October 22, 2013

Calathea zebrina

The Gorgeous, Velvety
Calathea 'Jungle Velvet' 

The Maranta Family has some real jewels in it, and some of them have made great landscape plants for a subtropical landscape or conservatory. One that has caught my attention recently is Calathea zebrina and its close ally C. warscewiczii. Both are beautiful foliage plants, and even more so when in flower. A great friend in the Kendall neighborhood grows a picture-perfect version of Calathea zebrina, usually called 'Jungle Velvet', with soft, butter-cream colored flowers, set against surreal striped / mottled foliage. The tradition with growing this group of plants is that they like deep shade, and most every book calls for the plants to be strictly understory plants. The plant seen in these pictures is growing in strong morning sunlight in Miami, with direct sun until almost noon. This plant is one of the best-grown I've seen for this species, better than most commercial growers. It is remarkably cold-hardy, re-growing from its tuberous rhizomes even after frost.   

overhead view of
'Jungle Velvet'

In this case of a plant-that-didn't-read-the-care manual, the plant is thriving in strong morning sun, gets watered every few days, and is fertilized with a water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer every week, and has produced long-lasting, sensuously soft flowers, set against some exceptionally patterned foliage. The plants is fairly easy to find in many nurseries throughout the country, courtesy of the tissue-culture business that allowed this extraordinary plant to be mass-produced at low cost.    

close-up of flower
of 'Jungle Velvet'
No matter where you grow the plant, it prefers high humidity, a moisture-retentive medium, and regular watering to keep up with its fast growth. The Maranta family has a lot to offer growers in warm climates, and the leaf patterns are hard to beat. In the case of 'Jungle Velvet', you get beautiful blooms, too. Thanks to Osito for the photos.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

September 12, 2013

The Fascinating Ant Plants

       The Fascinating Ant Plants

several species of Hydnophytum
courtesy of rareferns.com and
Charles Alford

Hydnophytum formicarium

Ant plants are most interesting plants, growing in tropical mangrove forests and in a number of species of trees, but almost always growing epiphytically. Their swollen caudex bases are riddled with myriad channels and galleries, as if termites had already set up homes inside. These channels are purpose-built and perfect for the establishment of ant colonies. The symbiotic relationship of ants with certain genera of plants is a great example of plants and animals working to each other's benefits. The ants protect the plants from leaf-feeding predators, and the plants provide a safe home for ants, with some protection from ground-dwelling predators. The waste and detritus created by the ant colony helps feed the plant, in addition to providing protection services.   

There are many species of Ant Plant, most prominently in the genus Hydnophytum.  Other genera of Ant Plants include Dischidia, Rafflesiana, Myrmecophila, and in some cases, certain genera of ferns such as Lecanopteris.     


These plants can be effectively grown in baskets filled with long fibered sphagnum moss or an epiphytic mix suitable for ferns. I have seen several marvelous specimens growing on cork slabs, with small seedlings growing in the fissures of the cork. The plants seem to prefer strong light without all-day sunlioght, and watered frequently to prevent the plants from drying out. Consider adding one or more species of Ant Plant to your collection to broaden your scope of experiences.  

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


July 18, 2013

The Sacred Lotus

The Sacred Lotus Flower

Lotus 'Chawan Basu'
photo courtesy of Bonniesplants

Lotus plant habit
photo courtesy of Auburn University

photo courtesy of Davesgarden.com

Lotus have been cultivated for thousands of years, but only recently have become popular again in the south. There are numerous varieties, and in a range of plant sizes, from the fabled dwarf "rice bowl" lotus to giants growing to 8 feet tall. In most cases, lotus need abundant sunlight, and a fairly large water volume to grow to their best potential. The plants will grow better and flower more freely when given abundant soil solume in which to grow their vigorously spreading rhizome. The ideal situation would be to grow lotus in a shallow pond or lake with a rich organic soil substrate.       

' Mrs. Perry D. Slocum'
photo courtesy of Davesgarden.com
Rhizomes of many varieties can be obtained via mail-order nurseries throughout the country. Given ample water and soil volumes with a source of controlled-release fertilizer specific to water plants, lotus can be a great addition to an aquatic garden. Given some periodic attention to removing dead flower stems, and with fresh water available to the plants at all times, lotus are grand plants, worth a trial in your garden. Auburn University produced an outstanding document on growing lotus, look for it at the Auburn University site under "Lotus Literature Review". It details the important methods and techniques needed to successfully grow lotus. This group of plants is yet another spectrum of plants to choose from in designing your garden. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

June 21, 2013

The Rose of the Mountain Trees

The Rose of the Mountain Tree
Brownea grandiceps
Brownea is the genus of a group of trees that I like a lot. The trees have a graceful character to them and they don't grow very large, at least not in South Florida. Of special interest are the flower clusters, which in some species can be a foot across, in a range of colors from light orange to scarlet-red.

