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
Fascinating. I love this article, although it makes me never want to leave my black Illinois “gold” (plus clay) for sandier parts. Thank you for inviting non natives in, they are not all the bad actors some native plant groups make them out to be, are they? Great read.
Thank you, I envy your soil! I embrace all non invasives,or maybe I should consider!
I love your story! It reminds me of learning to garden in San Diego—digging out and replacing bad soil only to have it creep back in. I have killed more plants here than anywhere else in the US that I have lived. With Bad soil, hard water and rain only in the winter it makes gardening in containers a better option in a small space garden. I also cut the bottom out of pots and it works well for me too. Thanks and Keep on ranting!!
Thank you, I have killed a lot of plants here as well and use a lot of containers. I am always ranting.
I have been gardening with clay soil for years. I really enjoyed your article. You’re a true gardener, never give up, find what works!
Thanks, I have always thought true gardeners were those people who could appreciate Mahonias (I love them for all their thorny goodness)
I enjoyed this article. My wife and I have a home in mid Michigan. We recently bought a winter home in Bonita springs. I plan to start gardening southern Florida style
Thanks, just think of a complete seasonal reversal. It is a mind bender for a while.
Beautiful horto-paradise in a tough spot. Now we see where all those cut flowers come from. Wayyyy cool!
Thank you, I will keep pushing the flower envelope!
I lived in South Florida for 6 years and quickly found that the secret to gardening there was to add lots and lots of organic material (compost) to the soil. I had a dump truck load delivered and spent days incorporating it into the soil, but then the sand was able to hold moisture and nutrients. The same is true in DC where I now live. The soil is heavy clay. I’ve added lots of compost and have excellent growing conditions. Organic materials in sand helps to retain moisture and organic materials in clay improve drainage. There’s no need to take soil, even if it’s sand away.
I would have agreed with you 10 years ago. Coming from Georgia red clay where compost works. Sand conquers all in my garden, unless you find something that likes to live in it. Which is possible and the best solution.
My Soils professors at the University of Florida would strongly disagree with you.
Excellent article! It was fascinating to read about some of the unique challenges involved with Florida gardening…such a different perspective for someone reading from the US Northeast. Thank you for sharing and good luck!
As a person that worked in a nursery and in landscaping for over two decades in a locale with heavy black clay (except for the micro-locations with caliche), I’ve tried and tried and tried to teach people that digging out the soil and replacing it with softer soil never works. In our case, it creates a non-draining bathtub. I can see that in your case, the sand just refills the space. Here the answer is tons of compost and thick layers of mulch.
I’m glad you’ve found your solution. You’ve shown that being adaptable is the primary gardening lesson here.
Four decades in landscape design and construction for me and many, many haul offs of nasty dirt – it really depends on what you are dealing with, french double digging doesn’t work here either.
I don’t have sugar sand here on Cape Cod, more like gravelly rough sand. We can improve it a little by adding organic matter but we face a similar issue. Sand and rocks are sand and rocks. Plus, for several years now we’ve had months-long droughts so even all my precious native plants are struggling. Climate change might force me into more non-natives sooner than anticipated.
What Page Dickey wrote as “Gardens in the Spirit of Place”
I had to learn quickly that “water deeply and infrequently” does not mean the same thing in Boise, ID as it does in most gardening books and blogs. We have long summer days that are commonly above 95 degrees with extremely low humidity (it is currently 17%). There is a location in my yard that I have named “the scorching spot” because it receives daylight from 5:30 am to 10pm. It is impossible to retain water there. Soil amendments and mulch do wonders, but there is a limit. Gardeners must learn to accept their location.