Wordless Wednesday: Warm Thoughts


Potting Bench

It wouldn’t be a Wordless Wednesday without a few words.

For months now, Joe and I have been in south Florida so I can better manage some heart issues. Being a garden blogger without a garden has been a recurring theme in many of my recent posts.

While I’ve tried to keep myself busy with rooting some clippings and edging out beds, I just haven’t felt settled. My thoughts continually return to my potting shed, which has been dormant for too long.

The other day, though, a very large package arrived for me. Once opened, I saw the dismembered pieces of a potting bench.  The pieces looked familiar.  It was my New York potting bench, the one that has sat unused in an empty potting shed.

Joe, with the help of our nephew, arranged to have it shipped to me.

Once it was rebuilt, it looked a little startled to be in zone 10.  This was unfamiliar territory.  Where’s the cold?  Where’s the snow?  And just what are these small lizards that seem to be everywhere?  I understood those feelings.

With a few accessories, the bench started to look more at home — and I now have a corner of the yard to call my own, a place to learn and experiment with the new plants around me.

Potting Bench

A Hat’s A Hat And That’s That


Hat

One of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make recently has had nothing to do with how my beds will look or what sort of mulch to use or which plants to purchase. No, my decision was much more complicated and personal than those trivial gardening matters.

I needed a hat.

I’ve known about the need for a hat ever since arriving in Florida. The nickname itself, the Sunshine State, practically invites the need for some personal shade. My neighbors have nagged me about it, and so has Joe.

Even the crews repaving local roads gave me some not-so-subtle reminders. As they worked with boiling  tar in the heat of summer, they were also very much well-protected from the sub-tropical sun: long sleeve shirts, long pants, facial protection that looked better suited to protect one from winter winds than daily sun, and, naturally, hats.

I’ve never gardened in a hat. I always felt it got in the way of whatever I needed to do — but the chant that I needed to wear one if I wanted to garden in zone 10 became so insistent that I jokingly contemplated wearing one of Audrey Hepburn’s hand-me-downs from My Fair Lady.

My Fair Lady 2

Now, that’s a hat!

Nevertheless, a good hat for gardening is a logical, practical necessity. Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control say that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and rates of newly diagnosed cases continue to increase on both a national and global level, despite efforts to raise awareness.

The biggest culprit in all this skin cancer talk is UV exposure.

Sun

While health agencies around the world have made a sound argument for sun protection, I’m unable to shake the but-I-don’t-want-to-wear-a-hat tantrum — mostly because I don’t think my head is built for a hat.

I’m not sure if it’s head shape or hat style, but the two seem to go hand-in-hand.  Some heads make any hat look cool, and some hats make any head look cooler.  Consider the phenomenally talented Pharrell for a moment.  If we can consider his now famous hat as a bell curve, he sits alone at the top of the hat, a place where head and hat come together in a way that has the rest of us tipping our hats to him.

Courtesy of www.time.com.

Courtesy of http://www.time.com.

I, on the other hand, happen to be in a part of the curve where head and hat don’t meet, regardless of my best efforts.

Actually, I own one baseball cap. I spotted it a few years ago in a catalog and I liked it immediately because it was green and it said “Head Gardener” on the front. I had visions of working around the yard each day, proud of all of the smudges and stains that would accumulate on it over the years — the sort of hat that could never be thrown away because of our history together.

But I’ve never worn it — because me wearing a baseball cap is as American as chicken tikka masala. See what I mean? It just doesn’t fit.  Besides, I don’t even have a head for baseball much less for a baseball cap.  I guess I’m just a Head Gardener who doesn’t want to get his hat dirty — and for years, my smudgeless hat has resided in my closet.

Still, I’m not a hat hater.

I wish fedoras could be used for gardening.  I’m always drawn to the plaid ones.  They’re suave and smooth and oh so cool.  Each time Joe and I go shopping for gardening headgear, I insist on placing a fedora on my head.  No matter which way I place it, though — close to my eyes or off to the side — it cannot do what a proper gardening hat must do, which is provide enough shade to protect my face, ears, and nape.  The fedora, for all its style, is built for a night on the town rather than a day in the garden.

My hat hunt has only grown more desperate.  In one shopping trip, I tried on hats that made me look like a cowboy, a member of the French Foreign Legion, a Vietnamese rice farmer, and Gilligan.  At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was hat shopping or auditioning for The Village People.

After exhausting rack after rack of styles and listening to my red carpet critiques, Joe was convinced that I was more of a head case than a hatless one.  And I was this close to agreeing with him.

