropical lily,
with 10 inch blooms
with a plant easily growing to 12 feet across !

potting a waterlily
courtesy of GAP Photos

Try a few water lilies in an above-ground water pond to see if your conditions and your skills favor growing these aquatic beauties. A little success can go a long way to bolster your confidence. There is something magical about having a small water pond with fish in it, water lilies and other aquatic plants growing happily, and wildlife using the pond as an oasis.  

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


excellent for aquatic plants

September 23, 2011

Underwater Gardens ?
Why Not ! ?

Echinodorus amazonicus

Over the last 15 months I have written over 130 blogs about plants and all things terrestrial - horticultural. I thought it was well past due that I should speak about the world of underwater plants. The aquarium and water gardening business is a thriving one. Florida has a burgeoning set of aquatic businesses, split into several groups including aquatic plants and aquarium fish. It is indeed possible to have an underwater garden ( immersed), although the choices are more limited than a terrestrial above-water garden ( emersed). Very surprisingly, some "regular" foliage plant growers sell plants for the aquatic plant  market, a fact I found surprising when I worked in a foliage nursery 20 years ago. Quite a few "garden" plants can be grown underwater for a very long time. 

one of many beautiful

Cryptocoryne wendtii 'Red'

An aquatic Crinum lily ?
Yes, Crinum natans

Anubias pontederiifolia
The Coffee-Leaf Anubias
Many of the same criteria are needed for aquatic plants as for emersed plants: light, oxygen, and fertilizer, but in different proportions to the above-water landscape. Immersed plants need plenty of light, more than most people think. Good aquatic plant growers use at least 4 fluorescent light tubes on an aquarium. The better growers will use high-power fluorescent tubes in the 75-110 watt range per tube. Good oxygenation of the water helps in growing a great many aquatic plants, especially flowering plants. Aquatic plants need fertilizer,too, but great care must be taken not to overdose the aquarium with fertilizer salts. Aquatic plant growers suggest using purpose-built controlled release fertilizers such as Pond Tabs, Dynamite or Nutricote. Some aquarists correctly say that the fish will provide all the "fertilizer" the plants might need. 
The ideal state of an aquarium is to have a balance of plants and aquatic life such that they benefit each other equally.     

Dwarf Sagittaria
used as an underwater groundcover

Be careful not to over-plant an underwater garden ! Many aquatic plants grow fast, and can rapidly overtake an aquarium. Plant an aquarium sparsely at first and see how the plants adapt to your conditions. The aquarium becomes an underwater landscape. After you gain experience with aquatic plant growing, you'll see how well the fish and plants work well together. Many aquarists take pride in the underwater topography, landscape design and viewer perspectives of their aquariums. Give aquatic plants some credit for being a part of your garden.    

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

September 20, 2011

Coffee, Chocolate, Vanilla,
..........and?.........Tea !

Camellia thea

What else could there be to complete the world of great tastes and brews than Tea ? Empires have been made and lost on the sweat of workers and the hillsides in the tropics in cultivating tea, coffee, and chocolate. Tea is one of the oldest cultivated plants used for brewing, and is one of the simplest in terms of garden-to-market processing. It is, however, land-intensive, requiring large tracts of land and a LOT of hand labor to pick young tea leaves at just the right stage of maturity. The young leaves are dried, then packaged for sale and shipment. There are hundreds of varieties and dozens of ways to make tea as a drink, but they are all based on just one species of plant: Camellia thea.


Tea is grown in low mountainous areas, preferably with a mild climate. The major growing areas for tea are China, India, central-east Africa and Sri Lanka, but other countries produce tea in respectable quantities. Tea still ranks as one of the most widely consumed of all beverages, and has a long pedigree behind it, perhaps longer than any other brewed beverage. Fortunately, it is one of the simplest of all brews to make; add boiling water to tea leaves, wait a few minutes, then drink up !  

Green Tea leaves, freshly picked

The plant itself is fairly easy to grow, but is fairly tropical in its growing needs. It will tolerate some cold weather and light frosts, but will not likely grow in temperate areas for long. It requires acid soil, consistent irrigation, and regular inputs of iron and fertilizer.  

the finished product
Black Tea

One of the most interesting of all points to ponder:  how did someone centuries ago come up with the idea of boiling the dried leaves in water to make a drinkable beverage? The same query could be made for nature-based pharmaceuticals, foods, and a wide range of other natural products. Where did the "original" knowledge come from, and who will preserve the myriad subtle recipes for that natural knowledge ? As we move our world into more things synthetic, we should remember that many things natural are still useful. I'm sure that we would prefer real brewed tea over artificial tea, real coffee over instant coffee, and anyone who's tried artificial chocolate will always prefer the real stuff. Some the old ways are still the best ways. 

 Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

September 13, 2011

Grow Your Own Chocolate ?
Why Not ?

Cacao Tree
Theobroma cacao

 Last week I wrote a blog about Vanilla and where it comes from. I thought, "why not write a blog about its companion--Chocolate " ? Both Vanilla and Chocolate are tropical plants originally from the equatorial regions, now grown in many countries far from their home countries. Chocolate is an interesting tree in an unusual family, the Sterculiaceae, which contains both ornamental flowering and economical trees, including Cola, from whence comes some popular soft drinks.

Chocolate comes from a small tree, often called cacao. This is an interesting paradox, since the species of the commercial plant is Theobroma  cacao, and is both the common name of the plant as well as the products produced from the fruit. I can imagine how "cocoa" came about from "cacao". The tree is unremarkable when looking at it, with a rather scraggly appearance, tiny flowers, and strongly veined deep green parchment-like leaves. The pods are about the size of a large mango, and are often colored red or orange. 

Cacao pods
courtesy of Montoso Gardens

The most enlightening ( and disappointing) part of opening a cacao pod is that nothing looks, tastes, or smells like chocolate whatsoever. The seeds are covered in a furry-slippery aril that has a hint of taste, the seeds themselves are a bit bitter. So how did a global chocolate empire start with something that has essentially no taste ? The secrets lie in the seeds once they are roasted. It is  then the myriad and complex components are brought out, yet the raw seeds, called "nibs" still have rather little taste. The seeds are processed in many different ways, often adding components like alkali, cocoa butter and other concentrated fractions of the fruit back into the liquid cacao "liquor" to produce the vast selection of cocoa products available to the cuisine world. Fanciers of culinary chocolate ( as opposed to cooking chocolate) have their favorites from Venezuela, Colombia, Guinea, Ghana and Brazil. These raw products are processed into various region brands, such as French Valrhona, Belgian Callebaut, Venzuelan El Rey and so on.

Chocolate Tree foliage

The trees are fairly easy to grow in their preferred climate, but are intolerant of cold weather, dry winds, changes in climate, flooding, drought, insect damage, blazing sunshine, compacted soil, high pH water, calcium, or strong fertilizers. This plant classifies as a botanical curiosity in US gardens, and grows well for about 47 weeks a year, occasionally dying in the other weeks. Hawaii is the only place in the US where cacao can grow year round without fear of weather problems .

As with Breadfruit Trees and Sealing Wax Palms, this tender tropical plant is hard to grow well outdoors in Florida, but effortless in the warm rainy tropics. It is used a a boulevard planting in parts of inland Costa Rica ! If you want to grow a cacao tree, choose a large pot, filled with a well-drained acid soil mix. Incorporate organic fertilizers such as compost or well-aged manure, plus controlled-release fertilizer such as Nutricote, and even coffee-grounds ( how fitting). Plant the small plant into a large pot, and water with rainwater or distilled water to keep it moist, place it into a shady spot with filtered sunlight, and keep it out of strong winds. When the temperature is expected to drop below 50 F, bring it into a protected spot and make sure the roots stay above 60 F.  

The finished product !
Courtesy of Callebaut Chocolates

The tree is an interesting conversation piece to have in a garden, but don't expect to make great chocolate from it. The finished chocolate product is as far afield from the seed pod as ground coffee is from its wild origins. Commercial chocolate products are highly refined and "tuned" to make a specific set of tastes. There is a burgeoning culture which appreciates chocolate by using the same criteria as used for wine, with chocolate and wine tasting events, and of course, similar connoisseurs with the predictable vocabularies for their products. I just enjoy eating the finished products, from almost anywhere, on almost anything. Of course, adding chocolate to some vanilla desserts, downed with some rich Jamaican coffee, and perhaps some cinnamon.....................

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens             
First Was Vanilla, then Chocolate Coffee

Coffee fruits or "beans"

fragrant Coffee flowers
 In the previous two blogs, I looked at two of the world's favorite food products, vanilla and chocolate, both of which have spawned global businesses. In this blog I'll look at one of the two remaining "empire" foods you CAN grow in your own garden: coffee. ( A hint for the next installation: it's an Asian Camellia).

