Bees, Butterflies, & Being British


The other day, my friend Carl called Joe and me, and we made plans to see each other. We’re all vaccinated now, and it’s been a very long time. Besides, Carl was very excited to share with us the little hobby he picked up while isolating over the past year.

Carl is now a beekeeper.

Early in the pandemic, wild bees had established a hive under Carl’s shed. He called some professionals and watched, from inside his house, the removal of the hive and the queen — all of which was transferred to an available hive at the pro’s location.

Carl was fascinated and literally became as busy as a bee. He researched, read books, asked questions, and ordered supplies. He now has two hives in his backyard and spent his COVID year sitting near the hives and watching the bees — oblivious of him — do their bee things.

For Carl, it was meditative — and I completely understand. In slow motion, it’s a bit like a sloppy dance, but every bee knows the work that has to be done. Still, I couldn’t help consider the question: What did I do during my year off?

Many people, just like Carl, pursued new hobbies or learned new skills, from painting to learning another language to perfecting the art of sourdough.

What, though, did I do? I collected cuttings from my plants and harvested seeds and made do with whatever I was able to grow on my own. I made a lot of lists of what I wanted to do once I was vaccinated and felt comfortable enough to visit nurseries. I also did a lot of weeding and reading, and I recently had a record number of Atala butterflies, a Florida native, emerge — but that last one really had more to do with the butterflies than with me.

Was there something new I could bring to the table, something I could share with friends when we all got together? When I think about it, I can honestly say that I watched a lot of television during COVID — and that’s when it hit me.

Over the past year, I became British.

Epidendrum radicans orchid.

The transformation began early on with “Escape to the Country,” a British show that’s a lot like HGTV’s “House Hunters” — only better. The premise has urban Londoners looking for a more peaceful, greener life in rural England. They’re given two houses to explore and a mystery house (usually my favorite), and in-between the buyers and hosts take some educational, local flavor excursions. Unlike the American show, there’s no guarantee the buyers will make a decision at the end of the hour. In fact, they very often walk away from all three houses — but despite the disappointment, everyone remains civil and well-mannered.

It’s those last two items that have really struck a chord with me. If you’ve watched the news over the last few years, it’s been a stressful, rude, tense, far-from-civil time in the States. In my opinion, COVID succeeded in shining a bright spotlight on the worst of America — from low wages to healthcare to divisiveness.

When I found a station that aired four consecutive episodes of “Escape to the Country,” Monday thru Friday, I was overjoyed. The show, along with Jules, Alistair, Jonnie, Nicki, and others (yes, I’m on a first name basis with them), provided an escape from my country. It got to the point where I could identify each host just by hearing his or her voice — and I would quiz Joe to do the same. He improved as the year went on.

A cluster of Agapanthus flowers ready to burst open.

We even found ourselves learning new words. A home that’s “homely,” for example, is a good thing in England — not so much in the US. Similarly, a British yard — even one devoid of flowers and landscaping — is a garden, but in America, a garden is in a yard, while a yard without a garden is simply a yard.

Joe and I also wondered if we could live in the English countryside — and would we want a barn conversion or an edge of village location? Personally, I don’t think I would want too much land, but I would like a manageable garden and to be in walking distance to village amenities and the pub. I would also need a “snug.” I’m not exactly sure what that is — I think it’s essentially an American den, but snug sounds so much cozier, like a room built for reading whilst (see how I dropped that Britishism in there?) wrapped in a warm blanket. I think every house should have a snug.

Let the Agapanthus show begin.

Although I was in steaming hot Florida, for the hours I watched television, I was in seasonably cool England. I wanted Doc Martin as my GP. I wanted to be friends with Nessa on “Gavin & Stacey” and to say things like “crackin’” and “what’s occurrin’?” I wanted to live in England in another time thanks to “All Creatures Great & Small.” I wanted to have a conversation with the two lead actors on “Ballykissangel” (technically, I know this took place in Ireland) and beg them — spoiler alert — not to leave the show. I still haven’t recovered from that shock.

Not even crime shows, like “Broadchurch” and “Endeavour,” could dissuade my wanting to uproot and transplant myself in England. I’ll take my chances with a serial killer, thank you very much, as long as I can have bluebells. I must have bluebells — and a snug, of course.

“The Jewel Garden” in front of a pot of jewel-toned curcuma.

Speaking of bluebells, I haven’t forgotten that this is a gardening blog and I must give a special acknowledgement to Monty Don, aka My Favorite Gardener. One of the books I read last year (I found a used copy on Amazon) was The Jewel Garden: A Story of Despair and Redemption. Co-written with his wife, Sarah Don, the book looks back at their pre-gardening life, a successful jewelry design business, his mental health issues and financial difficulties, and their escape to the country. The book is named for one of their garden rooms — a collection of jewel-toned flowers, a nod to their earlier life. The book inspired me to fill my own garden with jewel tones, some of which I’ve used to illustrate this post.