Brownea macrophylla
flower clusters to over 1 foot across
photo courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Garden

The trees are in the Legume family, and are from the New World. They are becoming more available in South Florida, and several species are available at every Tropical Flowering Tree Society sale in Miami, as well as through mail order sources. The species are easier to grow than once thought; our trees at Pinecrest Gardens routinely set seed, and grow in more sunlight than the landscape books tell you. I have not seen any cold damage on the trees here, even at near-frost conditions. I know of several trees 50-70 miles further north and they grow well in a range of climate conditions, although the cultivated species like frequent applications of fertilizer as well as quarterly applications of liquid iron.    

      Brownea coccinea
                   photo courtesy Flowers of India

This group of trees is well suited for tropical gardens, has a nice weeping growth habit to the branches, and is fairly pest-free, at least in our climate. The seeds are easy to sprout if fresh, but in my experience the seeds can take many months to germinate. In one case years ago, I tossed out a pot of unsprouted seeds after 2 years of no results. The seeds sprouted 2 months later in the compost pile ! We have 4 species on site at Pinecrest Gardens, and I await the flowers on them every year. They often show themselves under the branches, so we either prop up the branches when the trees are in flower or prune off the lowermost branches every year to get some added clear trunk space. When well fertilized and consistently moist, the Rose of Venezuela trees grow fairly fast, and are worth the initial investment. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens    


May 8, 2013

Red Amongst the Green

Blood Lily
Haemanthus multiflorus
Red is a difficult color to find in a shade garden. There are numerous plants with red flowers, but most of them require abundant sunlight. There are many plants that have red flowers to attract birds and bees as pollinators. In partial shade or even full shade, plants with red foliage or flowers are far less common.

At Pinecrest Gardens, we have a few plants which flower with nice red colors, even in the shade. For heavy shade, plants in the Shrimp Plant Family ( Acanthaceae) rule the forest with flashy flowers and colorful bracts. One of our favorites is the Cardinals Guard plant. It grows best in bright filtered light, but can perform even in very low light. Its crimson flowers are a welcome contrast to waves of green foliage in a forest landscape.

Cardinals Guard
Pachystachys coccinea
There are numerous species in the Lily Family that can add color to your garden, including the venerable Amaryllis group. Although they grow best in very bright light, they can still flower in shade conditions under a tree. In slightly cooler climates, Sprekelia formosissima is a scarlet flag that portends Spring. Many Hippeastrum hybrids are excellent garden plants in mild climates, or as container specimens in colder climates. There are myriad cacti and succulents that grow well as hanging basket plants, and some grow fairly well in a shade garden, such as Epiphyllum, which grows on an oak tree branch in our front entrance here at the Gardens. 

photo courtesy of wemoss.org
Aztec Lily
Sprekelia formosissima

photo courtesy of Floridata
Hippeastrum 'Red Lion'

There are myriad choices for color in a shade garden. Red flowers in a shade landscape are a challenge to find, but such challenges are worth the effort. In the event that the plant choice won't grow permanently in the chosen area, consider growing the plant in a container in a sunnier area, then displaying it in a shade garden while it flowers. Plants with red foliage e.g. Aglaonema, Cordyline) are a bit more forgiving of shade, but less forgiving of colder weather other than South Florida. Consider some of these brilliant colors, even if it is just for a summer. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens  

March 25, 2013

Root Zone Heating? in Florida ?

