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Gardening From Florida

...Ring in the New Year with old and new garden friends
by Teresa Watkins
by Teresa Watkins

Teresa Watkins, University of Florida's Florida Yards & Neighborhoods multi-county program coordinator is a recognized leader on xeriscape principles and creating 'environmentally-friendly' landscapes.

An award-winning radio and TV host of a variety of gardening shows in Central Florida, Teresa recently designed the landscaping of the 'first energy and environmentally efficient' home in the state of Florida to be certified as a 'green home' by the Florida Green Building Coalition and Florida Solar Energy Center. Currently, she hosts a weekly radio show, 'In My Backyard' on WLBE 790 AM, sponsored by the Lake County Water Authority, that features environmental issues and landscaping advice on for backyards.

When not digging in someone else's backyard, you can find Teresa digging in her own garden, looking for slugs and lubber grasshoppers --- creatures, that she adamantly swears, do not have souls --- aided in that effort by Sheila, her loyal Scottish terrier and legendary lubber killer.

January 7, 2007

Just thinking about my choices of flowers and plants for the New Year makes me want to ring bells far and wide to let gardeners know how easily they can expand their Florida garden palette.

The key to landscaping in mezic (moist) and hydric (wet) soils is to not use more irrigation but to select the right plant for the right place. I want to add that once established, the following plants are relatively low maintenance and will survive on irrigation once a week during drought periods. Adding these flowering and native selections to your yard will add unique interest, seasonal color, and new low maintenance options for the green thumb who has every kind of plant in his or her yard.

Glossy Abelia, Abelia x grandiflora - A delicate, weeping shrub with bell-shaped white or pink fragrant flowers that I love having in my garden. Reaching 4’ to 6’, abelias withstand freeze into Zone 6 and bloom in the springtime and early summer in Central Florida. Resistant to deer, this plant can handle sun or light shade, tolerates neutral to alkaline soil and adds a fall ambiance to your garden when it loses some of its leaves. Abelias are not drought tolerant but can be maintained easily with irrigation or rainfall once a week in summer.

Lakeview Jasmine, Chinese Box Lakeview, Murraya paniculata – One of my favorite shrubs in my garden — I first found this beauty by scent, wafting, I mean walking through a nursery. The dark green leaves highlighted by clusters of fragrant jasmine flowers make a perfect hedge or addition to an outside patio. Successful in full sun or partial shade, this shrub can attain a height of 10’ to 12’ and is resistant to pest problems. Blooming year round, this plant is a perfect addition to the wildlife garden, attracting bees, butterflies, and birds. Thrives in Zones 9 to 11 with consistent watering and will welcome moist locations near lakes, lowlying areas, and retention ponds.

Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana - I won this flowering tree two years ago at an UF/IFAS Extension conference and was told it may not do well in Central Florida. Ha! I showed them that they were wrong! With encouragement and undying garden faith, it has not only survived, it has bloomed and it continues to thrive. It likes organic soil and partial shade with regular irrigation. Growing in Zones 4 to 9, the Saucer Magnolia will take Central Florida freezes. The fragrant, large, purple to light pink (depending on variety) flowers, emerging from fuzzy green buds, are the most striking of the deciduous saucer magnolias. The large leaves add elegance and diversity to the standard tree selections of most Florida landscapes. Slow growing but can attain heights of 30 feet or more, so make sure it’s in the right location (acidic soil) to prevent having to transplant later. The saucer magnolia is at home in any shade-loving, Japanese-themed or woodland garden.

Cinnamon Fern, Osmunda cinnamomea - This common southern swamp native is ideal near the water garden, in individual water containers, or near lakefronts. Needing complete shade, the cinnamon fern fronds arise out of the moist soil like shafts of furry cinnamon sticks, making an exceptional contribution to your wetland or shade garden. Very easy care, this winterdeciduous fern grows from Zone 3 through 10 and can take more sunlight with more irrigation. No pest problems and low maintenance assures this plant of being very Florida-friendly. This plant is labeled by the Florida Department of Agriculture as a “Commercially Exploited Plant” and can not be taken out of the wild without the proper permits and fees. Make sure you purchase the cinnamon fern only from reputable nurseries.

Firespike, Odontonema strictum - A late-summer and autumn-blooming beauty, this Central American native is one of the best hummingbird-attracting flowers in Florida. Growing in Zones 8 to 11 and to heights up to 6’, the firespike is perfect underneath windowsills or in a cottage-themed garden bed. Brief winter freezes may cause firespikes to die back but don’t be concerned as they will reappear in early spring. The brilliant red, cylindrical flowers with the dark green leaves add striking color to fall gardens. The firespike likes moist soil, but once established, is drought tolerant — although not for long periods. Easily propagated and easily maintained, this evergreen shrub is a delight for any butterfly or hummingbird garden.

