Hillsborough Extension Garden Blog

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Gorgeous Ground Covers! September 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 11:55 pm
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Florida offers the perfect conditions for many types of grasses and ground covers, but in the never-ending attempt to create the perfect lawn, all too often many other great ground covers are overlooked or ignored.

There are many benefits to a healthy lawn, including atmospheric cooling and oxygen production. From a practical perspective, no other plant can withstand as much foot traffic as turf.

But many people spend a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money to have those sweeping, well-manicured green lawns. The “perfect” lawn requires energy-intensive mowing, regular fertilization, irrigation, and, at times, expensive pest and disease control. This translates into four times the energy costs compared to a landscape that only uses turf in small, functional areas and low-maintenance vegetation elsewhere.

One of the biggest complaints about turf is its inability to grow in shady areas. Even the most shade tolerant varieties require at least four to six hours of sunlight each day. Many other available ground covers require a fraction of the upkeep and are more adaptable to a wider range of environmental conditions.

A ground cover is any low-growing plant that can be used to cover an area in the landscape.  And as part of having a passive, energy-saving landscaping, ground covers can provide a surprising amount of residential energy savings during Florida’s months of high temperatures.

The average length of time for most ground covers to become established in the landscape is two years, but some, more aggressive species may take less time. During this period, a regular program of irrigation, fertilization and weed control ensures strong, rapid growth.

A three inch layer of mulch helps to retain moisture in the soil and make it more readily available to new plantings. Mulch also helps the spread of ground covers that root along their stems. Once established, many ground covers need only an occasional trimming to keep them tidy and within their designated area.

The following are a list of great Florida-friendly ground covers that can add a little pizzazz in the landscape. All of these can grow in zones 8 through 11, which covers the length of the State.

Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) is a fast grower adapted to any type of Florida

Source: Texas A&M University

soil and pH, although it’s not very salt tolerant. It produces purple/blue flowers from spring through summer.  Although this plant performs best in partial shade, bugleweed will grow in full sun or shade. It has medium drought tolerance, so a consistent irrigation schedule is recommended. It is susceptible to southern blight and crown rot in soggy soils, so make sure it is planted in an area with good drainage.


Source: University of Florida IFAS

Caladiums (Caladium x hortulanum) provide fantastic perennial color –including red, rose, pink, white, silver, bronze, and green – in the sun or shade. Leaves die back naturally in cold weather but will return in the spring. There are many traditional as well as new varieties available in retail nurseries. They work well in mass groupings under trees or as borders along sidewalks and pathways.


Source: Texas A&M University

The cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) is as hardy as its name suggests. Although a slow grower, it can tolerate deep shade better than most plants as well as a wide range of soil types and pH. Cast iron plants will grow to a maximum height of 3 feet, but will typically stay much shorter. Certain varieties will offer some spotting or striping on the leaves, but in general, this plant is a wonderful choice for a deep green addition to a shady area in your yard.



Source: University of Florida IFAS

Ferns are well-known plants for shady areas, but holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) will grow in full sun as well. It will tolerate dry to moist soils, but will not tolerate long periods without rain or supplemental irrigation. It has a medium growth rate and will spread three to four feet per plant. Holly ferns are relatively pest free plants, but keep an eye out for scales, mites, mealybugs, snails and slugs. It is not salt tolerant.


The autumn fern (Dryopteris spp.) is built for shady spots with well-drained, acidic soils. A native Florida plant that grows slowly, this fern will do well in the landscape once established. It is also a great plant to use for cut foliage in floral arrangements.



Source: Clemson University

Also known as dwarf lilyturf or dwarf liriope, mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) is a hardy, albeit slow-growing, ground cover for shady areas. It has medium salt tolerance, so it may do better on coastal areas that most of the other ground covers mentioned here. Dwarf varieties do well as “fillers” in-between stepping stones in the landscape.

For additional suggestions of ground covers specific to your location in the state, try out the Florida-friendly searchable plant database on http://FloridaYards.org or visit the University of Florida at http://SolutionsForYourLife.com, keyword: ground covers.


No, croutons are the crunchy things in your salad… those colorful plants are Crotons! September 12, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hillsborough County Residential Horticulture @ 12:00 am
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Almost everyone has that one article of clothing that is worn ad nauseum because it’s comfortable or familiar, right? Well, for me this is a simple white t-shirt with a vintage print of a young Bob Marley, his infectious smile and carefree dreadlocks in profile. I wear it everywhere… including the local nurseries while shopping for plants.

It was no surprise, then, when an employee at a nursery recently commented on my attire; however, it wasn’t quite what I expected to hear. “We have plants that match you shirt!” she exclaimed with excitement. I paused for a moment trying to figure out to what plant she could possibly be referring. As I turned to look in the direction she was pointing, her meaning became clear. Tightly packed on a metal rack were 3-gallon pots of dreadlocks crotons (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Dreadlocks’), trained to have a single trunk at the bottom. The result was an explosion of color in a crown of twisted foliar tresses.

The incident led me take a closer look at the world of crotons. Growing up in the Caribbean, I often took these plants for granted, since they practically grow like weeds in tropical climes. In Florida, however, crotons are prized for their adaptability, year round color, tropical feel and variety of shapes and sizes. Thomas Edison even experimented with these plants for potential rubber extraction at his botanical laboratory in Fort Myers.

The plants we commonly refer to as crotons are really 1 of only 15 species in the genus Codiaeum, which is in the Euphorbiaceae family (think crown of thorns, poinsettia, and jatropha). The Codiaeum species are a combination of evergreen shrubs, trees and perennials with thick, leathery leaves, found from Malaysia to the islands of the Pacific. There is a completely different genus called Croton, also in the Euphorbiaceae family, with more than 1,500 species and subspecies, including several weed species in Florida and the southern United States.

In the wild, Codiaeum variegatum is a small tree with plain green leaves. However, part of the allure of Codiaeum variegatum is that it is a genetically unstable species. This causes several mutations which can be targeted through selection. The result is over 400 cultivars available for use as houseplants or in the landscape. Color patterns range from multi-colored spots to irregular color patches or solid-colored leaves with contrasting veins. Virtually any color combination is possible, depending on the cultivar. A huge range of leaf shapes and sizes is also available!

Although capable of reaching 12 feet in height, crotons are usually maintained at a height of 3 to 5 feet and are well-suited to use as foundation, accent, specimen or container plants. The range of colors found on the foliage of crotons (red, yellow, green, black, purple pink and orange) is also sought out for use in corsages, flower arrangements and wedding bouquets.

Crotons must be propagated vegetatively, usually by tip cuttings. Cultivars with more colors will tolerate full sun, while those with more green leaves prefer shadier spots. All crotons will do best in fertile, moist, but well-drained soils, making them ideal as potted plants in temperate regions.  Once established, all crotons are able to withstand drought for short periods of time. In north Florida and most of central Florida, crotons are best grown as indoor plants. If protected in the winter, though, many crotons may survive outdoors in central Florida.

Some of the more popular cultivars of Codiaeum variegatum currently on the market include ‘Banana’, ‘Gold Dust’, ‘Mammy’, ‘Norma’, ‘Petra’, ‘Sunny Star’ and ‘Dreadlocks’, although there are several hundred more available. Try experimenting with these colorful plants for a striking effect in your landscape.

For answers to all your gardening and landscaping questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit http://solutionsforyourlife.com.


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