Saturday, January 31, 2009

Buy small and let them grow

This picture was taken November 7 2007.
I made the outline with the garden hose, used roundup to kill the grass inside, then waited about two weeks for the grass to die. Over a period of weeks, I filled the interior with grass clippings until I had covered the whole bed.

I bought all these plants at a local garden center, these are all "Florida Friendly" plants, plants that require little or no additional watering, which is essential since we basically only have 2 seasons, wet and dry. From June until November we receive the majority of our rainfall, the remaining 6 months are generally very dry with an occasional chance shower.

I took this picture on Jan 15 2009, just before our first cold snap. Most of the original plants had grown large and beautiful. During tropical storm Fay, some of the plants were badly damaged and I had to remove the Cuban buttercup. I also removed the Cogon grass as it is listed as an invasive species here in Florida - plus little volunteer seedlings were sprouting up all over the place. I replaced it with lemon grass.

The papaya trees in the before image, were also removed, they were seedlings from a solo variety I bought at our local warehouse. They never produced any fruit of value, the fruit that managed to mature were all infested with papaya fruit fly larvae. So I removed them. I have since grown some Caribbean Red papayas from seeds and have already had 4 papayas from it. They were stung by fruit flies but none seemed to develop to larvae. The two papayas are both still full of maturing fruit that I will harvest in the next couple of weeks.

A new spider discovered

Today I came across this beauty of a spider. A quick internet search for common Florida spiders revealed that its probably a "Black and yellow argiope spider".

Friday, January 30, 2009

Leaf mulch

I finally raked up the leaves from my neighbour's tree. I got a whole wheel barrow full (pressed down).

Here's the area I'm going to mulch, in the foreground is an area mulched with grass clippings from last summer. The little green plants are lemon grass divisions from the one clump I bought at my favourite tropical fruit tree nursery at $4. The green and yellow variegated plant at the back is Alpinia zerumbet, a very popular and beautiful ginger plant around here, also a division from an existing clump. I will be mulching the area behind the ginger.

Here's the area behind the ginger, mulched about 3 inches think. You can see that the wheel barrow full didn't cover a very large area, I still need about 5X as much to cover this entire bed. In the background, is one of my two Catura coffee plants grown from seed, they were also badly burned by our recent cold snap. It looks as if they're sprouting new growth so I think they'll be fine.

Weird and wonderfull and disgusting

This weird looking fungus showed up in one of my vegetable beds. The growing medium is composted cow manure.

This disgusting looking thing showed up on one of my parsnip plants. Its disgusting, revolting, at the same time quite fascinating, the ants seem to eat it, or maybe its producing honey like aphids ? It seems to have snail like tentacles, or caterpillar like tentacles on the right hand side ?

I tried to pry it off and it disintegrated into hundreds maybe thousands of little eggs all held together with a slimy goo. Very ewww.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bananas anyone ?

Here's the 3rd bunch of bananas from my original 2 dwarf red Cavendish bananas that cost $2.97 each. I already have at least 4 replacements growing and should have another bunch or two this time next year. Notice how the leaves have turned yellow on the plant, signalling its death. It has produced a single bunch and now it dies. It has produced 4 or 5 little baby plants in the form of suckers (one which I have dug out and planted elsewhere already). Don't worry, of course nothing goes to waste. The whole plant will be cut down and cut into round slices of banana pizzas and placed at the base of the "clump" providing much needed mulch and protection from the dreadful nematodes here in our sandy soil.

I cut the top off about 10 inches below from where the bunch comes out, this way, the bunch has a natural "hook" that you can use to hang it. I hung it on the side of the barbecue grill on the patio, note the recycled cardboard underneath - that's to catch the resin that will ooze from the cut for the next couple of days. You can see some resin glistening on the first "hand". If you don't place something underneath it, the cleanup is a huge mess and a big task as it dries to a very hard sticky substance.

The bananas ripen from the top down, a hand at a time. Providing a constant supply over a couple of weeks.

Pine bark mulch - like a black forest cake

This is my preferred method of mulching. Here's my most favorite plant of all, Aloe barberae, mulched with pine bark mulch. It makes me think of the chunks of chocolate on a black forest cake. This little Aloe barberae might one day grow into a 40 feet tall specimen (God willing and no hurricanes), right now, I am contempt with it though - it gives me great pleasure to see it grow slowly.

Before and After 2

In the before, the lawn must have been heavily fertilized and treated with herbicide. After we moved in I also turned on the sprinklers twice a week, but after spending $50 per month on water, I soon forgot about having a beautiful green lawn, instead, I believe its perfectly fine for the lawn to go dormant during the dry season. Once our wet season kicks in, you can hear that St. Augustine grass grow.

Whenever I loose a patch of grass to cinch bugs, I either make a new flower bed there, or plant a specimen tree there. In the after picture, you'll see a small mulched tree (yes with cypress and I won't do it again :) ), that spot started becoming bare as a result of cinch bug infestation, so I decided to plant this beautiful variegated guava tree there - a Christmas present from my "sister" Ronel who visited us from Minneapolis (can you blame her for escaping at least a part of winter) and wife. Yes, I used to love buying electronic gadgets etc. for birthdays and holidays, now I gladly accept a new tree or plant instead.