Electric propagation heating mat
courtesy of Thompson and Morgan
 Root zone heat can dramatically improve rooting and seed germination, yet few people use the technique very much these days. It is a tried-and-true technique, but I believe most growers in Florida feel it is unnecessary, given our abundant heat most of the year. It is the temperature difference from day to night which makes such a difference in rooting plants or germinating seeds. Even though we might have a 90 F day, sometimes the temperatures go down to 75F at night, even cooler in the Spring and Fall weather changeover. If we can stabilize the temperature difference from day to night to just a few degrees, seeds sprout faster and cuttings root stronger.

sealed polymer heating and propagation mat
courtesy of Growers Supply

Victorian-era greenhouse gardeners often used paraffin oil burners underneath metal clad seed beds to boost root zone temperatures, and many temperate-zone gardeners have long used root heating mats to keep plants healthy. There are many ways to stabilize and boost root zone heating, many of which are easily available from garden supply firms. Styles range from slender heating cables to be buried in soil or sand, to wafer-thin sealed polymer mats to hefty swine heating mats capable of handling foot traffic. Most of the higher-cost heating mats require the use of a thermostat to regulate the temperature, some of the basic ones are pre-set to 74F. In areas where the growing area temperature is very cool, 74F would be suitable; for our needs with tropical plants, 78-80F is preferred. 

a basic, single-zone controller
courtesy of Amazon.com

It is surprising how well plants will respond when their roots are kept warm, especially in the shorter days of the year. Tropical plant seeds and seedlings especially like to have warm root zones; their genetic world is made up of stable temperatures with little difference from day to night. Many palm and cycad species will grow far better and will have fewer diseases with root heat in the cooler months.

Kane brand pig warming mat
courtesy of QC Supply

One of the simplest techniques seen on the Internet is to use an old water-bed heater, placed under a large mortar-mixing tub of coarse sand. Seeds, cuttings and pots can be stuck into the warm sand, the improved growth results are worth the effort. This technique is the modern version of the Victorian-era tactic of placing paraffin burners under a metal box full of compost. Try heating up the roots of your sensitive plant species a few degrees, and watch the results. The difference is remarkable. 


multiple-zone propagation mat controller
courtesy of 4 Hydro

 Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


March 4, 2013

Irrigation and Sprinkler Systems- part 2: Controllers

a simple, battery operated
irrigation controller
If you have need to irrigate or water your lawn or landscape more than occasionally, it is wise to use some sort of controller to manage the watering schedule. Controllers can range from a manual type that is a simple count-down ,non-repeating timer which shuts off the water; to mini-computers which can handle dozens of variables and can keep track of seasonal changes. 

For residential landscapes, a simple battery-operated controller will handle one or two sprinklers, connected to hoses and used for small areas. For a more permanent system, an electronic plug-in controller will handle most needs. Most of these devices can be purchased at large home improvement stores, along with all the needed wiring and connectors. 

irrigation controller for both home
and commercial operation

One of the primary decisions to make is what type of controller to use. If your irrigation system is run by electric irrigation valves, use an electronic controller, preferably one that is rated for outdoor use. Many electronic controllers are rated for indoor use, such as those that are mounted inside a garage or porch. Outdoor controllers have weatherproof enclosures and weather-resistant electronics inside. If your irrigation system is just one or two sprinkler heads ( see previous blog installation) you can use a hose-mounted timer. If you have a commercial-grade irrigation system with more than 20 zones, a control station is required. The main differences in the size of such controllers are their abilities to control water flow, pump operation, and ability to alter schedules quickly.

a sophisticated
irrigation control station, capable of
controlling up to 100 stations

Choosing the right controller for the right size irrigation system is one big step toward owning an irrigation system that functions well without causing too many headaches for the owner. Consider the controller's ability to add zones if you wish to modify or augment your system in the future. The most popular makers of controllers are Rainbird, Hunter, Toro and Orbit, depending on where you are in the country. Mount the timer in an area out direct sunlight and preferably in a protected spot that is easily accessible. A good quality controller can last for 10 years or more, one step closer to a good, low-maintenance landscape.      

February 8, 2013

Irrigation or Irritation System ?

When do you need just a "sprinkler" and when does the need morph into an "irrigation system" ? Part 1- the irrigation heads. 

