By Jim Bishop.
Last month I discussed how in the early 1960’s my parents had the front part of our house in Plantation Florida professionally landscaped. This month I discuss the remainder of the landscape and the plants. The back and side yards were planted by my mother with plants that intrigued her, were given to her or she had seen in other gardens. I suppose you could generously describe my mother’s gardening style as “early sustainability”. However, it could probably more realistically be described as “Darwinian”, as in survival of the fittest. Luckily, most of the year around 3PM we had tropical showers blow in from the Everglades, resulting in an average rainfall of over 60 inches and over 140 days per year with rain. Watering was seldom the problem.
The back yard was a large grass rectangle. The neighbor on one side installed a chain link fence. The neighbors behind us and on the other side planted hibiscus hedges. There was a screened-in patio off the living room. Mother laid a path of square concrete pavers from the carport around the side of the house to the back screen door. The walkway soon would be overgrown and almost impassable. The master bedroom stuck out from the back of the house. Along the bedroom wall mother planted trumpet vines, Bignonia campsis, which quickly covered the wall and grew up onto the roof. At the corner of the house she planted leftover Christmas poinsettias. These too quickly grew taller than the house and bloomed each fall and winter, looking nothing like the short greenhouse-grown plants. Across the back of the lot there were several 18-inch squares cut into the lawn. In these mother planted fruiting plants: strawberry, raspberry, orange and grapefruit. To my young designer eye, it seemed strange that the squares didn’t all have trees the same size and type of plant.
Against the screened patio and along the back and side of the house, mother grew an assortment of plants. There were small palms, begonias, sweet potatoes, crotons, pineapples, bromeliads, firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis), sansevieria, mother of thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana), coleus, white and lavender periwinkle (Madagascar vinca) bougainvillea, Euphorbia milii, bananas, tomatoes, papaya, chrysanthemums, and just about anything else that grew easily in South Florida. Mother’s favorite was the Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) which climbed the wall under the kitchen window. While the garden wouldn’t win any garden design competitions, it was definitely a great place to learn a lot about many different plants.
I didn’t much care for the plants with thorns or serrated edges. The bougainvillea quickly outgrew its space, making it impossible to get out the screen door without getting stabbed. The pineapples and bromeliads grew too big to be able to safely navigate around them to the hose faucet. The banana would bloom, which we found fascinating, but then produce undersized bananas. By observation and trial and error, I learned to propagate many of these plants from cuttings or seeds. Things rooted quickly in the wet sand. My favorite was putting coleus cuttings in a cup of water and checking daily for new roots…and mosquito larvae. I also loved looking at the leaves of Kalanchoe daigremontiana lined with little baby plantlets and seeing how the ones that landed on the ground sent out new roots.
Inside the screened patio, mother would grow “air plants” that she found on the golf course and other places. She attached them to wire coat hangers or electrical wire and hung them from the framing of the screened ceiling. I really didn’t like the way these looked, especially the way they were mounted and didn’t understand why anyone would grow these odd things. Decades later, I would realize that these were tillandsias. From looking at pictures online I suspect they were either Tillandsia fasciculata or Catopsis floribunda, both are now endangered by collecting, habitat loss and the Mexican bromeliad weevil. Who knew that I would collect tillandsias myself one day? (I only grow nursery raised plants).
In the middle of the lawn, mother planted a coconut palm from seed. She didn’t know how to plant it but figured that like most seeds it should be planted in a hole 3 times its size. So she dug a 3 foot deep hole and planted it. Later, she would learn that you plant them on the surface of the soil. We forgot about it, but several years later when we returned home from vacation we found a 2 foot tall coconut tree growing in the middle of the lawn.
Jim Bishop has been a member of SDHS since the first meeting in 1994 and became SDHS president in 2011.