The kids playhouse, well that's another story, I personally went to Toys R Us, with our minivan, bought it, got someone to bring it to the curb, loaded all the boxes, drove it home, had to buy a wheelbarrow in order to move it to the backyard (just as well since I needed one). I took a week of vacation and spent 5 days building this thing. I'll post later how I stabilized it so my 9 year old daughter can still swing on it without it lifting up or swaying.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Before and After

Here's a picture of how my yard looked when we moved in Nov 21st 2006.

and how it looks now. Yes, I know the lawn looks a little worse off, but that's because its the dry season and I mean really dry and I no longer throw tons of fertiliser and weed killer on it.

Please rethink your use of cypress mulch

A concerned fellow gardener pointed out that even the "eco friendly" cypress mulch I was using, might be harvested by clear-cutting this national treasure.

I will refrain from using or buying this ever again, I will also make a point of telling people at Home Depot about it. I have also added a link to "Save our Cypress" at the right hand side of this blog.

My local Home Depot sells Eucalyptus mulch and I will buy that instead if I have to.

I also prefer the pine bark nugget mulch as it gives a very good dark textured look. I almost use this exclusively to mulch landscape specimens.

In my quest for alternatives, I have began collecting the "boots" from my own and neighbours Queen Palms. I am also using the "boots" from my back neighbour's Royal Palm trees. To me the result looks quite good, however, a friend wanted to know "why are you putting the palm leaves there" ?

I replied, because I need a lot of mulch and I don't have a budget to go and buy it, plus I am saving this from going to the landfill.

I have discovered my neighbours Erythrina variegata tree. Its shedding tons of leaves. I already asked her if I can come and rake it up and she said "knock yourself out". So I plan to go and rake it up and spread it over some of my naked earth beds before her lawn service comes to haul it away.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Stunning aloes

Here are some pictures of my favourite aloes from South Africa.

Stunning "tree" aloes at the Pretoria Zoo. I wonder if if these could be Aloe littoralis ?

This giant is Aloe Barberae, at the Pretoria Zoo.

Another Aloe barberae at the National Botanical Garden in Pretoria

This is Aloe ferox

Here's a stunning Aloe , possibly Aloe marlothii

Aloe rupestris

Aloe excelsa

Aloe castanea

Aloe spicata

Re-use reduce

My family goes through cycles of consuming lots of juice . When they do, I save every juice carton.

When the time comes for planting out seedlings or cuttings, I cut off the top of the juice cartons with a box cutter or strong scissors and grow my seedlings in them. I also use the box cutter and make two triangle shaped cuttings at the bottom and press the carton in to allow good drainage.

Here are some of the reasons I really like the 1/2 gallon juice/milk cartons.

1. Its free (since you are already buying it).
2. I find that the taproot seems to develop better and doesn't grow in circles as in round shallow containers.
3. I use less potting medium.
4. Its easy to carry them/move them around, see the picture in this post. Recently with our freezes/cold weather I had to bring my seedlings in every night.
5. Its arguable that it helps reduce our growing landfills, yes I do throw them away at the end of their lifespan, but then again, it eliminates the need to buy more potting material (and throwing it away).

These containers only last a season or so, but by then its normally time to plant the plants in the garden or re-plant them into bigger containers anyway.

I also use 2Liter soda bottles in the same way, they last much longer, but I do find the labels break up in the sun into minute little pieces and find this annoying The other problem is that with the clear plastic, roots can get burnt and algae grows.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A gentle reminder by mother nature

The last two nights, I was gently reminded by mother nature that even Boynton Beach is not immune from freeze damage.

Last night the temperature dropped to 36 F.

I covered my jaboticaba with a blanket, luckily I did this after dark, otherwise my neighbours might have really thought I'm crazy. I carried a ladder outside, opened it wide enough to stand over the jaboticaba, then draped a blanket around and over the jaboticaba, securing it to the ladder. I also covered my prize variegated guava with large beach towels.

A quick survey today, revealed severe damage to all my Sanchezia's and Crossandra orange marmelade and my buttnernut squash. Some of my rooted cuttings of duranta cuban gold and shooting stars were also freeze burned. The sanchezias and crossandra will recover slowly, first all the burnt leaves will drop, then by late Feb they'll start sprouting new growth again. Historically the last day of frost (90% sure) for West Palm Beach is Feb 8th.

Luckily my new pumpkin, watermelon, melon and squash seedlings show no sign of damage. My other veggies, egg plant, beans also seem unscathed.

I hope my rooted cuttings recover also.

Luckily I carried all my new seedlings inside. These include feijoa, tamarind, persimmon, starfruit.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Planting the jaboticaba

1. Use a can of spray paint to mark the diameter of your circle, I use a piece of string trimmer string tied to bamboo stake, then hold the string in the hand with the can of paint and walk the circle, spraying it.