At some point in most gardens, you will need a sprinkler device to water an area or to water in newly planted trees or a landscape section. This begins a cycle that I call the Irrigation Ladder. This cycle is much like the Automobile Ladder or Real Estate Ladder or even the Corporate ladder, wherein you start small and work up to increasingly complex levels, along with a greater risk / reward profile. There are hundreds of choices of irrigation heads, and technology improves them every few years. One of the most recent developments has been the stream-rotor head, combining the best of rotor and spray-head technology into one, very efficient and fairly trouble-free device. Suitable for mixed-planting and turf areas including flower beds, this new type of head can be very effective, although rather expensive to install.  
stream-rotor pop-up head
photo courtesy of Popular Mechanics 

A stand-alone sprinkler is a wonderful device, so simple, so easy to use, no frustration or installation issues; just plug it into a hose and turn on the water. Many property owners decide to have a permanent irrigation system installed, also called an in-ground or solid-set irrigation system with an electronic timer. Things can get complicated when you do this, but there are ways to streamline the project a bit and de-complicate the process. One of the first things to consider is whether you need a whole system or just a sprinkler or two.  Learning a bit about how sprinkler heads apply water can assist with the decision of which one to buy.As a general rule, there are 2 types of sprinklers: those for occasional use, connected to a hose and operated manually by opening a hose tap, and those which are permanently installed onto piping and operated automatically by a controller.

There are several basic groups of sprinklers ( when they get expensive, then we call them irrigation heads ), so I'll list a few of them for easy reference.
One of the most common sprinkler types is still one of the most effective, but not necessarily the most efficient. Some call this kind of sprinkler a "rainbow"; since it often produces rainbows in the mist of the water streams. This is a great device for occasional watering, they are inexpensive and it can water a surprisingly large area, and can soak lawn grass very quickly. It is not very useful for deep-soaking trees or for watering landscape beds or densely planted areas; the water streams can be easily diverted by branches or dense foliage.The sprinklers shown here are can be operated either manually or automatically, but a rainbow sprinkler needs to be above ground to work well.   

Rainbow sprinkler

Another very common type of sprinkler is the pop-up spray head, termed as such because the central stem of the device pop ups from the casing, and "pops down" when the water is off, leaving a smooth contour at ground level so that the sprinkler is not damaged by lawn mowers or foot traffic.This type of device can produce a lot of water quickly, but is still more suited for open areas rather than dense plantings. There are numerous variants for spray heads regarding the fractions of a circle of coverage. The area covered is less than a rainbow sprinkler, but the heads are less visible, cost less, and are more uniform in water coverage than a rainbow type. The heads need to be spaced close enough to allow the spray from one head to overlap the spray from another head. This design calls for numerous heads connected by underground piping or by a hose. This type of head is excellent for flower beds or areas where a lot of water is needed but there isn't much to block the spray pattern.

pop-up spray head
photo courtesy of Green's Lawn Service

One of the more recent types of sprinkler heads is called a rotor head, and it emits water in a long stream which rotates from the head in a circular pattern, usually taking 1-3 minutes to complete a circle. These heads are excellent for covering large open areas, and can even be used in dense plantings or where many trunks can obstruct the water stream path. These heads require high water volume and good water pressure to work best, and are ideal for large lawns or golf courses. They are not very suitable for small  or complicated mixed-plant landscapes where smaller irrigation heads would do the job better. This is one of the most efficient sprinkler types, but is one of the slowest to apply water. A rotor head will take over an hour to apply one irrigation-inch of water, where a spray head would take 15-20 minutes. This type of sprinkler is not really suitable for tree root-zone soaking or deep irrigation, nor for flower beds where the strong water stream would damage flowers. 

rotor head
  With all these options and an endless array of options of design, how can you choose which sprinkler head is best for you ? The answer is to match the right sprinkler head to the right landscape area: spray heads for flower beds, rotor heads for large open areas,and a stream-rotor head to cover areas with turf and landscape plants mixed in. Consulting a landscape irrigation professional will help in designing systems to suit your landscape needs. University Agriculture Extension Service agents can be of great help in designing a water-efficient system to suit your budget and save water at the same time. Keep in mind that many states have watering restrictions, and some states actually specify which irrigation heads can be used in residential landscapes. Designing a good irrigation system is easier than you think, and even a rainbow sprinkler can be effective when used in accordance with its abilities. Many plants will actually grow better with less water than people think is needed, especially in winter months or in rainy periods. Water is one of our most valuable resources, we should all strive to conserve it, one home at a time. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens    

January 28, 2013

       The Giant Gingers- Over Ten Feet, and 

The Torch Ginger
Etlingera elatior
 In our subtropical Miami climate, we can grow a great many species of plants, but for some reason many local gardeners have chosen their landscape designs to favor smallish plants. Perhaps this is a maintenance issue more than a design issue, but I thought I'd counter the trend of smaller plants by pointing out some of the giant ones, for those with larger properties. Few things can make such a statement as a specimen clump of a ginger or heliconia ( see previous blogs). I recall a trip I took to Hawaii in 1996 to the eastern side of Maui, a wet and moderate climate near Hana. I saw a forest of Etlingera elatior, easily 25 feet tall, growing in what seemed to be primordial and prehistoric conditions. The inflorescences were over my head, over 6 feet tall, and I expected a dinosaur to walk out from a nearby clump at any moment. It was a memory for a liftetime.  

Aframomum alpinia
There are quite a number of gingers which grow over ten feet tall at maturity, but there are so few areas of the country where they can be allowed the heat and long growing season to attain this size. Given ample water, mulch and fertilizer supplies, this group of impressive gingers can be a focal point in a garden, even if there is limited ground space. A number of giant gingers grow like bamboo; they grow tall, but don't use up much ground space. Dimerocostus can grow to 15 feet in height, yet occupy just a few square feet of ground space. In the case of some of the Etlingera and Renealmia species, though, the stems have a tendency to arch out from the center and occupy "head room" over the garden area, sometimes shielding overhead rain from the plants underneath the stems.  

Dimerocostus strobilaceus
outside Hilo, Hawaii
photo courtesy of Daves Garden;
this ginger is over 20 feet tall
 Some of the giant gingers would be ideal for landscapes with long narrow plans, where there is sufficient overhead space as is so common in urban townhomes or in condominiums. The tall stems would benefit from wind blockage from the nearby buildings, as well as the extra heat provided by the walls in colder weather. One of the complaints heard about the really tall gingers is that they look ragged in the winter. Most of these species are forest or river dwellers where there is very little wind or dry air to dry out the leaves. Plant these gingers in a protected spot with strong but filtered light and protection from the northern winds in winter. Provide ample organic soil, add slow-release fertilizers to the planting soil when the plants are first dug in, and make sure there is ample mulch to keep the roots moist. We find that planting is best accomplished in May, when the soil is warm enough to allow the plants to root immediately without any delay due to cool soil. The ideal soil temperature is over 75F and less than 95F, with minimum air temperatures over 60F to attain best growth.

The plants will likely sustain damage when air temperatures go below 45F, so try to provide wind protection to keep the plants from chilling quickly. Once established in a protected spot, the plants usually grow robust and strong, with a grand display of flowers.        

Costus guainaiensis
a giant spiral ginger to
ten feet tall

Tapeinochilos ananassae
Indonesian Wax Ginger
    I encourage people to plant species which grow vertically, to add another design element to a landscape. There are so many landscapes in which the garden seems dwarfed by the home. I prefer the hybrid of home + landscape seen as a unit, neither outcompeting the other. The availability of many of these plants is quite good, either as potted plants or as rhizomes. Try a few species and see what they can do to add character to your landscape. There are so many options, so be adventurous with some of the giant gingers. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens  

January 3, 2013

New Guinea Impatiens--Thoroughbreds of the Annuals Group

For many gardeners, especially in the mild parts of the year, Impatiens are a staple item of the garden color palette. With the recent gardening trend toward smaller-statured plants, modern Impatiens are being bred for compact plant size, bright colors, and even growth habit. This trend makes for an interesting conundrum: if the plants are smaller and smaller, you'll need to plant more and more of them to attain the "wow" quotient you hope for your garden's color display. 

My question is: why not use larger Impatiens ? New Guinea Impatiens grow taller and broader than their smaller cousins, and put on quite a show of color. This group of Impatiens often shows off larger flowers ( up to 3 inches across) as well as taller plants ( up to 2 feet and even more).     

One of the down-sides to this group is the plant cost; about double the price of the "regular" Impatiens. While the New Guinea group grows taller and broader than the garden-type varieties, they require about the same care regarding watering and fertilizing--plenty of both. New Guineas will need more shade from the hot sun, and enjoy cooler temperatures than the garden-variety types, but the extra show of of flowers is worth all the extra efforts. 

Pink Frost
Courtesy of Proven Winners
plant grown in a 12 inch bowl,



This is a premium plant, which deserves a little extra effort to make it really show off. Grown in decorative containers or in hanging baskets, these plants can be quite a show-stopper. Fertilize them every week with a liquid fertilizer suitable for orchids, and make sure the plants are well hydrated. Pinch off old flowers to promote new ones. There are always options for new and interesting plants in the garden world. Try something new on occasion, and don't be discouraged if you fail !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

Infinity Orange
courtesy of Sobkowich Greenhouses