Portulaca.

Because I’m obsessed with all things Monty, it’s really no surprise that he’s responsible for completing my British transformation. While bingeing my way through more than 20 seasons of “Gardener’s World,” I said to Joe, who was in the kitchen, “Look. Monty is moving his banana trees into his garden.”

Only, it came out as “ba-nah-na.” As soon as my voice left my mouth, I knew Joe was going to hear my very British pronunciation. Could I be a victim of my very own Peppa Pig effect, the one American parents say happened to their toddlers after watching the animated English children’s show?

Evolvulus.

“What . . . did you . . . say?” a perplexed Joe asked, looking up from the dinner prep.

“I just said, “Look. Monty is moving his banana (American pronunciation) trees into his garden.” As much as I hoped I had recovered from my foible . . .

“No, you didn’t,” Joe said before I could finish my thought. “You said . . .”

“I know,” I caved in a split second. “I said ‘ba-nah-na,’ okay?”

Joe looked at me, we both laughed, and he said, “You’re watching way too much British TV.”

Bougainvillea.

I’m sure British shows sell a version of England as much as American entertainment sells an image of the USA to the rest of the world. Still, could Joe be correct? Was I watching too much British television — to which I also ask, can one ever really watch too much British television?

I think not. In fact, I think it’s brilliant and so instead I have chosen to:

Not-So-Wordless Wednesday: Holding On


This is a baby staghorn fern. I came across it recently while doing some therapeutic weeding — therapeutic for me, not so much for the weeds. I was actually surprised to see it because the closest mature staghorn is in the across-the-street neighbor’s backyard.

Plus, it was clinging to stone. In the wild, these tropical epiphyte ferns use their roots to grab tightly onto the bark of a tree while its fronds take in the needed moisture and nutrients. This little guy, though, was holding onto the rough, hard surface of a paver used as a retaining wall for a raised bed.

The more I considered its journey from a spore drifting on wind currents to its determination to hold onto something — anything — solid, the more I realized that this was the best way to illustrate my absence for the past few months.

Without going into detail, the bulk of 2020 saw Joe, myself, and his family protecting ourselves from COVID while also caring for the health of his father. Dad was diagnosed in May with malignant melanoma.

In a normal world, life is a rollercoaster. COVID, though, seemed to stifle and slow many of the ups while adding speed and dangerous curves to the downs. By the end of 2020 and into 2021, Dad needed round-the-clock care. On February 3, he passed away as a result of his weakened state, which itself was the result of two surgeries and general anesthesia that seemed to exacerbate his Alzheimer’s.

Since then, Joe and I have worked at catching up on chores long neglected: AC maintenance, plumbing issues, tree removal and shrub pruning, and that therapeutic weeding.

Through it all, though, we’ve reflected on Dad. He was many things to so many people.  He was a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, uncle and friend, and coach, referee, umpire, and mentor. To me, he was my father-in-law, a kind, decent, honest, and gentle man who lived life to its fullest. He’s also the man who instilled these same values in Joe, my husband and partner.

I admit that while some days have felt almost normal, other days have been, well, a daze. It was on one such day that I looked up and spotted an orchid blooming way up high on the trunk of a sabal palm, one that I had tied to the tree before I knew anything about how to do that.

At the time, I was told to wait for the flower spike to finish and to just tie it. Climbing a ladder, I slapped the clump of roots — no additional sphagnum moss, no coco-fiber lining to keep things together, no nothing — and sloppily wrapped green floral tape around the orchid and palm trunk, hoping for the best.

It has never bloomed, not once,  since I tied it up there. Some years, it looked as if it was barely alive.

This year, though . . . this year it’s flowering, its roots firmly attached to the trunk. It gave me a reason to get the ladder and climb up to get a closer photo of this miracle on a tree trunk, a reminder that we’re all holding on and we’re all going to be okay.

Bloomin’ Update 64: Harvest Days, SoFlo Style


Sometimes, it’s easy to forget it’s autumn. That has become my annual thought the longer I live and garden in South Florida. I know many plants, even down here, have a season, but it’s not until I see the national weather forecast for the Dakotas, my friend’s pictures of her New England view of painted leaves, and other garden blogs filled with photos of gardens in seasonal transition that I truly realize that the times, they are a-changin’.

