Right Plant, Right Place

As published in the Miami Herald

As a horticulturist in a public garden I often hear, “I have this (insert plant name here) and it has (insert problem here), what should I do?” While it is true that there are likely corrective measures to be taken, perhaps pruning, pounds of fertilizer or ounces of pesticide will do the trick. The first step is taking time before planting to do some research and plan what will work best for your needs. There are a few very common mistakes that can easily be avoided ahead of time. First, pick plants that are adapted to growing in South Florida. Second, consider your plant groupings. And third, dig a good hole. 

I often say that the way to have a unique look about your garden is to actually plant what may have been found there decades before. That could also be said in two controversial words in the gardening world, “go native.” At the very least, choose plants from regions of the world that mimic our local growing conditions as best as possible. South Florida is Zone 10, meaning it is sub-tropical, bridging the gap between temperate and tropical. Remember that we are basically sitting atop a giant limestone rock, with pronounced wet and dry seasons, and that it does get hot and cold enough to limit certain plant choices. Dry rocky alkaline holes aren’t the best place to grow understory trees from far off rainforests where the soils are deep and acidic and the rain never stops, especially when temperatures drop more than 20 degrees lower than your plant is evolved to tolerate. Have I mentioned hurricanes yet? The truth is, you can’t reprogram evolution because you want a Double Coconut in your yard. Sealing Wax Palms don’t understand they should just be happy wherever you put them. Growing conditions will prevail in the long run. The rock will always be there, the rains will always go on sabbatical and the cold is always sitting just above us. 

Another point that needs to be made more often is regarding plant groupings. Nature is certainly the world’s best landscape designer, having created perfect landscape after perfect landscape. Each plant fits into a grand plan laid over millennia, featuring a balance. Balance is beauty. No one thing dominates and everything works together in symbiosis, reacting to a variety of triggers. When planning a garden, it is best to try and mimic these same principles and understand the variety of triggers we create. A rock outcropping over the ocean features life that can tolerate desiccating winds, salt spray, lots of sun and, usually, very little rainfall. Compare that to a low-lying inland area occasionally inundated with water in the cool shade of a tree. Why would you design a landscape featuring plants from these areas side by side? One of them is inevitably going to be much happier than the other, all depending on the triggers you provide. Is your planting in the sun, or is it in the shade? Is it a protected site, or is it in a wind tunnel? Are you going to run your irrigation every morning or rarely water? Understanding your setting is key. Plant like-minded plants with each other and you will have more success, assuming you did your research ahead of time and didn’t place sun loving plants in the shade, or vice versa.  

Now that you’ve done your research, created a logical palette and found healthy well-grown plants, don’t skimp on the hole.  Underground, where the roots stretch and branch, is where success is determined. The old saying, “plant a fifty cent plant in a five dollar hole,” couldn’t be truer. Make sure the space is large enough to accommodate what you are planting; big trees need big holes. Break up the rock little bit by little bit, making it wide and deep enough, then push the rock back in where you found it. A tree planted too deep is just as bad as a tree planted to high, as it prohibits the flow of oxygen to the roots and can keep your plants from growing. Plant too high and you will find your plant drying out quickly or toppling over in the next storm. The unseen parts of planting supply the future, giving space and direction to a new botanical member of the family.  Avoid the temptation to backfill with nice fertile soil, as has been recommended for so long. You are only creating an artificial environment and encouraging the roots to stay there. Your goal is to actually make the tree go looking for better places, laying little bits of foundation as each segment of root pushes on.  

It would be best to accept our growing realities and understand there are a plethora of suitable options to accomplish any landscape design, from temperate to tropical, sparing the added time, energy and funding needed to push plants to their limits. Forget what you may have learned growing up in different parts of the world and learn anew what belongs right here. Understand that South Florida, Miami in particular, is a very unique part of the world that provides particular opportunities. In the long run, the earth will benefit from the reduction of our reactions.