My grandfather once told me that a garden is a testing ground for patience. Not until I had a yard of my own – and a job, bills, household chores, and more – did his words make sense. After hours of bug bites, broken nails, and dirt-stained knees (and more than a little profanity), I decided there had to be an easier way.
If you want your yard to look like a botanical garden, you might consider cashing in your 401K to hire a small live-in landscaping crew. On the other hand, if you’re willing to accept a few weeds, some extra shoot growth, and the occasional pest, you’re well on your way to becoming a successful Florida Gardener. So what is the motto of the Florida gardener? Perfection is overrated.
Albert Einstein identified 3 rules of work that can be applied to gardening in Florida: “Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
Out of clutter find simplicity – Humans like instant gratification, but a true Florida gardener is a master of tolerance and endurance. And if a landscape design is done right, the results can be very pleasing.
The key to remember, regardless of what anyone says, is that size matters. Mature plants take up a lot more room in the landscape than when they’re first planted, so give them room to grow. This means fewer plants you have to buy (money savings) and fewer planting holes you have to dig (sweat savings).
Another key element to simplifying your landscape is hydrozoning, the art of designing your landscape by water use: xeric (low), mesic (medium), and oasis (high). Keep high water use areas to a minimum (e.g. turf areas), and utilize as many drought tolerant native and Florida-friendly plants as possible. Group plants with similar water needs together in the landscape to minimize water waste. By putting the right plant in the right place, you save yourself a lot of heartache down the road.
From discord find harmony – One of the most common statements I hear from clients is, “I can’t grow anything I used to be able to grow up North!” Rather than get frustrated trying to train your tulips and daffodils to get a suntan, choose plants that have characteristics better suited to Florida’s environment.
Slow growing plants need less pruning. They maintain a neat appearance, without looking obsessively manicured (remember your 401K…). Additionally, by choosing wide spreading plants, you have to buy fewer plants to fill in a given space. Drought tolerant plants require less water once established, so you’ll spend less time dragging the hose around or trying to adjust your sprinkler system. Just as important, but often overlooked, is the need to choose plants that are pest and disease resistant. Part of being a successful Florida gardener is minimizing your inputs and contributions to the environment in the form of pesticides. Fewer pests mean fewer chemicals.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity – Einstein’s final rule is probably the most uplifting; it causes you to find the silver lining in your garden (and I don’t mean the slug and snail trails crisscrossing the sidewalk and driveway). All gardeners face limitations, but every one of these obstacles can be overcome with a little patience (there’s that word again) and ingenuity.
Mulching is a necessary activity in the landscape to help retain moisture, regulate soil temperature, reduce erosion, and minimize weeds. One potential opportunity is in the availability of free and low-cost mulch from local tree trimmers and municipalities. Some counties sell shredded, composted yard debris to residents for a minimal cost, reducing the need to haul bags and bags of mulch from garden centers. If you have trees that shed leaves and pine needles, collect those and spread them around your yard as mulch or create self-mulching areas underneath tree canopies.
Fertilizing doesn’t have to be a chore, if it’s done right. First ask yourself why you’re applying fertilizer in the first place. Is it because your plants and lawn need a boost of nutrients, or because your neighbors are hauling out their fertilizer spreaders and giving you dirty looks? Remember to use slow-release fertilizer and only apply when needed – to correct a nutrient deficiency, to encourage shoot growth, or to encourage extra blooms.
Weeding is the most dreaded task of any gardener, but the key is timing. Learn to identify the weeds that show up and claim squatters’ rights in your landscape. By understanding their life cycles, you can pull them before they go to seed, reducing the chance of return visitors. Maintain a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch in landscaped beds to help reduce weed seed germination. Finally, learn to tolerate a few weeds; remember the Florida gardener’s motto…
There are many pest resistant plants, but there is no such thing as a pest-free yard. Less than 1% of all bugs in the landscape are pests; the rest are either beneficial or harmless. With that in mind, consider manual removal of pests before dragging out the big guns – pesticides. Many pests can be removed by hand or with tweezers, if you’re squeamish. A strong spray of water from the hose will also knock off most creepy crawlers. The laziest (but just as effective) method of all is to simply prune off the infested leaves or branches and throw them away.
Keep in mind that working in the yard doesn’t have to be work, if you have the right attitude and the right tricks. I hope these tips will help you to avoid the embarrassing moments of being caught by your neighbors while you scream at your plants, curse the bugs, and faint over your water bill. But if you still need a little reassurance or someone to vent to, contact your local County Extension Office (http://solutionsforyourlife.com). I guarantee, they’ll understand.