I knew, though, that somewhere out there was my hat. After all, Joe’s grandmother used to say there was an ass for every chair — surely, then, there must be a hat for every head. Right?

On a whim, Joe and I visited a local hardware store that happened to have a hat rack. I again began the process of trying each style on for size — try one and walk to the mirror, try another and walk to the mirror, try one . . .

Garden Hat

And this one didn’t look so bad. It fit all the criteria — wide-brimmed to shade my face, neck, and ears, made of straw so my head could breathe, and more Pharrell than Eliza Doolittle.

Now, I garden with my hat. While it keeps my face well shaded and somewhat cooler, the top of my head bakes beneath the woven straw, despite the open weave. When considering the health consequences, though, a little bit of sweat isn’t so bad.

In fact, when I’m wearing my hat I think I can almost hear Professor Higgins excitedly shouting, “He’s got it! By George, I think he’s got it!”

And that makes me, in the words of Pharrell, quite happy.

Making My Bed & Crying In It


Garden Bed

This is the start of the gardening season in South Florida, where the forecasters have proclaimed the end of the rainy season and the temperatures and humidity have dropped to more humane levels. For me, it’s a chance to make my bed, a garden bed in a yard that is absolutely bedless.

What I quickly learned, though, is that my bedless yard has a vicious enemy living within it: St. Augustine grass.  To fully understand the reaches of this insidious green beast, it’s necessary to start at the beginning of a what should have been a relatively simply garden project.

I first played with two hoses, disconnecting them from the house and stretching one around a grouping of coconut palm trees and another in front of the house. Should I include the date palm in this one? Should I stretch the shape to the edge of the property?

I knew there would be at least two to three beds in the front yard, so it was important that the beds worked with each other, as well as with the paths I have walked for the past few months. Each design stayed for a few days so I could see if it made sense. If not, the hoses were placed into a different shape.

Garden Bed

Once patterns were established, Joe then spray painted the outline so I could begin my next step — removing the St. Augustine grass — thick, coarse, and able to withstand Florida’s heat. Once established, a St. Augustine lawn isn’t going anywhere — and it’s not afraid to tell you so.

St. Augustine spreads by stolons or runners, which are as fibrous and tough as Berber carpet. It’s along each runner where the grass establishes rooting points in the soil.  The runners eventually become a knotted and meshed mat on top of the soil.  Pull up a clump of grass and the runner will take you to another part of the lawn. St. Augustine grass is the black hole of gardening.

That’s why dis-establishing said lawn is an overwhelming, labor-intensive task. My plan at the start of the removal was to be environmentally sensitive. I thought I would slice through the runners and then pull out the living grass.  All I was able to prove, however, was that I could balance myself on the shovel — kind of like a pogo stick.  My weight plus the shovel wasn’t enough to slice through the grass — not to mention the assortment of stuff in the soil: limestone rocks of various sizes, construction debris, weeds that were more like wannabe trees, and the remains of an old sprinkler system.  My lawn was the keeper of many secrets.

Garden Bed

I asked a few locals about what I should do. One person advised me to be tough and to continue on with this balancing act. They then added in a tone that sounded like the rapid-fire warnings at the end of a prescription medicine commercial, “Just be sure to remove all of the roots or the grass will return.” Another gardener suggested I try a lasagna method, layering the bed with lots of newspaper, soil, and mulch.

More often than not, though, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, nodding in empathy at my plight, suggested vegetation killer. When I asked about the negative consequences to the environment, they tilted their heads and said, “Poor, naïve south Florida gardener. We used to think like you — but trust us, you’ll never get rid of the grass without it. Never!”

Never? They must have noticed the look of fear on my face and as consolation they added, “If it makes you feel better, you’ll be adding plants to the environment that are much more friendly.”

Vegetation killer it was, and in a matter of days the grass in the bed turned brown and I began edging each bed and removing the remains — but even in death, St. Augustine grass seemed to be getting the last laugh.

Each time I pulled at the dead grass, the roots still held on, gripping chunks of limestone that littered the soil. Hours past. Day one ended and another day began. At one point, as I was on my hands and knees, clutching and pulling, grabbing and scraping, I thought of Scarlett O’Hara.

Joe and I had recently gone to the movies to see Gone With The Wind on a large screen in honor of the film’s 75th anniversary. As I looked at my cramped fingers and dirt-encrusted nails, I yanked a clump of the cursed grass and stood up beside a coconut palm, silhouetted against the setting Florida sun, and paraphrased the post-Civil War Miss Scarlett: “As God is my witness, this grass is not going to lick me. As God is my witness, I will never pull out St. Augustine grass again.”  I then wiped my brow, for dramatic effect, of course.