It’s at this moment, in a land where most feel there are only two seasons — hot and hotter — that I become more aware of the later sunrises and earlier sunsets, and of the shimmering, golden hue of the sunlight in the late, late afternoon. We were even given a small tease as a weak “cold” front made its down the Florida peninsula for a day, delivering — at the very least — a drop in humidity. Other than that, though, autumn here is pretty much summer.

On the other hand, the combination of these subtle changes and a pandemic that’s kept me firmly planted at home has given me a reason to not only harvest bananas (above), but to also collect seeds and start new plants.

Pride of Barbados

This small flowering tree or tall flowering shrub began as a gift from friends. As hard as I prune it to keep it short, it seems happiest when it’s allowed to fully grow upward. Then, at the top of its stems, clusters of orchid-like flowers bloom. In turn, these are followed by dangling seed pods, which I quickly collect before they pop open so I don’t have a forest of Pride.

One pod I let dry on my potting bench. When I cut it open, I was surprised to find the seeds in an alternating pattern. I’m not sure if this is typical or a quirk of this particular pod. Either way, I was still impressed that nature could produce something so perfect and symmetrical.

I planted some of the seeds. Within days, they sprouted and now I have a pot of seedlings that need to be potted up. I’m still not sure if I’ll plant these when they’re a little older or if I’ll give them away.

Mexican Cotton Plant

One of my favorite plants that I’ve grown is Mexican Cotton Plant. I have mine in a pot, and I’ve always been able to keep it pruned to encourage branching and stronger growth. This year, though, something happened. After flowering, it produced the buds that would eventually open to reveal cotton. That’s when I noticed the leaves dying. My hope was for the plant to live long enough for these buds to mature, but that wasn’t the case.

I harvested the buds and let them dry. In a matter of days, they popped open, revealing the cotton balls. I pulled out the cotton, each piece of fluff covering a seed. These are now planted and I’m waiting for them to sprout.

White African Iris

Last year, a friend gave me some seed pods from his White African Iris. I dried the pod, removed the seeds, and planted them. They are now flowering for the first time.

Crinum Lily

One of my favorite plants is the Crinum Lily. Large and tropical, the plant is related to amaryllis rather than lilies — and it can easily fill a bed with its sword-like leaves. The treat is when they send up a flower spike (above). Within a day, the flower cluster opens even more (below).

They also spread. One way is for the mother bulb to produce pups. These can be separated and then planted. I tend to do this on a regular basis to keep the mother plants looking clean and neat.

The other method is fascinating. When a flower is pollinated, a bulblet forms on the flower spike. As it matures, its weight will either help bend the flower stalk to the ground or it will simply fall off. Recently, while cleaning the Crinums, separating pups, and weeding, I found a bulblet that had fallen to the ground, where it had germinated. At first glance, I thought the withered bulblet was a stone.

King Palm

Normally, when  palm trees produce their inflorescence, Joe cuts them off to prevent becoming overrun with sprouting palm trees everywhere — except this time. I was interested in harvesting seeds from the King Palm, so we let the hull-like structure (peduncular bract) that contains the small flowers remain attached to the tree. The photo above is of another peduncular bract that we cut in half to see how tightly packed the inflorescence is.

After a few weeks, the bract popped open, revealing its multi-branched inflorescence.

In time, the inflorescence branches spread and bees are drawn to the hundreds of small beige flowers.

Back To The Bananas

I realize bananas may not be everyone’s idea of a fall fruit. That title usually belongs to apples and pears and pumpkins. This year, though, the banana plant happened to produce just in time for a fall harvest — and there were lots of bananas. I added them to cereal, shared them with neighbors, froze some for future use, and tried my hand at banana bread for the first time.

My neighbor’s recipe called for loaf pans, but all I had was a Bundt pan — so that’s what it had to be. Not as tasty as my neighbor’s — but all in all, a delicious way to celebrate the season in a SoFlo way.

Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon Giveaway

I wanted to take a few moments to thank everyone who participated in the recent giveaway of Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon, by Linda Jane Holden, and to congratulate Carol H. for being the lucky winner!

Tying One On — And Then Some


This is the dilemma that’s been staring at me for some time, now. I have two orchids — one in a terra cotta pot and one in a plastic pot — and they have each made themselves very comfortable in their respective homes. In fact, they’re almost too comfortable, with their roots bursting out and over the pots.

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As Seen On WordPress & HGTV


At some point in the midst of COVID madness, I received a message from the WordPress gods that my blog had reached its 9th anniversary, the gift for which is pottery (hence, the opening photo). That announcement, in combination with all of the quarantine days and weeks and months I’ve had to work in the garden, I’ve had some — and by some, I mean a lot of — time to reflect on this blog… where it began (during my time as a Long Island gardener), where it is now (during my time as a South Florida gardener), where it’s going (I haven’t a clue), and all points in between.

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