Serissa, Serissa foetida – a Lilliputian-leafed shrub with white blossoms from early spring through the fall. This delicate but sturdy evergreen loves to be pruned and is perfect for bonsai, small hedges, garden path edging, and knot gardens, making it also ideal for patio and container gardens. Growing in Zones 7 through 11, this boxwood-like species is very easy to maintain. Variegated leaves, pink blossoms, and more cold-tolerance can be found in different varieties. Serissa does best in partial shade with morning sun. Once or twice a week rainfall or watering is necessary. Prune after flowering to maintain shape, as this plant doesn’t like to be unkempt.

Florida Violet, Viola sororia – This common blue violet is not so common in Central Florida yards but should be. Blooming April through June, this Florida native can be found growing in wild meadows and wetlands in 45 Florida counties from the Panhandle down through Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. Perennial, this woodland flower needs partial shade and consistent moisture. If you long for a woodland-themed flower that adds a faerie-like quality to your garden, this is the plant. The Florida violet is small, reaching only 4” by 4” at maturity. Considered a weed in more northern lawns, the common violet has no pest or maintenance issues.

Reeves Spirea, Spiraea cantoniensis – One of the earliest blooming and most fascinating, extravagant floral specimens in any landscape, north or south, is the Spirea. The reddish green stems of the semi-evergreen shrub, also known as ‘bridal wreath,’ is beautiful in the Florida landscape, adding a touch of seasonal change to a tropical climate when most plants are still trying to recover from shock. The weeping wiry branches can extend 6 feet, but if you are into pruning and straight boxes, this is not the plant for you since the popped popcorn-looking ornamentals bloom on second-year growth. The spiraea white rose-like flowers mounded en masse is ideal for a corner specimen or in the middle of a lush garden border. No pests, drought tolerant, thrives on neglect. Full sun or partial shade.

Chaste Tree, Vitex agnus-castus – Do you miss the deep purple of lilac trees blooming? Would you like a specimen tree or large ornamental for your front yard or patio? The chaste tree might be what you are looking for since this spectacular flowering tree not only explodes with deep violet to purplish white flowers throughout the early summer and late fall — it is low maintenance, drought-tolerant, can thrive in sun or shade, and grows quickly to 10’ to 20’. What more could you ask for? It is also deciduous but not dirty, attracts hummingbirds and bees, and not only are the flowers fragrant but the leaves have a sage scent to them. The chaste tree is a wonderfully aromatic border shrub, tolerant of salt spray for coastal residents, growing in Zone 6 to 10 with relatively few pest problems.

Blue Eyed Grass, Sysinrinchium augustifolia – A native groundcover with real blue flowers that seems Ozlike, but this member of the Iris family is perfect for Florida yards. Growing to a height of 1’ to 2’, this plant is comfortable in Zones 8 through 11, prefers wet soils, and can be found growing wild in prairies. Did I mention no maintenance? This pretty flower has two blooming seasons in Florida, winter and summer, and prefers sunny locations. Looks at home in rock and water gardens.

Montbretia, Crocosmia 'Lucifer', Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora – I first saw these fiery red beauties three years ago during a trip home to Scotland and fell in love with them. Another under-utilized member of the Iris family, this spike-leafed perennial grows in Zones 6 to 9b and adds unique interest in mid-summer with its tropical red blooms that drape and wave handsomely in the balmy breezes. Drought tolerant once established, crocosmias can grow in sun or partial shade, and reaches heights of 3’ to 4’. Self-seeds readily and has few pest problems.

Exotic Calathea, Stromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’ – One of the newest ornamentals to hit the horticultural scene worldwide is the exotic calatheas. Many calatheas have a red or purple underside to their leaves, which adds subterfuge to their pest resistance. Just like their cousins the prayer plants, this purple underside becomes visible when the leaves 'close' at night giving them the title of 'living plants' because of their day and nighttime routine. Beautifully formed leaves that look artistically painted with brush stokes of creamy white and green leaves with red undersides, these tropical ornamentals are so striking that they highlight any Florida garden. I had to run to the nursery and purchase several when I saw them. Triostars recently have been noted to take temperatures as low as 32 to 34 degrees without damage, but they must have consistant watering. Shady locations to morning sun, afternoon partial shade is preferred. This plant makes an ideal companion accent with its cream, red, and green leaves for your Hawaiian ti and other maroon colored tropicals.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year and hope you ring the bells in your neighborhood with lots of new garden plants that will allow everyone to enjoy walking by your Florida yard.

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