Coffee is a curious brew of alkaloids and tannins and a smorgasbord of other chemistries with long names. Even when brewed well, it is bitter, sometimes sour, so what is the fascination with this stuff ? One of its attractions is its punch of caffeine, whose pick-me-up benefits outweigh the bitterness of the brew. Add some sweetener and a dairy product to mellow the taste and the mix becomes both highly drinkable and highly profitable. 40 years ago, if someone said they'd make a multi-billion-dollar enterprise based on a $ 5 cup of coffee with up to 6 additives, that someone would have been labeled a fool. Yet we now have exotic-sounding coffees mixed by "barristas", the coffee version of a bartender. How did all this business come about from a small tree with bright berries that were, in one television commercial, picked by a guy named Juan Valdez ?

a coffee "finca" ( farm) 

Almost every plant product which contains caffeine or one of its close alkaloid analogs has been grown commercially to a large extent. The list includes Kava Kava, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and one of the quintessential alkaloid plants, Coca. Coffee is easy to grow commercially in low-mountain areas, where it grows best and produces the best quality beans in slightly cooler tropical conditions, usually in fairly rainy climates. It makes a handsome landscape plant here in South Florida, as well as its renewed popularity as a houseplant in many states. The fragrant white flowers are produced in abundance along the thin branches, followed by red berries containing a single large seed. The seed has a sweet white aril surrounding it, but the raw seeds have very little taste. As with chocolate, the true flavor arises after roasting. Unlike chocolate, there is very little processing involved with coffee, where the only steps needed are to dry the seeds, roast them, and grind them. 

Coffee as a landscape plant
Homestead, FL

There are several species in the genus Coffea, but the primary one used for commercial growing is C. arabica, native to Tropical Africa. A small tree to about 15 feet, it is commonly seen grown on hillsides, clipped to about 5 or 6 feet to making picking the seeds, also called "beans", easier. The vast majority of beans are still picked by hand. The beans are collected into burlap bags as has been done for a century or more, then transported to processors near big cities.

In the home landscape, these attractive trees should be grown in clusters to improve pollination, as well as make a better appearance to counteract the sometimes spindly look of a single tree. The trees appreciate bright light without a lot of hot sunlight, frequent watering, and well drained soil. A light, quarterly dose of fruit tree fertilizer will yield a solid plant with its trademark dark green foliage. In flower, the effect of a snowstorm of sugar-white flowers set against a backdrop of deep forest-green foliage is worth the effort to grow the trees. The added benefit of edibly ornamental cherry-red fruits is a luxury.

 As with many food products, there are fanciers of the art and sport of coffee. People are devoted to their favorite brand or region of coffee, and of course there are grower cartels to exploit this devotion. Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee are two premium types, both lauded for their excellent smooth taste and low acidity. Naturally, both are controlled by grower cooperatives who regulate supply carefully. They are not the most expensive coffees, though. That moniker goes to the exotic Kopi Luwak coffee from Java, which has the odd distinction of having its unique flavor due to the fact that the raw beans  were partly digested by an Asian Civet cat. The beans sell for over $ 300 per pound. I'll settle for some of the locally available blends for about $ 10 per pound at the local supermarket, thanks. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens                

September 6, 2011

Bonsai Basics for Beginners

Bonsai trees are more popular than ever before. Once the domain of royalty and private estate gardens, Bonsai are now produced and imported by the thousands. The Miami Bonsai Society meets at Pinecrest Gardens every month, and I must say I am learning a lot about Bonsai techniques.

I have seen Bonsai at their very best in California, Washington D.C. at the National Arboretum, and at the Philadelphia Flower Show (  which I judge annually). Some of the oldest trees presented are just mesmerizing, and the care needed to produce trees of such exceptional quality is inspiring. Just imagine: some of the champion trees are over 200 years old, and have been cared for, perfectly, for 8 generations.  Can you say that anything in your life has been tended for 8 generations ? Such trees are works of living art, and are treated as national treasures.

These venerated tree-masterpieces are the exception, not the norm. It is the culmination of decades of skills training, and a level of patience that borders on religion. The techniques are varied and include art, geometry, engineering, and an enduring love of wild nature. The overall idea of Bonsai is to produce a miniature copy of a mature tree as if you saw the full-grown tree from a great distance. In some exceptional cases, growers have used original pieces of natural stone on which to grow their trees, replicating a particular tree in the wild. The training of the new tree takes many years, tended carefully, and wired to produce a planned structure that the grower created.    

