July 30, 2014

Ahead of the Curve

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that the Earth laughs in flowers. If so, our profusion of fuchsia, yellow, red and pink laughter along the Gulfshore can be heard all the way up to the Frozen North. For newcomers to our sandy soil and salt air, or for those who aren’t enjoying their share of the laughter, we turned to an expert for some tips. Roger Clark is land stewardship manager of the Lee County Department of Parks & Recreation, and an adjunct professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

1. STEAL IDEAS: Gardeners love to have their work admired, and most are generous in sharing tips. So feel free to drool over that magnificent trellis drenched in bougainvillea or the crushed shell path bordered with exotic grass.

Pause to chat with the lady in the straw hat and gardening gloves. Visit the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, the Naples Botanical Gardens, the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens and the lavish resorts, which re-weave their tapestries of "laughter" with the seasons.

2. THINK GLOBAL, PLANT LOCAL: Work with native plants. Nature designed them to thrive with minimal water and fertilizer and to provide ideal habitats for Southwest Florida wildlife. Sodded lawns not only are costly to irrigate; they also don’t truly reflect the character of our beautiful coast. Environmentally sensitive landscape designers and homeowners now incorporate native grasses into their plans.

3. GET THE DIRT ON YOUR DIRT:  New home? Your construction likely required fill dirt to elevate the lot. Fill often lacks the critical organic materials and nutrients your garden needs. A free soil analysis for pH is available at your county extension office.

4. HONOR YOUR ROOTS: Look for healthy plants and trees that are not root-bound (i.e. roots circling around inside the pot). Water them generously immediately after planting to get them sufficiently established.

5. BE WATER-CONSCIOUS: Respect watering restrictions. Instead of watering daily for a short time, water a few times a week for a longer time to encourage deep-root systems. In winter, once weekly is usually sufficient. Invest in a sensor that shuts off automatic watering during rains. An excellent publication, Waterwise: South Florida Landscapes, is free at county extension offices and online.

6. MAKE MULCH ADO ABOUT EVERYTHING: Mulch helps conserve water and provides organic materials as it decomposes. Pine needles look nice, but they aren’t earth-friendly because of the fossil fuels required to truck them in from Georgia and north Florida. A better choice is FloriMulch, made from the exotic invasives: melaleuca and eucalyptus. Avoid cypress mulch—it’s better left in the swamps as a wildlife habitat. Keep mulch six inches away from tree trunks to prevent fungus and disease.

7. SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP: Your county agricultural extension agent is a tremendous resource for planting calendars, lectures, classes and troubleshooting. Almost everything is free, including the in-depth Florida Yards and Neighborhoods workshops. Subjects cover everything from garden pests and butterfly habitats to sustainable landscaping and gardening in poolside containers. Contacts for your IFAS experts (that’s the Institute of Food and Agricultural Services at the University of Florida) in Lee and Collier counties are:
Lee: Stephen Brown, (239) 461-7513, lee.ifas.ufl.edu.
Collier: Doug Caldwell, (239) 353-4244, collier.ifas.ufl.edu.

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