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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Florida Paradise - Part 1

By Jim Bishop.

On Halloween night of 1961 our family arrived at our new home in Plantation Florida, a fast growing suburb of Fort Lauderdale. To keep up with the growing population and demand for air conditioning, Florida Power and Light was building what was at the time the largest power plant in the world at the Port of the Everglades and my father would be the general construction manager.

Jim and his brothers Christmas Card photo in front of trumpet vines

This was the first new house that anyone in my family had ever lived in. Due to devastating hurricanes in the 1950s, building codes were very strict. All outside walls of the house were made of reinforced concrete block. The roof was heavy ceramic tile that required a conveyor belt to lift the tile to the roof. To keep from being blown in, all doors and windows opened out. The house had no air conditioning and everything was painted white to reflect the heat of the tropical sun. There was no landscaping and the yard and neighborhood was entirely sand. We were in paradise.

Most of the lawn was “sprigged” with Saint Augustine grass, Stenotaphrum secundatum. Tiny plugs of grass were placed every foot or so and runners from the plugs would fill in the open areas. But before it could fill in, Cenchrus echinatus (common name southern sandspur but we would come to know it as stickers) invaded and almost took over the yard. Stickers produce a seed pod that has a row or burrs about the size of a caper. When the seeds are dry the burrs stick in clothing, shoes, bare feet, socks and just about anything else and are difficult and painful to remove. My parents paid my brothers and me a penny for each sticker plant we pulled and we quickly had more spending money than we knew what to do with.

Unusual for my parents, they had the front part of the house professionally landscaped. I still remember all of the plants and how they were placed to create a tropical garden. In the corner where the driveway and front walkway formed a right angle, a coconut palm was planted and leaned out from the house. On either side were placed smaller, more tropical looking palms. Where the curved planting bed met the front lawn a neat row of Mondo Grass, Ophiopogon japonicas, bordered the garden. Behind was a groundcover area of bronze and burgundy Ajuga reptans. Behind the ajuga was the slightly taller Tradescantia pallida purpurea, commonly called Wandering Jew. (After a 40 year hiatus of growing Tradescantia, I recently added it and a few deep burgundy bromeliads to a planting bed of mostly succulents. I associated this plant with tropical Florida and thought it required generous water. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it grows well with succulents.) Taller still and towards the back came 2 clumps of oyster plants, Tradescantia spathacea. Under the overhang from the house and lining the walkway from the carport to the front door were planted various types of crotons and between the 2 front windows was planted what my mother called an umbrella tree, Schefflera actinophylla. Mother would add in Elephant Ear, Colocasia and caladium bulbs in the open spots between the shrubs.

Along the back wall of the house, my mother planted some poinsettias leftover from Christmas. They quickly grew to be taller than the house. Mother would line me and my 2 brothers up in our scout outfits and take the annual Christmas Card photo in front of the blooming plants.

To screen the carport from the neighbors, a row of small flowered pink hibiscus was planted. Dad liked to tease my mom by calling them hot biscuits. In front of the house, as a foundation planting under the windows, was a dense row of some sort of bushy vine that had very fragrant white flowers and dark green leaves. Besides being plants that I was unfamiliar with, this was the first professional landscape I’d ever known. I would spend hours looking at the different plants and how they would grew and changed and occasionally bloomed; trying to understand why this are looked so neat and tidy and organized compared to the rest of our landscape. The front garden was the first garden I’d ever seen composed mostly of foliage plants that used colored foliage and textures to create a landscape. The design of this garden would influence my design style many decades later. The curve of the front bed, the massing of plants, a variety of leaf shapes and textures, taller accent plants and using plants with a similar tone are garden design elements that I frequently use today when creating a garden.

Jim Bishop has been a member of SDHS since the first meeting in 1994 and became SDHS president in 2011.

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