Garden Bed

With each day, the grass grew more dead and I ultimately returned to my tools. I used the edger to cut along the spray-painted outline and to carve out smaller sections of grass. The shovel helped me pry these smaller sections loose.

It became a sort of game as I tried to pull up each section. How much could I pull up all at once? A whole section? The method seemed to move the project along much more quickly — and I was able to see progress.

When I first began this bed, I expected it to take one solid day of work. Five days later, my bed was made — except for the organic matter, new plants, and mulch.

I could blame my being out of gardening shape. I could blame my unrealistic estimate of my ability to make a bed.  I could even blame afternoon temperatures that soared in the face of a cold front. In the end, though, I feel I must blame St. Augustine grass.

Garden Bed

While I may have won this battle with the completion of one bed, I know that over my shoulder are more of Joe’s spray-painted outlines for other beds — but those are things that will have to wait until tomorrow.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

For Canada. . .


Canada

Like much of the world, I am deeply saddened by the recent events in Canada.  My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who were lost, as well as for the spirit and strength of the Canadian people — some of whom are followers and readers of this blog.  As your national anthem proclaims:

“With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!”

My First Spring Day In Autumn


Leaves from my northern autumn.

Leaves from my northern autumn.

Part of my education process as a northern gardener living in southern Florida is trying to understand the subtle changes of the seasons. In a subtropical world, where seasons are marked as warm and hot, wet and dry, that is no easy task. Seasonal changes are much — MUCH — more subtle.

In the months that have passed, I have witnessed trees blooming in late winter and briefly deciduous trees dropping their leaves in spring and a forecast that has gone from all sun and no rain to all sun and daily rain. Even at this autumnal time of year, I’m watching a neighbor’s tree in full springtime bloom — although it’s flowers are falling into the canal and drifting away.

Spring-like blooms floating on an autumn day.

Spring-like blooms floating on an autumn day.

This past week, though, I’ve witnessed another subtle seasonal change as the rainy season of summer slides into the calmer weather of autumn: the pure and absolute giddiness of the weather forecasters as they announced the arrival of the season’s first cold front for South Florida.

To use the word “cold” and “Florida” in the same sentence is a bit odd — never mind that some of my winter visits to zone 10 have seen frost on the windshield, even if said frost melted as soon as the sun peeked over the horizon.

This approaching cold front, though, was a special one, the first of the season, the first break in humidity, the first breeze of refreshing northern air.  Could this be the change that my inner climate clock has been craving?  The calendar, after all, says October and my body thinks it should be wearing a sweater.  My arms feel as if they should be raking.  These were my thoughts as Joe and I, in an attempt to get a sense of autumn, walked around a local Oktoberfest.

Evening temperatures, however, had another holiday in mind.  The thermometer was more Sousa than Oompah, more hot dog than bratwurst, more bathing suit than Lederhosen.

Still, there was a breeze — an electricity and excitement in the air, and not just from children running from carnival ride to carnival ride.  Perhaps I wasn’t the only person longing for a break, albeit a brief one.  There were others out there just as eager for our long, hot summer to come to an end, if even for a few days.

Croton.

Northern nurseries sell Croton for its autumn colors, which will perish at the first frost. In South Florida, it’s a landscape staple.

So when I went to bed that night, it was with incredible anticipation. “Please,” I thought to myself in the same voice I used on Christmas Eve to beg Santa Claus to not forget my house, “please, let the forecasters be right.”

In the morning, it was true. The humidity was gone and the morning temperature was 70 degrees — and a high predicted to reach 84. It was the most perfect spring day in autumn.

It occurred to me as I filled my lungs with air, that this feeling was the same as that which comes with any seasonal first. The first smell of autumn leaves. The first snow falling on barren branches. The first spring day to work in the garden and inhale the soil’s freshness.  I was, it seems, as giddy as a Florida forecaster in October.

Bougainvilla is a treat for any season.

Bougainvilla is a treat for any season.

Our first taste of autumn lasted a full day and most of a second. Then that front slid north again, bringing with it the heat and humidity of the Caribbean.

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed other subtle changes.  At a time when northern nurseries are stocked with mums or closing down for a long winter’s nap, nurseries here are adding more and more plants and color.

There’s also the steady building of traffic and the opening of shuttered homes and condos. The snowbirds are returning, as random and as plentiful as the crocus in my northern garden — a reminder that a spring-like autumn is on its way.

