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Gardening in Paradise: 10 Ideas to Steal from Key West

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Gardening in Paradise: 10 Ideas to Steal from Key West

February 20, 2018

Early on in our relationship, my husband presented me with a tiny Siamese kitten. She looked so sweet. We named her Irma after My Friend Irma, a gentle television sitcom from the early 195os. Little did I know that this exquisitely dainty creature quickly would grow into a muscular beast with the destruction capacity of an industrial shredding machine. She reduced pantyhose to tatters, chewed through power cables, gnawed on furniture, and once used her claws to grate a new leather jacket. She has been gone now for several years, but I was reminded of her on a recent visit to Key West where her namesake, Hurricane Irma, had arrived in September with a similar penchant for devastation.

One place where Irma (the storm) left her mark last fall was the West Martello Garden Center, a public botanical garden run by the Key West Garden Club. According to club president Rosi Ware, the extensive damage included the loss of several venerable old trees, including a 100-foot-tall, 80-year-old strangler fig, a species known for standing up to powerful salty winds. When it fell, it demolished a fountain and a pond and damaged part of the garden’s infrastructure, the remains of a Civil War era fort. Its root ball alone weighed 25 tons.

That gigantic root ball and other evidence of Irma’s rampage have been removed. If you visit today, as I did recently, you would be surprised to learn that the garden was so recently in shambles. Impressed by the speed and skill with which the Key West Garden Club volunteers restored their lovely seaside retreat, I sought out Ware for some tips on gardening in a subtropical climate.

Here are 10 garden (and curb appeal) ideas to steal from Key West.

Blooming Hedges

Florida fiddlewood. Photograph by Jason Hollinger via Flickr.
Above: Florida fiddlewood. Photograph by Jason Hollinger via Flickr.

Hedges should have flowers. Unlike the Northeast, where we typically grow hedges of understated greenery such as privet and boxwood, Key West boasts an abundance of hedges (many of them huge) with brilliantly colored flowers. Some flamboyant bloomers commonly used are bougainvillea, frangipani (Plumeria rubra), fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum) and golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta).

Prudent Pruning

From landscape designer Carl Gilley, a case of classic Key West curb appeal: a picket fence, a wraparound porch, and welcoming (and well-pruned) specimen plants in the front garden. Photograph courtesy of Carl Gilley Landscape Design.
Above: From landscape designer Carl Gilley, a case of classic Key West curb appeal: a picket fence, a wraparound porch, and welcoming (and well-pruned) specimen plants in the front garden. Photograph courtesy of Carl Gilley Landscape Design.

Prune often and with vigor. Ware cautions that the rate of growth in the hospitable Key West climate is so rapid that hedges and other plant forms need aggressive pruning frequently (as often as once a week) to keep their shape and stay in check. Newcomers, she says, often hold back and need to be urged to be more assertive with their pruners.

Fast-Growing Vines

Tendrils from a fast-growing passionflower vine latch onto nearly any surface. Photograph by Maggie McCain via Flickr.
Above: Tendrils from a fast-growing passionflower vine latch onto nearly any surface. Photograph by Maggie McCain via Flickr.

Festoon a fence with fast-growing vines. In the Truman Annex, an upscale gated community in Key West, fences are rarely left bare. Gorgeous blankets of vigorously flowering vines most often conceal them. For this purpose, Ware recommends the native passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), which can grow as rapidly as three inches a day, and bleeding heart vine (Clerodendrum thomsoniae), which attaches to a trellis or fence with delicate tendrils and produces dazzling crimson and white flowers.

Soil Boosters

A permeable gravel driveway and front path in a Key West garden prevent rainwater runoff. Landscape designer Gilley created curb appeal with dramatic, mature palms in the front garden. Photograph courtesy of Carl Gilley Landscape Design.
Above: A permeable gravel driveway and front path in a Key West garden prevent rainwater runoff. Landscape designer Gilley created curb appeal with dramatic, mature palms in the front garden. Photograph courtesy of Carl Gilley Landscape Design.

Build the soil. Because Key West is basically a rock with a sparse layer of alkaline sandy soil on top of it, Ware says the garden club has had to work hard over time to build soil that is nurturing to a wide variety of plants. Truckloads of potting soil and compost (and added acidifiers for nonnative acid lovers such as gardenias) have created a rich growing environment.

Orchids in Trees

Photograph by Molybdena via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Molybdena via Flickr.

Orchids love trees. While the garden club focuses on native plants for their superior ability to survive storms and thrive in the unique Key West growing conditions, Ware says the club also grows exotics, such as ginger, orchids, and bromeliads, primarily because visitors expect to see them. She notes that orchids are frequently grown in trees in Key West because they “are happier on trees than in pots” and says that more of the club’s orchids attached by their roots to trees survived Irma than did those in containers.