2.Dig the outline of the circle, severing all grass roots.

3. Remove 1 foot wide sections of grass by digging in deep under the roots from all sides, use the spade to cut the strip into two feet sections, shake off soil and place in wheelbarrow.

4. Once all grass is removed, I dig straight down on the edge and pile the dirt up towards the center, this forms a small "dam" and a deep trench that will help to stop the grass invading.

5. Dig a hole about twice the size of the container, don't dig to deep, for sub-tropical fruit trees, you want the top inch or two to stick out.

6. Fill the hole with water.

7. Mix some mulch with soil, I'm using Eco friendly cypress mulch, bought on sale at $2.25 per bag. Fill in around the plant with the soil/mulch mixture, then tamp it down.
Water well, I use the shower setting and hold it quite close to fill all air pockets.

8. Tamp it down some more (note the two inches sticking out).

9. Place some soil on top of the tamped down mulch/soil, then water it in some more.

10. Use the remaining mulch and add more until the two inches that are sticking out is level with the surrounding soil/mulch, cover the rest of the heap with mulch. Make sure you leave at least a couple inches of soil around the trunk bare, don't let the mulch touch the trunk. I used two bags.

11. Water some more.

12. For the next month, water daily until established.

13. After a month or two, fertilize with appropriate fertilizer. I use a proprietary mix from Excalibur Rare Fruit Trees for sub-tropical fruit trees.

My first rock garden

Since I live in sandy South Florida, with not a free rock in sight, I bought some feather lite rocks from Home Depot, but they were pricey at almost $9 per rock! The 7 rocks I needed for my little rock garden at the front of the house set me back almost $70. That was at the start when I thought I had a gardening budget. Pretty soon, reality sunk in and I realized, there was no way I could buy more rocks.

About 2 years later, I finally got to "almost" finishing my little rock garden in my backyard, I had grown one of my Aloe Barberae plants to a very nice looking specimen, the roots were growing into the soil and it became necessary to plant it soon.

Every time I drove by or were close to the garden center, I would stop and buy a couple of the cheapest top soil bags, around $2 per bag, about 5 at a time. Every time I went to a store with a garden center, I would look at what Aloes or succulents they had available, and buy the smallest, cheapest plants available, normally from $2.99 - $3.99

I had run out of roundup and didn't want to spent the $19 for a new bottle, so I started keeping all heavy cardboard boxes. I would then take the cardboard, cover as large an area as I had soil for, then dump the soil about 8 inches thick onto the cardboard. I repeated this procedure over a couple of months until I had a fairly nice sized "raw" piece of raised soil in the middle of the grass. I started off by planting the Aloe Barberae on one side - I cut a circular section into the cardboard and removed a piece of grass large enough for the root ball to fit into. I dug a hole only deep enough so that the plant would sit level with the rest of the soil and deep enough so the roots would be able to grow deep.

For a couple of months, all I had was this square section of elevated dirt and one plant in the middle of it. As I had time and budget, I kept on expanding this area. By now, my Aloe Thraskii which I also bought on eBay, was screaming to be planted out, its roots were growing out of the container and into the soil. I had no extra top soil on hand, so I took my wheelbarrow and dug up some soil from all over the bare beds at the back of the yard where it would not be noticed. I covered the remaining area with cardboard boxes, used a box cutter to cut the edges into a nice curve, then covered this area with about 5 inches of native soil "sand". I planted the Aloe Thraskii on the opposite side of the Aloe Barberae. I dug up some Society Garlic I had planted in an area that is now being overgrown with periwinkle, divided the clump and planted it all around the Aloe Thraskii.

Now I had some plants and no rocks. I had a bag of White Portland cement (a little expensive at $17 per 80lb bag) that I had bought many months earlier for some hypertufa projects, some cement coloring (iron oxides). I made a mixture of the cement, colorants, playsand (cheap at $2 per 20lb bag). I made it into a pliable play dough consistency, then dug some rough holes in my sandy soil, sprinkled some of the colorants all over the hole, then took the cement and made a shell by packing it all over the sides off the hole about 3 inches thick. I waited about 2 days for it to cure and removed my first "rock". It came out very well. I experimented with varying consistencies and mixes of cement color and made 6 different sized rocks and placed them in a line on a "ridge" in my rock garden.

If there is enough interest, I will post detailed instructions of how I made my rocks. If you have already searched the Internet, you will probably know, that its almost impossible to find. Everyone wants to sell you an e-book or DVD ...

This garden is not complete, I plan on making it about twice as large and add more rocks and aloes (growing VERY slowly from seeds) when they are ready. I also need to make an edge as you can see the grass is already creeping into it.

Here are the plants in this garden.

