Our royal palm came down the other day — not by wind or disease, but by choice and chainsaw. It had simply become too worrisome, too big for its britches, too big for our own good.
I’d like to say that I sprang from my bed and that away to the window I flew like a flash. Springing from my bed hardly happens these days. There’s a lot of stretching and cracks and creaks that must happen before I can even think of springing.
What’s wrong with me? In a few days, it will be Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, and my inner New York clock is telling me that I should be able to smell the first hints of an approaching autumn. Here in south Florida, however, summer is still the name of the game.
As I realize how much time has passed since my last post, I am aware of how frustrated and edgy I’m feeling. It has been an incredibly long time since I truly gardened.
There was a time, not too long ago, when this part of South Florida — east of the Everglades and west of the Coast — was nothing but white sand, scrub vegetation, saw palmettos, and sand pines. Development and expansion, with all of its blacktop and gated communities and non-native plants, soon overran the place.
Fortunately, the city of Oakland Park thought to preserve this slice of Florida’s natural history with the Lakeside Sand Pine Preserve, a pristine 5.6-acre site nestled between two lakes. This location, in addition to the abundance of native plants, means the park is home to countless birds, anole lizards, and even gopher tortoises, an endangered species. It’s also a place where the community can come together — volunteers are responsible for the preserve’s upkeep.
I arrived at the preserve after a brief morning shower. As I stepped from my car, I was struck by the silence and solitude in a place that is literally just down the street and over the fence from the trappings of the modern world.
Summertime in South Florida, I’m told, is not the best time to plant or to garden. Locals often cite the high heat and high humidity — which leads to an abundance of pests and mildews.
So while gardens — and gardeners — in this hot area cool off, I’ve spent the time researching plants, dreaming up garden plans, and binge-watching television series. “Breaking Bad.” Done. “Orange Is The New Black.” Check. “Downton Abbey.” Finito.
Everything was moving along nicely until “Downton” introduced a gardener into Violet Crawley’s world, and I found myself hoping for a larger storyline for the young fellow or — even better — a spin-off. “Downton Gardens,” perhaps?
Nevertheless, as I pondered the idea of beginning a gardening program for the inmates on “Orange,” it occurred to me that I had had my fill of fictional gardens. I missed real gardening. There was a burning inside of me — as feverish as those felt by any of Walter White’s meth heads — to dig in the dirt, plant seeds, and root clippings.
So the other day, I caved in to my cravings and embarked on a binge of my very own. A garden binge, if you will.
I had been eyeing this hibiscus in the neighbor’s yard, blooming in the gap between our two houses. Each day, I’d walk by and that flower would wink its stamen at me. And since I’ve been looking for a Florida plant to take the place of hydrangeas, I wondered if I could root hibiscus the same way I was able to root my favorite shrub in my northern garden.
Out came the clippers, some cell packs, a shovel, and the rooting hormone. I did my best to clip non-bud branches, and then removed the lower leaves. The clippings were immediately placed in water to keep the stems moist.
I had also prepared the cell packs with basic garden soil and made holes in the center of each. After dipping the stems in rooting hormone, I slipped them into the pre-made holes, careful to not loosen the powdery rooting hormone. This was followed with a gentle watering, and then the small plants were placed out of direct sunlight.
Once started, though, I couldn’t get enough. I had merely had a sip of gardening and I was still achingly thirsty.
From the corner of my eye, I spotted the neighbor’s croton, a shrub with brightly colored foliage. There are many varieties of the plant, but I’m always drawn to the thin, slightly-curled leaf kind, each branch sharing green and red mottled leaves.
I again used the same rooting technique, planting up four small cuttings.
Not quite sated, I thought to myself, “If only I could dig up an actual plant, an off-shoot from a mother plant.” I crouched and crawled across the ground, lifting branches and looking beneath, sending small anoles scurrying.
Eventually, I found two small Chinese fan palms (Livistona chinensis) that had sprouted from seeds at the base of the mother tree. In time, this palm, with tiny hooks along the stems of the fronds, will reach up to 50’. Because of its slow growing habit, however, it’s often used as an understory planting.
I found the jackpot at the base of a Sunshine palm (Veitchia montgomeryana). There, seven smaller palms — resembling tall blades of grass — had sprouted. I carefully pried each one up and gave them a pot of their own.
By the end of the day, my hands and fingernails caked with dirt, my clothes and forehead soaked with sweat, I took a look at all I had done to satisfy my gardening hunger. I had quite the tally: eight hibiscus, four crotons, two Chinese fan palms, and seven Sunshine palms.
At this point, I’m not sure if any of my treasures will survive — and if they do, I’m not sure if I’ll actually use them in the landscape or give them away. I don’t think I’d sell them, though. I’m not a plant pusher. I’m a binger.
I recently participated in a weekly Twitter discussion group called Garden Chat. This particular chat was hosted by Teresa Watkins of Earth Shattering Gardening and the subject was fruit trees. Most of the conversation had to do with apples and pears, best growing practices, advice, and such. That got me thinking about the fruit trees — the only fruit trees — I currently have growing in my Florida yard.
Here’s a look back at a tribute to Cocos nucifera, the coconut palm.
A few days ago, Joe and I found a coconut that had already begun to sprout. Within days of planting it halfway in the dirt, and in a location where it could receive plenty of water and heat, the tightly curled sprout had stretched open (above). It’s amazing to think that this tender green is strong enough to pierce the coconut’s hard shell.
On the other hand, it’s not so surprising when one considers the gift that is a coconut palm.
According to Dr. T. Ombrello, a biology professor at Union County College, the coconut palm is considered to be one of the most useful trees in the world. Parts of the tree can be converted into roofing, fencing, alcohol, shoes, soil amendments, mulch, and so much more. In fact, a recent study indicated 360 uses for the tree, half of which were for food. Even Marco Polo had something to say when he first came across this tree: “One of these nuts is a meal for a man, both meat and drink.”
When a coconut palm is about five years old, it begins to produce both male and female flowers. The pistillate, or female, flowers, are large and spherical. The staminate, or male, flowers are smaller. Initially, the flowers are hidden by a sheath. When the sheath begins to split, it seems to resemble a corn husk.
Within a day, the cream-colored flower branches, or inflorescence, have emerged — and bees are busy at work.
As the inflorescence is exposed to sunlight, it turns a vibrant green.
Don’t be fooled by the frail-looking flower branch. Eventually, it will hold the weight of a whole lot of coconuts. In the course of a year, each coconut palm tree can produce between 25 and 75 coconuts.
That’s 25 to 75 possibilities of coconut water, milk, meat, and, of course, more palms.
It’s seed starting time — and by now, I should have flats of impatiens and petunias and geraniums planted in my Long Island potting shed, with dahlias, cosmos, and gazanias scheduled for the weeks ahead. But as I’ve said in previous posts, this is a season of a different kind — in so many ways.
For starters, I’m away from the potting shed. Instead, I have south Florida — and as my northern garden and gardening friends have shivered and shoveled during this winter’s harshness, south Florida has enjoyed exceptional warmth. By northern standards, it feels like summer.