Orchid Food

Photographer Sophia Moreno-Bunge visited her Uncle Jorge&#8\2\17;s tropical orchid garden in Buenos Aires. See more in Garden Visit: A Hanging Orchid Garden in San Isidro.
Above: Photographer Sophia Moreno-Bunge visited her Uncle Jorge’s tropical orchid garden in Buenos Aires. See more in Garden Visit: A Hanging Orchid Garden in San Isidro.

Feed your orchids. Under the garden club’s care, orchids enjoy a great deal of pampering. Every week they are sprayed with the club’s “secret recipe” fertilizer brewed especially for orchids. Ware didn’t offer a detailed formula but she said the elixir is composed of small amounts of alcohol and vinegar (to discourage pests) combined with some commercial 20-20-20 orchid food. Slow-release fertilizer pellets are also used.

Conserving Water

A vertical drip irrigation system. Photograph by Aqua Mechanical via Flickr.
Above: A vertical drip irrigation system. Photograph by Aqua Mechanical via Flickr.

Drought is a fact of life. Because it is so far south, Key West is subtropical, a classification it shares with only one other place in the United States: Hawaii. Instead of four seasons, Key West typically has two: summer (which is wet, with temperatures in the 90s) and winter (which is dry and in the 70s). To protect its plants during the months that can pass with no rain, the West Martello Garden has an irrigation system. Its gardeners also have made liberal use of drought-tolerant plants: agaves, aloes, and natives such as stoppers, which are trees that can survive dry conditions. They include Spanish stopper (Eugenia foetida) and Simpson’s stopper (Myrcianthes fragrans), which are able to establish themselves in inhospitable soil by means of a deep tap root, an unusual feature in a Keys native tree.

Natives, Natives, Natives

Lingum vitae in bloom in the Florida Keys. Photograph by Cayobo via Flickr.
Above: Lingum vitae in bloom in the Florida Keys. Photograph by Cayobo via Flickr.

Growing natives is one of the best decisions a gardener can make. The last time the Key West club’s garden had been attacked during a major hurricane was when Wilma hit in 2005. Unlike Irma, which devastated with wind, Wilma was a wet storm that killed plants with saltwater flooding. During the post-Wilma restoration, garden club members turned extensively to native plants that could withstand saltwater inundation. Some natives that Ware recommends for this purpose are bay cedar (Suriana maritima), a large evergreen shrub which sports yellow flowers year-round in the USDA zone 11 Key West climate, and lignum vitae (Guaiacum sanctum), aka “Tree of Life,” an endangered tree with extremely hard wood that produces delicate blue flowers and orange seedpods attractive to mockingbirds and catbirds.

Beneficial Insects

Learn more about the lifecycle of a ladybug in Your Garden’s Best Friend: The Life and Times of a Ladybug. Photograph by Jim Powell.
Above: Learn more about the lifecycle of a ladybug in Your Garden’s Best Friend: The Life and Times of a Ladybug. Photograph by Jim Powell.

Fight pests naturally with beneficial insects. Ware says the biggest problem for gardeners in Key West is the pests that thrive there: white fly, scale, aphids, night fly, thrips, and snails. The club’s gardeners try to avoid using chemicals to combat these uninvited guests by attracting beneficial insects to do the job. Ware says the garden strives to maintain a natural balance to create a safe and welcoming environment for wild residents such as birds, frogs, and tortoises. It has been officially recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Foundation.

Respecting Nature

Shutters, stacked on the porch, provide seasonal shelter in Key West. Photograph by Stannate via Flickr.
Above: Shutters, stacked on the porch, provide seasonal shelter in Key West. Photograph by Stannate via Flickr.

The lesson of hurricane recovery from Ware and her fellow gardeners is actually a good one for gardeners everywhere. The KWGC members accept that nature is a formidable force. They study the aftermath of each hurricane, but they know that putting into practice lessons from a past storm is no guarantee that those protections will work in the future. Their spectacular but vulnerable seaside location renders them easy prey for future tempests. Currently in the West Martello Garden Center, the volunteers have been relocating the shade plants that are now getting burned in their newly sunny treeless sites and patiently choosing sun lovers as replacements. Their mantra seems to be: Prepare for what you know can happen, fix what you can, and hope for the best.

Used copies of Plants of Paradise start at \$\19.95 on Amazon.
Above: Used copies of Plants of Paradise start at $19.95 on Amazon.
Two useful books for further reading: Plants of Paradise and Roots, Rocks, and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys, by Key West resident Robin Robinson offer information on the native plants of the Florida Keys. Both are available at Books & Books in Key West and at the garden club’s gift shop.

For more design ideas and growing tips for our favorite tropical plants, see our curated guide to Tropicals 101, including:

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