1. Aloe Barberae - ebay, $10
2. Aloe thraskii - internet, $10
3. Aloe juvenna, Target, $3.99
4. Aloe sparkling beauty hybrid, Wallmart, $3.99
5. Aloe striata, Target, $3.49
6. Jade plant, cutting from existing plant
7. Alia ciliaris, Target, $2.99
8. Red hot poker, grown from seed - hasn't been doing too well, will see if it survives this summer
9. Society garlic, Tulbaghia Violacea, 1 plant divided into 10 clumps, $4.99

Friday, January 16, 2009

Here's my jaboticaba

Here's some pictures of the 5 year old jaboticaba I bought at the Fruit and Spice Park. I haven't planted it yet, since we've had a couple of cold fronts coming through. Its currently in the house, as soon as the danger of frost is gone (normally Jan 16th), I'll find the right spot for it on "The Plan".

The 2nd picture shows the fantastic peeling bark that is so typical of the Myrtacae family.

If you live close enough, be sure to give Casey a visit. I wish I was closer, I am sure she has a lot of treasures that I would be tempted to buy.

An "almost" free mixed shrub bed

Around mid April 2008, just before my snowbird neighbours left to return to New York, I started a new flower bed on the southern end of the backyard. My goal was to eliminate more grass and lessen the mowing burden. At the same time I wanted to introduce more color and plant plants that are well adapted to the local climate, don't require a lot of additional irrigation.

I had grown some cuttings last "winter". By April, most of them were ready to be planted.
Once I had laid out the bed with the garden hose, sprayed it with roundup and waited about 2 weeks for the grass to die, I dug out 1 foot section of dead grass all around the edge, then made a trench as in my previous post "How to make a free edge".

I planted the rooted cuttings that have been hardened off. See "The Plan", #31 - #34.

It is now 8 months later and the bed now looks like this picture. Expect for two plants in this picture, all the other plants were either grown from seed (some collected, some bought online) or from cuttings.

I covered the dead grass with cypress mulch, as it resists rot and keeps longer than other mulches. I also opted for natural color, apparently the red dye used in the red mulches are toxic. The cypress mulch ages to a natural grayish color. In time the shrubs in this bed will fill out and cover most of it and create deep shade, where weeds will not be able to grow. The plants that are doing well in this bed are:

1. Allamanda bush yellow - store bought at $1.99 as small perennial
2. African daisy - Euryops, grown from cutting
3. Giant crinum lily, grown from self-collected seed
4. Sweet potato vine, grown from slip from store bought sweet potato. I cut off a piece of the sweet potato that had an "eye", placed it in a saucer with a little water on my window sill and kept topping up the water for a couple of weeks until roots started growing. When shoots started growing, I potted it in top soil and watered it for a couple of weeks in the shade, moved it to the sun, then planted at the back of the yard. We've had many sweet potatoes from it already (but now its the dry cold season it has stopped growing). I took one of the growing tips that had some roots on it, broke it off , made a hole in this bed and stuck it in. Its now about 2 months old and growing slowly, since this is the cold and dry season. When spring hits, it will take off and cover this bed in a couple of months, plus I'll be harvesting delicious sweet potatoes until late November.
5. Sanchezia, grown from cuttings
6. Pink hibiscus, grown from cutting from neighbour's bush
7. Thryalis glauca, bough at store during buy one get one half-off sale
8. Poinsettia, grown from cutting from Christmas plant
9. Glorybush, Tibouchina urvilleana, grown from cutting
10. Free fern that grew by itself along with Cardboard Palm (Zamia furfuracea), acquired from a sprouted seedling at community pool
11. Red ti plant, grown from cutting
12. Nerium Oleander, grown from cutting
13. Strelitzia, grown from seed, along with "free" boston fern that grew by itself.
14. Aloe Barberae, bought as bare rooted plant on ebay
15. Pomegranate wonderful, grown from seed, almost 3 years old.
16. Surinam cherry, grown from seed, almost 3 years old.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Plan

After my first summer of mowing the lawn, I realized I would have to cut down the size dramatically in order to make it at all possible to mow and maintain and irrigate.

After much deliberation and many hours walking the garden, I finally came up with the plan and started planting the "bones", i.e. largest trees followed by shrubs.

Here is the final plan with the trees and shrubs as numbered. The bones are done, now I am busy filling in the spaces between with perennials and mulch.

The large empty space behind the house is reserved for future use. We are hopeful that we might one day install a small pool in this area.

1. Fuyu Persimmon
2. Natal Plum - carissa macrocarpa
3. Dwarf cavendish bananas
4. Cocoplum
5. Cocoplum
6. Capulin Cherry -Prunus salicifolia
7. Sea grape - Coccoloba uvifera
8. grumichama - Eugenia brasiliensis
9. Duranta
10. Jujube
11. Lychee
12. Aloe Thraskii
- this is the newest addition, here's where I am making my rock garden with mostly aloes and other succulents I love.
13. Aloe Barberae
14. Loquat
15. Brown Turkey fig
16. Mango valancia pride
17. Pitomba - Eugenia luschnathiana
18. Avocado, choquette
19. Firebush - hamelia patens
20. Sugar Apple - Anonna squamosa
21. Surinam cherry - Eugenia uniflora
22. Surinam cherry - Eugenia uniflora
23. Australian brush cherry - Eugenia paniculata
24. Starfruit - Averrhoa carambola
25. Variagated guava
26. Persian Lime
27. grumichama - Eugenia brasiliensis
28. Longan - Dimocarpus longan
29. Mango lancetilla
30. Wonderful pomegranates
31. Pink hibiscus
32. Tibouchina grandiflora
33. Surinam cherry - Eugenia uniflora
34. Nerium Oleander
35. Surinam cherry - Eugenia uniflora
36. Natal Plum - carissa macrocarpa
37. Muscadine grape
38. Muscadine grape
39. Plumbago
40. Plumbago
41. Playset
42. Grape Trellis
43. Arbor with two muscadine vines
44. Aloe Barberae
45. Exercise pole
46. Christmas Palms
47. Traveller's Palm
48. Herb garden
49. Veggie garden

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A chance encounter

Today while admiring the new red bronze growth on my grumichama, my eye caught a very fast movement. I was astounded to see this beautiful green lizard in the picture catching a smaller brown lizard and chomping down on it. The large green lizard is most probably a Knight Anole (Anolis equestris), the prey is probably a Brown Anole, (Anolis sagrei). Both are introduced species. I found this information at Florida and Georgia Anoles

Monday, January 12, 2009

Today's budget tip - grow your own

Many of the exotic fruits I want are only to be found in catalogs and online web stores. In addition, many of them are also very expensive, to top it all, shipping on plants are exorbitant.

The problem is that many fruit trees take many years to fruit from seed, some take 20 years, like the langsat. I had to make a quick decision, did I want to taste the fruit of labor or plant for my children (or their children). So I started exploring the Internet and searched high and low and every time my searches point back to one place - Trade Winds Fruit This is easily the most comprehensive rare fruit seed web site that exists. Not only are they the most comprehensive, their prices are also (in my opinion) the most affordable and they offer free shipping for orders over $7.50 ! I have grown so many plants from their seed it would be hard to list them all. Right now my surinam cherries are blooming for the first time. Though not hard to find in garden stores around here, I choose to grow them from seed, at $3.25 per packet, my four Suriname cherries cost me $7 (I neglected the seedlings and 2 died), at garden centers you'd pay about $8.99 for a 3 gal container - but then you get the foul tasting common ones that everyone in my neighbourhood are growing as hedges. I bought seeds of the black variety, which supposedly have the best taste. Likewise, I bought seeds of the plants that I am willing to wait about 2 - 3 years for. My wonderful pomegranates are standing about 10 feet tall and I expect them all to start fruiting this summer in their 3rd year ! My strelitzias are doing great and should be blooming shortly also. My natal plums (carissa macrocarpa) should also be blooming this year.

Getting your seeds to germinate is another story, I should have followed the pro's advice and used the baggie method from the start. I ruined many of my seeds and lost a lot of them to rot due to too much moisture. I have successfully started star fruit (from my own tree), marlierea, feijoa and tamarind seeds using the baggie method. The larger the seeds the more difficult to keep them in contact with the damp baggie. I also strongly recommend you sterilize the seeds with hydrogen peroxide (soak them for no longer than 10 minutes) before you start, also, use sterilized tweezers to handle your sterilized seed as your hands contain many pathogens.

Once your seeds have germinated, use a good potting soil mix and gentle remove the little seedling or germinated seed from the baggie and place them in the mix. Never handle them by the stem. I have had very good results so far using organic composted cow manure - sold at $2.50 per 15 lb bag at Home Depot. Potting soil mixes can run as much as $15 per bag, so go figure. I dare not say it, but I have also had good success with plain old top soil sometimes sold for as little as $2 per bag ! I do not use my garden soil as it consists mainly of sand and it nematode ridden. I have also used my own compost with great success.

A Visit to the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead Fl

Yesterday we drove to Homestead, about 92 miles and visited the Fruit and Spice Park. We went because of the Redland festival.

We were pleasantly surprised. There were so many different exhibitors showing off a varied range of arts and crafts, even my wife who doesn't share my plant obsession had a great time. The kids got their fare share of fun, with all kinds of entertainment, music, puppet show, pony rides, a reptile show and more.

We all loved the food, Greek, American, corn on the cob, Italian, Thai .... enough to make you part with your hard earned money. The kids persuaded me to part with a substantial amount on icee's, ice cream, lemonade ....

There were also various local nurseries selling their plants - I was able to buy a 5 year old jaboticaba for a mere $25 - similar plants can easily fetch over $100 locally (if you are lucky to find them). Jaboticaba's take up to 15 years to fruit from seed, they can fruit at about 8 years if vegetatively propagated. Nonetheless it is a beautiful plant, part of the huge Myrtaceae family - a very big favorite of mine. This includes the guavas (Psidium), feijoa's, the Eugenia's (cherry of the Rio Grande, grumichama, pitomba, surinam cherry, various stoppers ...) and various other sub/tropical fruiting plants. The reason I love this family is for their smaller size, their peeling bark, revealing all kinds of colors, their shiny glossy foliage, apart from their huge landscape appeal, edible fruits are a bonus.

I enjoyed walking around the park, looking at all the trees, they are all clearly labeled. I was amazed to see some of the "small shrubs in my imagination" growing far bigger than I thought ! The "small" star fruit tree (Averrhoa carambola) grew into a fairly large tree - covered in delicious looking star fruit. My own star fruit tree is (luckily still) a dwarf in comparison.

I even realized that I completely underestimated the mature sizes of a lot of the trees I planted - the Longan is a case in point, the park has several stately huge ones. Oh well, too late now. It means I'll probably have to prune a lot of them to keep their sizes in check.

We'll definitely be back for the summer fruit festival. As luck would have it, my camera's batteries ran out and the spares were also not charged ! I did manage to capture a few images and will post them soon.

Friday, January 9, 2009

How to make a free edge

No border is complete without an edge. Without a well defined edge, the grass will creep back into your bed and over a period of time undo all your hard work.

Edging material can be very cheap (and ugly) or very expensive and beautiful.

It all depends on the style you choose, if you have a formal garden with straight lines, you will have to invest in more expensive aesthetically pleasing edging material, like natural stone, concrete blocks made to look like stone.

If you have an informal garden like I have, with mostly mixed shrub borders and curves, you could do with a metal edge or plastic edge, or composite material edge.

Since I have a large area to edge, and have a tight budget, I choose to make a trench as an edge. The trick is to have the trench deep and wide enough to stop the grass roots from penetrating the garden beds. It also necessitates frequent edging with either a string trimmer or dedicated edger. Since I have both attachments, I edge weekly in summer with the string trimmer and use the edger when thicker roots have started invading the beds.

Here's how I make my trench. I lay out the border curves with a garden hose, use roundup to kill the grass on the inside. Once the grass is dead, I take my spade and follow the curves, I dig straight down and remove a one foot section of dead grass all along the edge. The spade I use has a pointed cutting edge that makes cutting the dead grass easier. I step onto the spade and sort of jump to cut deep enough to sever all roots. Once this foot long section is removed, I dig straight down on the live grass side and pile the dirt up onto the dead grass. This forms a small wall that will define my edge as well as keep water and mulch inside the bed. See picture at the start of this post.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tools of the trade


1. Lawn mower
Once I fired my lawn service, I had to acquire all the tools I never had. My first tool, of course was the lawn mower. I hate how my neighbour's lawn mower deafens me, I also hate how I suffocate from the fumes when he's mowing. I spent many hours researching different web sites and reading consumer reports and finally made the plunge and bought the neuton battery operated mower. If you have a yard larger than 1/4 acres ( mine is 1/3) and you are growing St. Augustine grass, be warned, this is hard manual labour. I took it as an opportunity to loose weight and improve my health. The neuton is expensive, but comes with a 4 year warranty (I got a free 3 year extended warranty). If you're not into hard labor, check your Warehouse (Costco, BJ's or SAMS Club), they often have excellent four stroke mowers at decent prices. Four stroke engines produce far less smog and harmful emissions than 2 stroke engines. Read consumer reports and talk to your neighbours friends to see what they are using. My lawn service was charging me $90 per month just for cutting, nothing else included. I figured that I would pay back the cost of the mower and other tools in less than one year.

2. String trimmer - I started off with a battery operated trimmer, it comes with two batteries, the batteries only last 10-15 minutes and are only good for a very small area. If you have a huge backyard like me invest in either a gas powered or corded electric trimmer. I opted for an electric trimmer as I don't want the hassle of tune-ups, smoke and noise. In addition the model I got can take attachments. I have an edger, chain saw pruner and string trimmer attachment.

3. Spade - invest in a good quality spade, I can't stress enough how import this is. I bought a really good mid priced one at Home Depot, its been used heavily for two years and shows no sign of wear. Make sure it has a good handle/grip and not just a bare pole with no handle.

4. Garden hose - buy the best quality you can afford. Generally rubber hoses are more expensive and more durable. Seconds best are the heavy vinyl hoses (no kink) and lastly the cheap vinyl hoses - these will kink and make watering a tedious chore.

5. Hoe for weeding - Trust me, if anything else fails to grow, the weeds will make up for it. Invest in a good hoe for weeding.

6. Secateurs / pruners - When you start off this will not be used much, but as your garden grows, you'll have to trim and prune shrubs and trees. Buy the best quality pruners you can afford.

7. Garden fork - I have almost never used my garden fork here since we have sand for soil. If you live in an area with clay or heavy soil, you will need a garden fork to aerate the soil. Make sure you buy one that is durable enough to till the soil without bending.

8. Rake - if you have a lot of deciduous trees on your property you might want to invest in a rake, or you could attach a bagger to you mower and mulch the leaves to use in your compost pile.

