June 20, 2012

Those Gorgeous Heliconias

It seems a liftetime has passed since I first knew the late Fred Berry 20 years ago. Fred was an amazing, multi-talented person, and a well respected Heliconia grower who lived nearby in South Miami. He introduced hundreds of people to the wonders of Heliconias from the verdant rainforest valleys of Panama and the cool mountains of Ecuador and Peru. Co-authoring one of the most definitive books on the genus, he passed on about 10 years ago, yet his legacy can be seen throughout South Florida. We grow about a dozen varieties of Heliconia at Pinecrest Gardens, and would like to grow a greater variety. There are so many to choose from that choosing just one or two is difficult. They have their own personalities as do many other plants, but there many types which are good landscape plants. 

H. pogonantha
in Hilo, Hawaii

In this remarkably diverse genus there are some 400 species and an increasing number of hybrids and selections. From 12 inch tall pixies to 40 foot tall monsters, there is such a wide range of plants available that if your conditions allowed their growth, you should have one or two Heliconias in your garden. There are types which spread rapidly into large clumps, such as the psittacorum group, and some that are quite modestly slow, such as the caribea group. Size notwithstanding, the inflorescences make excellent floral displays and cut flowers. The plants don't make good containerized specimens for very long; the plants need plenty of root space and air movement to look and grow their best. 

H. bihai x H. caribea

H. x rauliniana
an interspecific hybrid


H. psittacorum
one of the most widely
cultivated types
for cutflower production

For those with the climate to grow these plants as landscape specimens, there are few plant groups which say "tropical" more than Heliconias. As with all plants, know something about them before you plant them. These are fairly high-demand plants regarding water and fertilizer, but these needs can be met easily. Adding controlled-release fertilizer and organic material to the soil at planting time will help keep the plants in good shape. Automated drip irrigation on top of the root system can aid greatly in keeping the plants irrigated properly without wastage from overhead watering. Heliconias are definitely a resource-to-reward-ratio plant; give them the resources they need to produce their flowers, and you'll be rewarded with some of the most exquisite and complex flower colors in the living world. 

H. rostrata 'Misahualli'

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens    

June 7, 2012

Try Basket Culture if You Have Space Limitations

Hanging baskets of flowering plants can add a lot of color to a small garden space, especially if you have really limited ground area. In many cases, "normal" flowering plants can be grown as basket plants with great results. In an unusual case of a landscape plant grown off the ground, I recently saw a grafted Plumeria grown as a hanging basket given that the flowers had a natural tendency to face downward. The flowers could be enjoyed at face level without having to bend over.  I would not recommend growing an Oak tree or a palm tree in hanging basket, but many flowering annuals and herbaceous foliage plants can be grown well as a hanging basket. If you wish to make your own hanging basket gardens, there is a bit of homework to be done before you start, but the steps are easy and the materials are usually available at most garden centers.  

There are three major points to consider when growing hanging baskets. The first and possibly most important point is the size of the basket. An 8-inch diameter basket doesn't allow much room for plants to grow, whereas an 18-inch diameter basket will allow plants to grow large, or allow several species to grow in one container. The second consideration is the growing exposure i.e. the amount of light the plants will get, which will drive the type of plants to be grown and the type of soil to use. The third consideration is the type of plant to grow, based on the previous two criteria. Growing Boston Ferns in baskets means that the plants like large baskets, lots of shade, and plenty of water. Growing succulents in hanging baskets means that the plants like a lot of sunlight, a smaller basket, and a need to dry out between watering. Flowering annuals such as Impatiens and Begonias like a lot of sunlight and plenty of water to keep up with their rapid growth. 

Choosing a type of basket can be a challenge, depending on where you live. In our area in South Florida, we can find baskets made of wire, bamboo, redwood, cypress, teak, and even cast iron. I prefer to line baskets with coconut fiber, since it is cleaner, lasts longer and "sheds" less than sphagnum moss. For most uses, African Violet soil works well as a potting soil, and it is light enough that an 18-inch basket is still manageable. For succulents, I often mix equal parts of perlite and African Violet soil to allow the soil to dry out faster and permit more aeration for the roots. To reduce labor and ensure the plants have a steady supply of nutrients, I'll mix Dynamite or Osmocote into the planting soil before adding plants to the basket. Once the basket is planted, there is only minimal maintenance needed. A little advance knowledge about the needs of plants and some careful attention to soil type and plant choices will yield a beautiful and enjoyable hanging garden that will enhance your garden, patio or growing area for many months.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens    

Municipal planting of flowering annuals in baskets


A basic wire basket with
pre-formed coconut fiber liner.

June 1, 2012

Growing Mint in the Home Garden

Chocolate Mint

At some point in every herb gardener's life, he will try to grow a mint plant or two of the many varieties available. I would like to offer some counsel on growing mint plants, both rewarding and troublesome at the same time. In most cases, mint plants are easy to grow once you understand their needs.

In many states, spearmint is a serious weed where there is enough water, and nearly choke out streams and small ponds. In cultivation, mint plants should be planted with enough space around them to allow for two or three feet of lateral growth per year. The gardener should also understand that mint grows by sending out runners, and these runners can go underground by several feet. If you have a small garden area, I suggest growing mints in pots that are off the ground.

The plants can also be grown easily in hanging baskets, as long as they get plenty of water daily. Use a potting soil and fertilizer suitable for ferns, and the mints should grow just great. Be sure to give the mint at least four or five hours of direct sunlight per year, preferably more. 


There are dozens of mint varieties, but not all of them grow well in the warm subtropics of South Florida. Fortunately there are several popular varieties which grow really well here, such as Chocolate, Orange, Apple, and Spearmint. Chocolate mint is one of the favorites, but be aware that the plant can grow ten to fifteen feet in all directions per year. It does indeed taste like a mint chocolate dessert candy but should be planted carefully to account for its rampant growth.

It is indeed a pleasure to use fresh mint sprigs from your own plant, and the taste of fresh mint is incomparable to the packaged material at the food store. With some basic care and the knowledge of their speed of growth, mint can be a great addition to your garden and to your kitchen. 

Orange Mint
in a decorative bowl

 Craig Morell
Pinecrest gardens