Field Trip: Miami Beach Botanical Garden

It’s time to leave the safety of the capsule to once again set foot on the planet. Now that Joe and I are both fully vaccinated and have waited the two-week post-jab period, this is our exact thought as we make arrangements to re-acclimate ourselves to a COVID-weary world.

Orange ashoka tree.

It’s a weird feeling to re-enter society, especially as my thoughts are with other parts of the world still battling the virus while the anti-mask/anti-vax movement in this country doesn’t exactly make me feel comfortable about leaving our safe space. Since it’s been over a year since Joe and I began our strict self-imposed quarantine/isolation/distance/lockdown/exile, I have to wonder what it’s going to be like to interact with people while keeping COVID anxiety at bay and not feeling the constant need to breathe into a brown paper bag.

To date, we’ve taken small steps, smaller than those of the turtle above. Our first one was Thai takeout, eaten in our backyard. It was the first meal that neither Joe nor I have cooked since we removed ourselves from the outside world. Then, a fully vaccinated friend invited us to a backyard BBQ with about six other fully vaccinated people. We actually hugged other people and saw smiles not hidden behind masks. With light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it’s the small things that truly matter.

Our next major outing was a field trip to the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, a 3-acre subtropical jewel hidden in plain sight across from the convention center in that city. Good things, it’s been said, come to those who wait — and this was quite the wait. We had planned on visiting here in April 2020!

Orchids are everywhere.

With a Japanese garden, native garden, orchids galore, as well as space for a small nursery, boutique, and rooms for cultural, art, and educational events, the MBBG packs a lot into a relatively small space. Because of COVID, it also has limited access and strongly suggests masks.

Cuban petticoat palm.

One of the most impressive and mesmerizing areas was the native garden, which hosts the largest number of  Atala butterflies, a Florida native, I’ve ever seen at one time — fluttering, flittering, and flying. This picture (below)  captures only a few of the black-winged beauties.

Atala butterflies.

About a hundred years ago, when Miami Beach gained popularity as a playground with palm trees, the property was actually a golf course. Over time, though, it became an overgrown, vacant lot. In ’62, the city re-developed it into the Garden Center, a city park across from the newly constructed Miami Beach Convention Center.

Justicia spicigera or Mexican honeysuckle.

The site again deteriorated. Then in ’96, a group of concerned residents and gardeners approached the city to create the Miami Beach Garden Conservancy, a non-profit group charged with restoring the garden. The effort is now a public/private partnership that embraces the environment through education, stewardship, and sustainability.

Giant milkweed, Calotropis gigantea.

It took us just under two hours to finish the visit. Although the calendar said April, it felt more like a white-hot, mid-summer day. Fortunately, for us, a canopy of tall trees, hats, some SPF protection, and an ocean breeze kept us cool as we wandered the garden path and discovered that life could feel almost normal.

Milestone: 10-Year Blogoversary

In the midst of putting this post together, I was notified by WordPress that my blog had reached a milestone: Nitty Gritty Dirt Man turned 10. That’s a lot of plants and pictures and words — lots and lots of words.

The first photo on my blog.

A lot has changed over these ten years. I’m gardening in a whole new zone, for one thing. I also have a lot more gray hair, so much so that when I catch a glimpse of myself in full sun, my head looks like it’s glowing. I also think it’s becoming more difficult to stay focused, particularly on this blog — and I wonder if this could be the result of retiree brain.

Still, Nitty Gritty Dirt Man has been a wonderful adventure. After staking my small plot in blogland, I quickly learned that I was joining this incredible neighborhood — and how rewarding it’s been to have talked to other gardeners and bloggers over the garden gate. Many I now consider friends.

Me & Joe.

I’m also happy to say that after ten years, this blog still amazes me. Recently, a writer from Celtic Life International contacted me for her cover story. The magazine was putting together a Pride issue, and she was assigned the task of writing about the LGBTQ+ community and Celtic culture. She needed someone to represent the bagpipe angle and had hit a brick wall — until she discovered an old blog post of mine — because old posts never die. The issue is now available, and I’m so proud and humbled to have been a small part of her article.

An anole hanging out in the rain chain after an early morning shower.

I guess what I really want to say, no matter if you’re an old friend or a new reader, is thank you. I have truly loved sharing my life and garden with you, and I look forward to continuing — retiree brain permitting.

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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The South Floridian Who Planted A Rose And Grew An English Garden, Part 2

In the overnight hours before landscape designer Victor Lazzari opened his English-style garden to members of a local garden club, a cold front made its way down the entire length of the Florida peninsula. Wind and light rain arrived in the darkness, but by morning, a cool breeze had pushed away any lingering clouds, unveiling a brilliantly blue sky. The typical South Florida humidity was yesterday’s memory.

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