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.

Repost: Lessons Learned From A 9/11 Survivor


IMG_2364

I think it’s safe to say that we all feel the world is falling apart.  By now, we’ve been bombarded with news stories of crime and climate change, disrespect and disillusionment, violence and epidemics, extremism and fanaticism, terrorism and war.  And now we have to come to grips with beheadings and crucifixions.  Our 21st-century life has been turned back hundreds and hundreds of years.

At moments like this, I want to retreat into my garden.  I feel safe there.

The sad truth, though, is that the world has always been a crazy place.  Just look at the history that isn’t too far in the past.  The Holocaust.  JFK’s assassination.  And MLK.  And RFK.  Son of Sam.  AIDS.  Oklahoma City.  9-11.

Yet, it is during these times of evil that so many people rise to the challenge to remind us that there is goodness in the world.  

As we approach another September 11 anniversary, I would like to revisit a post that I wrote several years ago.  It speaks of tremendous sadness, inspiration, and, most importantly, hope.  Hang in there, everyone.

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A Farm Grows In Fort Lauderdale


Flagler Village Farm

In the previous post, I mentioned that summer in South Florida was like living in a green desert: day after day of heat made hotter by oppressive humidity and afternoon downpours. It’s for these reasons that many gardeners retreat indoors, contenting themselves to look at their green world from behind glass.

Imagine my surprise — and delight — when I came across an oasis in the heart of Fort Lauderdale, a green space that was not only green but was still producing even in the blistering summer heat.

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Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot


Sunshine Palm

What’s wrong with me? In a few days, it will be Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, and my inner New York clock is telling me that I should be able to smell the first hints of an approaching autumn. Here in south Florida, however, summer is still the name of the game.

As I realize how much time has passed since my last post, I am aware of how frustrated and edgy I’m feeling. It has been an incredibly long time since I truly gardened.

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Daytime In The Garden Of Mom & Dad


Me and my sister by the vegetable garden -- a long time ago.

Me and my sister by the vegetable garden — a long time ago.

I have to give credit where credit is due.

My parents were the first ones who introduced me to gardening. There were Mom’s rules about deadheading and weeding and Dad’s lessons on mowing and crop rotation — even if the farm was a tucked away corner of the yard.

Recently, I spent several days in my childhood home and lazed away summer afternoons in the backyard, where the slower pace was marked by the filling of bird feeders and the waiting and watching for feathered arrivals.

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Field Trip: Lakeside Sand Pine Preserve


Lakeside Sand Pine Preserve

There was a time, not too long ago, when this part of South Florida — east of the Everglades and west of the Coast — was nothing but white sand, scrub vegetation, saw palmettos, and sand pines. Development and expansion, with all of its blacktop and gated communities and non-native plants, soon overran the place.

Fortunately, the city of Oakland Park thought to preserve this slice of Florida’s natural history with the Lakeside Sand Pine Preserve, a pristine 5.6-acre site nestled between two lakes. This location, in addition to the abundance of native plants, means the park is home to countless birds, anole lizards, and even gopher tortoises, an endangered species.  It’s also a place where the community can come together — volunteers are responsible for the preserve’s upkeep.

I arrived at the preserve after a brief morning shower. As I stepped from my car, I was struck by the silence and solitude in a place that is literally just down the street and over the fence from the trappings of the modern world.

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Confessions Of A Binge Gardener


Hibiscus

Hibiscus.

Summertime in South Florida, I’m told, is not the best time to plant or to garden. Locals often cite the high heat and high humidity — which leads to an abundance of pests and mildews.

So while gardens — and gardeners — in this hot area cool off, I’ve spent the time researching plants, dreaming up garden plans, and binge-watching television series. “Breaking Bad.” Done. “Orange Is The New Black.” Check.  “Downton Abbey.” Finito.

Everything was moving along nicely until “Downton” introduced a gardener into Violet Crawley’s world, and I found myself hoping for a larger storyline for the young fellow or — even better — a spin-off. “Downton Gardens,” perhaps?

Nevertheless, as I pondered the idea of beginning a gardening program for the inmates on “Orange,” it occurred to me that I had had my fill of fictional gardens. I missed real gardening. There was a burning inside of me — as feverish as those felt by any of Walter White’s meth heads — to dig in the dirt, plant seeds, and root clippings.

So the other day, I caved in to my cravings and embarked on a binge of my very own. A garden binge, if you will.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus.

I had been eyeing this hibiscus in the neighbor’s yard, blooming in the gap between our two houses. Each day, I’d walk by and that flower would wink its stamen at me.  And since I’ve been looking for a Florida plant to take the place of hydrangeas, I wondered if I could root hibiscus the same way I was able to root my favorite shrub in my northern garden.

Out came the clippers, some cell packs, a shovel, and the rooting hormone. I did my best to clip non-bud branches, and then removed the lower leaves. The clippings were immediately placed in water to keep the stems moist.

Rooting

I had also prepared the cell packs with basic garden soil and made holes in the center of each. After dipping the stems in rooting hormone, I slipped them into the pre-made holes, careful to not loosen the powdery rooting hormone. This was followed with a gentle watering, and then the small plants were placed out of direct sunlight.

Once started, though, I couldn’t get enough. I had merely had a sip of gardening and I was still achingly thirsty.

Croton

Croton

From the corner of my eye, I spotted the neighbor’s croton, a shrub with brightly colored foliage. There are many varieties of the plant, but I’m always drawn to the thin, slightly-curled leaf kind, each branch sharing green and red mottled leaves.

I again used the same rooting technique, planting up four small cuttings.

Not quite sated, I thought to myself, “If only I could dig up an actual plant, an off-shoot from a mother plant.” I crouched and crawled across the ground, lifting branches and looking beneath, sending small anoles scurrying.

Chinese Fan Palm

Eventually, I found two small Chinese fan palms (Livistona chinensis) that had sprouted from seeds at the base of the mother tree. In time, this palm, with tiny hooks along the stems of the fronds, will reach up to 50’.  Because of its slow growing habit, however, it’s often used as an understory planting.

I found the jackpot at the base of a Sunshine palm (Veitchia montgomeryana). There, seven smaller palms — resembling tall blades of grass — had sprouted. I carefully pried each one up and gave them a pot of their own.

Sunshine Palm.

Sunshine Palm.

By the end of the day, my hands and fingernails caked with dirt, my clothes and forehead soaked with sweat, I took a look at all I had done to satisfy my gardening hunger.  I had quite the tally: eight hibiscus, four crotons, two Chinese fan palms, and seven Sunshine palms.

At this point, I’m not sure if any of my treasures will survive — and if they do, I’m not sure if I’ll actually use them in the landscape or give them away. I don’t think I’d sell them, though.  I’m not a plant pusher.  I’m a binger.

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