A fundamental principle of the art is to create a tree that shows a series of triangles from all views of the plant from any angle. This is part of the control of man over nature, and growers can spend decades bringing this to fruition.
Growers usually start with a small tree only a few years old, but occasionally use an older tree. If the older tree has the character the grower wants, he may save decades of time versus using a small seedling. The smaller plant can be trained any way the grower wishes, but will take longer (much longer) to train into a specimen plant. These small copies of  natural trees have limited root systems, requiring well-drained potting mixes, a very gentle fertilizing regime and great attention to watering.      

If all the care criteria are met, the end result is a perfectly shaped, symmetrical tree. Many species of plant or tree can be trained using Bonsai techniques, but some species are poor candidates. Many people think that fruit size will be affected by Bonsai techniques, but it is not. There are pictures showing a 24 inch tall Bonsai Lemon tree with a full-sized lemon ! Certain fruit trees can be used as Bonsai choices, but they need to have small fruit. The selection of the tree  can be quite a job in itself, but the results are worth the wait. Bonsai are for the patient grower, not for someone who wants a full-size garden plant in 12 weeks. They are investments, and need some skill to maintain them properly. In the hands of a careful grower, a perfect copy of a mature tree can be had in your own garden, where Bonsai can lend an extra element of peace and tranquility. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens
flowering cherry Bonsai

September 1, 2011

Carnivorous Plants-
Taking a Bite Out of the Myths

Venus Flytrap
If I mention "carnivorous plants" to almost any gardener I know, the immediate reaction is "Venus Flytrap". As a kid I remember seeing little clear plastic eggs containing a sad little Venus Flytrap inside, sold at florist shops. The instructions were a sure way to kill the plant: feed it bits of hamburger and water it when it was dry. There are a dozen varieties of Venus Flytrap, and I know some expert growers of them. They rarely feed their plants, they keep them outside in bright sunlight, and the plants get daily watering with highly purified water. The plants catch their own food, and thrive when potted in sphagnum moss or moss-sand-perlite mixes in small pots. 

Cape Sundew
Drosea capensis

There are lots of varieties of carnivorous plants ( often abbreviated as CPs to save typing), but in this blog I'll show off some of the more common American varieties, except one of the Sundew varieties (it's African). They really are insectivores, not carnivores. None of them are hazardous to pets or children, so the term "carnivorous" plant is a misnomer. The plants are highly specialized to live in the nutritionally bankrupt moss of swamps, marshes, and littoral areas.

The plants have evolved mechanisms to consume insects to gather extra        nitrogen for their diet. Some have active trapping mechanisms, such as Sundews and Flytraps, most are passive, such as Pitchers and Butterworts.   

Sarracenia psittacina
CP collectors have grown and hybridized some amazing varieties of plants, led by some great growers in the American southeast. The plants are inexpensive, and can be grown very effectively in a large terrarium or greenhouse. Use only distilled, reverse-osmosis, or rainwater as the irrigation source; the plants hate municipal water or high-pH well water.       

The American pitcher plants grow in temperate wet bogs and peat swamps of the Southeast states. Areas of southern Alabama, northwest Florida, and southern Georgia are especially rich in species and varieties. In bright sunlight, many pitcher and sundew species flush bright red, further attracting insects. The insects are trapped by crawling into the brightly colored tubular leaves or becoming ensnarled in the sticky arms of a sundew.

The Butterwort group is both petite and subtle, relying on sticky leaves to gain its food reward. The Sundew group is a petite one, with most plants no larger than a silver dollar but growing in large groups. In early morning sunlight, these plants light up like brilliant, red glycerin patches. The Pitcher plant group can grow from a  few inches to over 3 feet tall, often growing in .

Sarracenia purpurea,
an exceptional dark red variety

Primula Butterwort
Pinguicula primulaeflora

   All of the CPs have attractive flowers, rising high above their foliage, to attract pollinators. These are interesting plants, but with specific needs. They need regular attention if grown in pots, but can be established permanently in bogs or water garden littoral areas. For a collector or someone who wants to try something off the main line of commonly available plants, CPs have a lot to offer, and the various CP society chapters are extremely helpful. As always, Nature has a lot of diversity to offer. Take advantage of it !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens