When I moved to Florida, I went to the local garden departments at Home Depot and Lowe’s to purchase my landscaping plants. Some of my purchases grew well in my garden, and some plants thrived so well they took over everything. Many others died within a year. Why? They were all zoned for my climate zone. And they were sold in local garden centers. However, what I soon learned was that gardeners in South Florida need to consider the entire year – both a summer and winter climate zones – in order to grow healthy plants. Some plants will winter over well, because the winters here are relatively warm, but the hot, humid summer is too much. Other plants do well over the summer, but the winters may be too cold (or not cold enough, especially for fruit trees that need to chill), and they easily succumb. One the other hand, some plants do so well in our climate that they crowd out all the other plants. So, based on trial and error, here are my tips for growing great Florida gardens.
First of all, if you are new to gardening in South Florida, avoid the large gardening departments in the big box stores, except for annuals. If you are looking to build a strong garden foundation, go to a small, local garden center. They are interested in finding and keeping loyal customers, and they won’t steer you wrong if you ask them for advice. They will be able to point you in the direction of “Florida Friendly” plants that are proven winners for your garden.
Secondly, do some research and find out about plants that are native to South Florida. Native plants are acclimated to the climate, and will thrive in South Florida gardens. They will often require little watering once established, and little to no fertilizing. Another added benefit is that Florida native plants provide the perfect habitat for Florida’s native wildlife. Here is a list of some native plants that I’ve tried with much success:
• Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) – Very similar to Milkweed found in northern states, the dark orange Butterfly weed is a “must have” plant for butterfly gardens. It derives its name from the ability to attract a number of different butterflies, including the Black Swallowtail Tiger, and the well-known Monarch. It’s draught tolerant, and enjoys sandy soil, although it will tolerate a variety of other soils.
• Indian Blanket (Gaillardiapulchella) – This daisy-like flowering plant, also known as a Blanket Flower, bears showy yellow-tipped red flowers. This is a short-live perennial, and I treat it more like an biennial, and use the Indian Blanket to add color like a bedding plant. It is a spectacular bloomer during the early summer months.
• Cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco) – This native shrub has different varieties that thrive in Florida coastal communities. The cocoplum bears nectar-filled blossoms that produce a plum-like fruit. So you can harvest the cocoplum for jams and jellies, or just enjoy this plant’s beautiful sprawling habit in your landscape.
• Wild Coffee (Psychotria nervosa) – If you’re looking for a tall shrub or hedge, wild coffee may be the perfect choice. It provides dark green evergreen leaves and pretty red berries. The berries will turn into beans that are similar to coffee, but not recommended for human consumption. Wild coffee is the perfect habitat for butterflies and birds.
Another tip is to avoid – let me repeat – AVOID all plants listed as invasive. Because of our tropical climate, many plants have been imported to Florida with dire consequences. Yet many of these plants are currently being sold in local garden nurseries and home centers – like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target and WalMart – because they are popular. Once you plant something that is truly invasive, it will take over your garden and landscape, and will cause you much additional work and consternation. Some examples are the Brazilian pepper tree (terebinthifolius), the Mexican petunia (acanthaceae), the Cuban buttercup (turneria ulmifolia) and certain varieties of lantana (Lantana camara). The USDA and the University of Florida have extensive listing of the worst offenders. Be certain you remove these from you landscape, and avoid them at all costs.
Finally, check local online gardening forums and see what gardeners in your area are saying about plants. If you see postings like, “Things I wish I’d never planted,” take a gander and read what’s written. If someone feels strongly enough about a problem plant to write about it, it’s worth your attention.
Follow these tips, and you’ll have a thriving garden that you will be able to enjoy for years to come.