As sure as crocus appears in spring, so too do snowbirds return in autumn.

As sure as crocus appears in spring, so too do snowbirds return in autumn.

Field Trip: Key West Garden Club


 

A toast to all gardeners.

A toast to all gardeners.

Someone once said, “Good things come in small packages.” I may not be positive about who should get credit for the phrase, but I’m pretty sure he or she must have been referring to Key West.

Measuring just 7.4 square miles, there’s a lot crammed onto this legendary Florida paradise — from Ernest Hemingway’s house to Fantasy Fest to the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens to the daily sunsets, often met with a liquid toast.

Tucked away among the touristy attractions is one of the last free admissions on the island: the Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower. Since 1955, the garden club, through strokes of luck and vision, dedication and hardwork in the tropical sun, transformed a Civil War-era fort into a walled garden filled with native and exotic trees and plants.

Key West Garden Club

The entrance to the garden.

An area of the old fort now used for greener purposes.

An area of the old fort now used for greener purposes.

As visitors step outside of the entrance area, they’re in a world that is lush, silent, peaceful — and alien.  It almost feels as if we are all Dorothy as she steps into Oz for the first time.

The butterfly garden.

The butterfly garden.

A spiky ground cover seems quite content under the shade of the Cinnecord tree.

A spiky ground cover seems quite content under the shade of a Cinnecord Tree.

Canna.

Canna.

The water feature.

The water feature.

The orchid house.

The orchid house.

The other water feature.

The other water feature.

A piece of the old wall is able to support the weight of a massive tree.

A piece of the old wall is able to support the weight of a massive tree.

A closeup.

A closeup.

The Strangler Fig, so named because the seeds germinate in the canopy of neighboring trees.    Once its roots reach the ground, it grows and strangles its host.

The Strangler Fig, so named because the seeds germinate in the canopy of neighboring trees.
Once its roots reach the ground, it grows and strangles its host.

The blooms of the aptly named Powder Puff Tree.

The blooms of the aptly named Powder Puff Tree.

 By the end of the tour, I was melted

The bloom of desert rose.

The bloom of desert rose.

By the end of the visit, it was time to return to the conveniences of our modern world — an air conditioned car — but not before one last smile.

Gardener humor knows no climate zone.

Gardener humor knows no climate zone.

Field Trip: Audubon House & Tropical Gardens


Key West

Something strange happens to Florida as you drive toward the Keys. It begins to break apart.

At some point along US 1, the southern tip of the peninsula becomes a mosaic of land and water until it eventually becomes the Keys, a stretch of islands that geologists say are the visible portions of an ancient coral reef. A handful of these islands are linked together by a single highway — and the road leads to Key West.

It’s been twenty years since Joe and I last visited Key West, so we thought Joe’s birthday was a good reason to see what’s changed. While areas of the island do seem more developed to accommodate cruise ships and the crowds, it remains a place where locals and tourists can “waste away in Margaritaville.”

It’s also a place where things aren’t always what they appear to be — and gardens are no exception.

Take, for example, the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, a restored mid-19th century residence. Although John James Audubon may have illustrated his share of birds, he never struck me as a parrothead — and so I never realized that he had lived on Key West.

The front yard at Audubon House & Tropical Gardens.

The front yard at Audubon House & Tropical Gardens.

That’s because he never did. Instead, it’s believed that Audubon spent time at this home when he visited Key West to paint 22 local birds for The Birds of America, including the white-crowned pigeon in the branches of a Geiger tree, a Key West native.

In other words, Audubon slept here.  Maybe.

Still, that fact does nothing to take away from the tropical garden that surrounds the Audubon House. Although we arrived after the house had closed, we were still able to look over the fence like a couple of nosy neighbors. There, brick paths disappeared into the jungle . . .

The backyard.

The backyard.

Brick paths bring visitors everywhere.

Brick paths bring visitors everywhere.

. . . and leaves and orchids were illuminated by the setting sun.

Ginger.

Ginger.

Orchid.

Orchid.

Orchid.

Orchid.

This Audubon visit was at sunset — and on Key West, that means it was time to make our way to Mallory Square with the other tourists and street performers and colorful characters to witness the end of the day.  Even clouds on the horizon couldn’t dampen the sense of calm and peace.

Sunset on Key West.

Sunset on Key West.

Who knew that an island this small would result in a two-part post?

Up next, a visit with the Key West Garden Club.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,696 other followers

%d bloggers like this: