Guest post by Amelia Grant
Ten years ago, my husband and I bailed out of traffic infested Atlanta, GA and moved to a small town in South Florida. I am a longtime garden designer and plant enthusiast with environmental leanings. We bought a funky fixer upper. I deemed the general appearance of the yard “ the beach with weeds.”
What was green and growing on most of the property was a proliferation of sand spurs. This was a rare thing: a plant that thrives in the sand. After years of gardening successfully in a variety of soils, I had finally met my match – sugar sand.
We live in Zone 10A, the average low is 40 degrees (F). No frost means weeds never die and in summer it is difficult to get enough water on many plants. Sugar sand just doesn’t actually hold water – it passes it on. Think about the ocean lapping up to the shore and the dry land 10 feet away – the same thing happens in the garden. Apply water and watch it roll off. There are plants that will tolerate this. I made it my mission to find them.
My first inclination was to try the natives. I stumped the online native plant finder looking for wildflowers to include in a pollinator garden. All the native wildflowers I encountered needed moist, well-drained soil. Well drained we got, moist, not so much.
I joined a native plants group; it was interesting, but had a bit of plant elitism I didn’t care for and, for me, didn’t provide a whole lot of relevant information. My mindset about gardening is that, while I am not in favor of invasives, why limit yourself to natives when faced with a delicious smorgasbord of plants that can be grown?
At one of the meetings, I heard about a local natives nursery having going out of business sale. I went and bought a carload of plants for next to nothing. This made me happy, especially since most of them rejected the sugar sand and rolled over and died after a long decrepitude. At this time, most of the yard had an irrigation system, so everything was watered. I did find a few good natives out of this experience. People, too.
Amending the soil
Florida is filled with frustrated gardeners from further north. Many are looking for a carbon copy of their garden in Michigan. Not possible. I can only wonder how many lilacs have suffered a humiliating death in an honored position, charbroiling in a sun-kissed Florida garden. The frustration leads to many books being written on the subject of gardening in Florida. For some reason, all of the books I read recommend amending the soil. I tried it. What I hauled away:
After many laborious hours of hauling out wheelbarrows of sand, followed by dumping bags of soil back in, I planted my long-envisioned tropical cottage garden border. After a few months, I discovered the insidious sand had crept back into the good soil, causing water to start rolling off again. The plants did not thrive. Drat!
A few more disastrous decisions later – based on me rationalizing I can water things, falling in love at the nursery or reading gardening books – I stopped the research and looked at what was growing around me. About this time, I received the best advice from a veteran gardener: throw the books away. So liberating!
For me, one of the most difficult things about gardening where I live is accepting the idea of gardening with houseplants (tropicals). In 10A, there are no houseplants. They all belong in the garden. It still seems strange to me that I have bromeliads and orchids in my front garden. Year-round.
Being unwilling to throw any more money away, I began attending garage sales when plants were advertised (another peculiarity of Florida; it is one big rolling garage sale). I found a lot of cheap and easy-to-grow tropicals. Bromeliads are especially easy to grow here and reproduce like mad when happy. Finding the proper shade or sun is another story. Other tropicals, like Frangipani ,are well-suited to our climate. Hailing from dry season/rainy season places that are used to no rain in winter, they provide bountiful color and fragrance in summer.
My pollinator garden has been filled with natives along with non-natives that are just fine with the pollinators. I was happy to learn that citrus is a butterfly larval host plant and have a lime tree along with mango, papaya and avocado trees in the garden. This mini food forest is underplanted with butterfly plants. Some summer days, I see ten different types of butterflies.
Additional difficult lessons were learned after the soil amendment failure. Some things just have to be grown in containers. And some design ideas have to be re-imagined. Flowers like dahlias, sunflowers, and zinnias must be grown in containers; the challenge here is what time of year, as many only grow in winter. I am slowly figuring it out.
My dream cottage-style tropical border is finally working. Some plants must be installed in pots to accommodate the sugar sand. I cut the bottoms out of the pots and plant directly in the garden, then mulch. The plants are happier and it cuts down on water usage. I also had to re-imagine some of the plant choices – a mass of soap aloe in the border is something I never considered before, though I like it.
The beach with weeds is no more!
Amelia Grant lives with her retired husband and similarly occupied racing greyhound on the Treasure Coast of Florida. She designs butterfly gardens and writes about gardening for magazines and on her blog www,theshrubqueen.com