9. Leaf blower - When you trim or edge next to a patio or drive way, you will really want to invest in a blower, otherwise you will either have to power wash or use a broom to remove the sand/dust/clippings. I have an 18V cordless one and find it sufficient for most of my needs, the convenience makes up for the lack of power.

10. Fertiliser spreader - In hindsight, I wish I spent $20 more and bought the more expensive model with edge guard. If you have a lot of flower beds in your lawn, you will love it as it enables you to spread fertiliser without scattering it in your flower beds.

11. Hedge trimmer - if you have lots of hedges, you may want to invest in a hedge trimmer, if you buy a trimmer that takes attachments, you can just buy an additional hedge trimmer attachment.

12. Pole digger - I f you plan on building trellises, installing your own fence, a good quality pole digger can save you a lot of time.

13. Garden cart / wheelbarrow - at first this will not be an issue, as your garden grows, you will be carrying huge amounts of manure, mulch, plants or other gardening stuff around. Its far easier to load 5 bags of mulch onto a wheelbarrow than to carry two bags at a time. If you have to cover a large area like I do, even 20 bags disappear very fast.

Today's budget tip

Go to garden centers at the end of the season, very often you will find plants on sale that are not looking too good, if they are large specimens and at a great discount it might be worth buying them, if they're smaller and not that much cheaper, it might take them a long time to recover and grow as vigorously as a "fresh" plant. Spend more money on the plants you really want, in my case, my passion is sub-tropical fruit trees, I made the mistake to buy two root bound avocados and spent almost a year trying to nurture them and make them grow, in the end they both died. If you buy from the major box stores, they offer a one year warranty on most plants - save your receipts, I was able to find only one receipt, I had to return with the dead tree to get my refund.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The first contact

In this picture you'll see my first attempt against the fence. The new bed with small plants was accomplished by laying out the shape with my garden hose, then spraying the grass with roundup. It takes up to 2 weeks for the grass to die, sometimes I had to respray areas that I missed. The nice color is from grass clippings that I piled up every time I mowed the rest of the lawn, starting at one end and covering it with about 10 inches of fresh cuttings. This worked well, as it smothered weeds and any grass that may have survived the roundup, but the cuttings disintegrates very quickly and if it rains before they're entirely dry, it forms a tough almost impenetrable mat. Another problem I encountered with the cuttings is that beetle's love to lay their eggs in/under it - developing into those ugly white grubs and that in turn draws raccoons, who come at night, almost by magic they know I've laid down a fresh load of clippings and they will turn it over making a huge mess. They also love to turn it over once it has settled down and formed a mat and that creates an even bigger mess - will I stop using my cuttings as mulch, no, first of all because its environmentally friendly, 2 nd its a cheap form of intermediate mulch. The small plants in the front new bed, were all bought at Home Depot, these are Florida friendly plants, known to do well in this location. Check your surroundings, see what other people are growing, see whats growing in the median between streets, in the middle of the boulevards, you can almost bet those to be robust plants as the municipality doesn't want to spent too much maintaining and replacing them. Here in South Florida, coco plums and sea grapes, nerium oleander are everywhere and they are very low maintenance plants, the first two are natives. I will post a picture of this new bed later and show you how unbelievable it looks now, just 1 year later. Moral of the story is, buy small plants on sale, buy plants native or well adapted to your area and give father time, the time to grow them into a beautiful medley. Note the mature sizes of your plants and make sure you plant them far enough apart, measure the distance, you WILL have the tendency to plant them too close together and regret it when you have to move them later.

We moved in on November 21st 2006, just before the burst of the real estate bubble.

My "new" ten year old 1/3 acre backyard consisted of St. Augustine grass, 2 dilapidated gardenia bushes, 4 Christmas Palms and one Traveller's Palm. It really was nothing short of a green desert, no life whatsoever.

My first task was to remove the badly nematode damaged gardenia bushes, this was easily done as the roots were so damaged that you could almost just pull them out. They were clearly not doing well in this hot humid climate with alkaline sand for soil. Gardenias require an acid soil, thus my 7.5 pH alkaline soil was causing nutrient deficiency and weakened the plants. Since I figured they are not well adapted to growing here, I opted to remove them altogether since they were not in my overall plan in any way.

I now had an almost clean slate to begin with. I spent many sleepless nights trying to decide how to best divide this pie shaped odd lot into different areas or garden rooms. I wanted to introduce a path with curves and other features. My very first goal was to reduce the size of the lawn to a more manageable size, to reduce the water usage and effort required to mow it.

I decided to frame the border of my yard with large sub-tropical fruit trees and started trying to find a source for these fruit trees. This proved very difficult, I searched the web in vain. In late December 2006, I visited our local Walmart store and luck would have it that they were selling off some large root bound citrus trees. I picked the last Persian lime tree, a beautiful looking specimen in a 10 gal container, the original price $250, marked down to $50. At the checkout the lady scanned it and announced I owed a whopping $12 ! My very first tree, the largest in my yard was bought for a mere $12 ! Its 2 years later and that same lime tree is only now showing signs of vigorous growth, in addition to the myriad of pests attacking it - but that's a story for another day.

I also found some dwarf bananas on sale at Walmart for $3.97 each, so I bought two containers and searched for containers that had already made suckers or had more than one plant in them, one container had 3 suckers, the other had 2.

So now I had 2 banana's and one lime tree, and a huge empty backyard and no idea where to plant them.

Around this time I bought some solo papayas at Costco and saved the seeds and started growing some plants. They grew very quickly and by spring 2007, I planted some of them next to the bananas. They quickly grew very tall, fruited in 9 months, but sadly all the fruit were ridden with fruit fly larvae. I lost the largest papaya tree to some raccoons, they tried to climb it and broke the top right off, now it was half the size of the others and looked strange, I left it and it quickly grew two stems instead of the normal one.

I decided to plant the lime tree close to the kitchen and planted it far enough from the patio so that it would have space to grow, but close enough so you could just quickly pop out to pick a fresh lime for my Corona. Let me tell you, my first encounter with 10 year old St. Augustine grass about a foot thick was not pleasant. To remove that ring of sod for the lime tree, took me a couple of hours of back breaking work. Luckily digging the hole was a breeze as we have sand for soil. I dug up the previous owners pet dog's bracelet in the process.

Now I had two bananas left and nowhere to plant them. So I decided this is it, time to start my first "mixed shrub" bed. I opted for the northern side of the house, next to the fence on my neighbours zero lot line (see picture above). I quickly discovered that removing a large area of St. Augustine grass is back breaking work. Over the course of various weekends, I enlarged this area to about a size of 40 feet by about 10 feet. I used a garden hose to make nice curves and planned the curves all the way to the back of the lot. I planted my two "dwarf" bananas close to each other since the label on the container said max height 3 feet - yeah right, those bananas grew to 10 feet and turned out to be Cavendish dwarfs, but definitely not 3 feet tall. I've had 3 bunches of bananas already. I have also divided some of the suckers by simply digging in with my spade and cutting them off from the parent plant, potting them into some well rotten manure, keeping them in shade and then planting or giving some away.

This was the first and only time I manually removed the St. Augustine grass. Even me, the great environmentalist finally gave in and I bought some roundup and killed sections of lawn as I was ready to landscape it (see new curved bed in picture above).

I joined the home depot garden club and every now and then I get a 10% coupon or buy one get one free or half off plant. I also scour the plant sections always on the lookout for sales. I bought a few small perennials at about $4 each.

The clean slate

Here is a satelite picture from google maps showing my large "green desert" water-hogging pesticide requiring back breaking huge 1/3 acre backyard. I spent many sleepless nights the last 2 years, planning how to convert this odd-shaped lot into "garden rooms. Since I work long hours on my normal job, I didn't have too much time to devote, at the same time, I wanted to be environmentally friendly. Ok, you got me, I'm a wannabee tree-hugger in my spare time. I didn't want to add to the ear-deafening hum of lawn-mowers, so I opted for the neuton mower. Years of stress and not-working out left me overweight with high cholesterol and in dire need of change. Man meets lawn - after 1 year of manual labour mowing my own lawn with my little battery powered neuton, I managed to loose 20lbs and drop my cholesterol by almost 50 points from a staggering 320 to 270. So, if you've a little pouch around the waiste or a little cholesterol to get rid of, get off the couch, fire your lawn service, get yourself a neuton and get mowing. Not only can you talk to another person WHILE you are mowing, you will not be belching oil filled fumes to choke your whole neighbourhood, plus you can get out of bed early on a Saturday morning and mow the lawn without waking your neighbours (or wife). Since I bought my small 14inch neuton, they have released their larger 19 inch model - time for an upgrade when the budget allows.

The beginning

The gardening bug bit me early on in life. Around age 13 my father allowed me to transform a piece of our backyard lawn into my own vegetable garden.

Oh, how I worked that plot, every spare moment I could muster was spent tilling, fertilising, sowing, watering, de-bugging. My efforts were rewarded - I sold my vegetables to my mother for a pretty penny.

A few years later, my gardening endeavors were expanded to cover most of our backyard. I was given 3 peach trees, an apricot tree and a plum tree.

I dug the holes, filled them half-way with manure, I planted each tree caringly and watered, fertilized and nurtured each tree for 3 years before they started bearing. Then I hit senior year and I was off to university.

Life took some interesting (and not so interesting) twists and turns and many years later I find myself in South Florida with the climate and the large backyard of my dreams, but no budget to match. What to do, well, I've read often that if "life throws you a lot of lemons, make lemonade", so I set out with the mindset to do everything on a tight budget and allow father time to work in my favor.

I hope to give many of you some hope that you too can transform your un-green water hogging lawns into a beautiful colorful and even edible landscapes to boot.

I will show you how I am transforming my "green desert" into a sub-tropical paradise, that is water-wise, beautiful, pleasing, relaxing and good for your health.