Noth­ing is quite what it seems in Florida, a state where ‘zonal de­nial’ is the gar­den­ing mantra. Joanna Fortnam re­ports

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Gardening -

One sunny day in March, al­most six years ago, I landed in Or­lando on a plane packed with ex­cited Bri­tons headed for the theme parks and beaches. I felt just a tad su­pe­rior that I was there to ex­pe­ri­ence the “real” Florida, hav­ing been called to the Sun­shine State to work as an ed­i­tor on a US gar­den­ing mag­a­zine. Al­though I was only a novice gar­dener, how hard could it be to dazzle the na­tives with my in­nate Bri­tish flair?

I soon found that Florida, adapt­able and oblig­ing to a fault, is also full of baf­fling hor­ti­cul­tural loop­holes. I had left be­hind a na­tional com­fort zone, then presided over by Alan Titch­marsh, where gar­den­ers speak pretty much the same lan­guage, and landed in a Ba­belian world of US De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture cli­mate zones, hur­ri­cane warn­ings, and hu­mid­ity lev­els. Even gar­den­ers on op­po­site sides of the state strug­gled to find com­mon ground. I had to check my stock of re­ceived wis­dom con­stantly against a never end­ing list of ifs and buts. Gar­den­ing books — for­get it; all writ­ten by Brits. Plant la­bels — use­less; “full sun” does not mean scorch­ing Florida sun. “Plant in spring” means wait un­til au­tumn or your seedlings will fry.

When I sought ad­vice from out-of­s­tate con­tacts, their ig­no­rance matched my own: “Florida gar­den­ing? They just change the busy Lizzies from pink to white a cou­ple of times a year,” guf­fawed one New Yorker.

Even Amer­i­cans dis­miss Florida as an es­capist bolt­hole full of flamin­gos, al­li­ga­tor wrestling and theme parks. But in re­al­ity it is a hub of se­ri­ous hor­ti­cul­ture: 20 miles to the north of Or­lando is Apopka, a town­ship of fo­liage plant fac­to­ries where just about ev­ery bird’s-nest fern that ever graced a wait­ing room first saw life. In Home­stead, north of Mi­ami, cloned or­chids flood from petri dishes in num­bers that have put a pha­laenop­sis in ev­ery liv­ing room. And there are the cit­rus groves that earned Florida its nick­name of the “Big Orange”.

Hor­ti­cul­ture in the grand tra­di­tion is not un­known ei­ther. Dur­ing the “Gilded Age” at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, vast tracts of swamp and scrub were an­nexed by rob­ber barons such as Deer­ing, Edison and the cir­cus im­pre­sario John Rin­gling. Cen­tred around Palm Beach, Sara­sota and Mi­ami, th­ese Gatsby-like es­tates are now pub­lic land­marks and the gar­dens, classical in scale and style, turn their backs mag­nif­i­cently on the ooz­ing, prickly na­tive Florida land­scape of hard­wood ham­mock, swamp, salt­wa­ter lake and scrub. Even to­day this is a re­al­ity gar­den­ers are anx­ious to avoid.

For a gar­dener from tem­per­ate climes, the per­plex­i­ties of Florida are many. Wa­ter is ev­ery­where but you’d bet­ter not drink it (ter­ri­ble dis­ease) or swim in it (al­li­ga­tors). More to the point, it will dis­ap­pear into the sandy soil faster than you can pour it on, so de­spite 60 inches of rain­fall a year, ir­ri­ga­tion will be needed to keep your lawn green. Like­wise, the sun may shine most of the year, but you shouldn’t go out in it (skin can­cer, in­sects). Then, of course, there’s the hur­ri­cane sea­son from June to Novem­ber (sti­fling hu­mid­ity, roof in gar­den). And don’t be fooled by the hol­i­day brochure im­age: there is a real risk of frost from Novem­ber to March. This even catches out the lo­cals — in 1989 the en­tire cit­rus crop was lost at tem­per­a­tures of -8C (17F).

So the ap­par­ent “trop­i­cal­ness” of Florida is an un­re­li­able guide to what re­ally lives there — the “house­plants gone wild” look is for the ben­e­fit of tourists and north­ern­ers who ex­pect a side or­der of jun­gle with their place in the sun. My trav­els around the US con­firmed that the trop­i­cal look (known af­fec­tion­ately as zonal de­nial), is pop­u­lar from Maine to Mi­ami, with ev­ery­one mad for lurid com­bos of cordy­line, canna and coleus.

Nos­tal­gia is an­other a key in­gre­di­ent. Im­mi­grants in­sist on roses, camel­lias and daf­fodils. The first two thrive; the lat­ter, along with tulips and cro­cus, are non-starters. But that doesn’t stop peo­ple from try­ing. The Dis­ney theme parks set the bar, lav­ish­ing enor­mous amounts of money and ex­per­tise on

For the Harry P. Leu Gar­dens in Or­lando, see www.leu­gar­ The camel­lia col­lec­tion is par­tic­u­larly good in March and April.

Com­pre­hen­sive nfor­ma­tion on Or­lando theme parks can be found at www.or­land­o­fun­

The City of Win­ter Park, north-east of Or­lando, is a good area for gar­den gawk­ing. See­ter­­dex.asp. The best source of in­for­ma­tion for Florida Gilded Age es­tates is www.fla­ Two of the most no­table are Viz­caya (www. viz­caya­mu­ and the Rin­gling Es­tate (www.

rin­ per­suad­ing sulky tem­per­ate plants to per­form leaf-per­fect ren­di­tions of a “wild flower meadow” or a “typ­i­cal Paris park”. And that’s not to men­tion the top­i­arised Tin­ker Bells in multi-coloured be­go­nias. For­tu­nately for a home gar­dener like my­self with lim­ited bud­get and space, Or­lando is also blessed with an out­stand­ing botan­i­cal gar­den, the Harry P. Leu Gar­dens, presided over by Robert Bow­den, a fount of prac­ti­cal knowl­edge.

“The great ad­van­tage of Florida is the lack of frost in some ar­eas and the abil­ity to gar­den 12 months a year,” Bow­den ex­plained to me, on a high-speed buggy tour of Leu gar­dens. “But cen­tral Florida is con­fus­ing, as we are on the cusp of the tem­per­ate/trop­i­cal cli­mate zones. A lot of tem­per­ate plants do very well here, and it’s not ar­ti­fi­cial to grow them as they don’t need in­ten­sive care and sup­port.”

Tabebuia ochracea)


Al­though it does pro­duce some com­bi­na­tions that are both­er­some to the eye — as in, would you care for a ba­nana with that camel­lia? Bow­den bans trop­i­cal plants among his camel­lias for this very rea­son.

“But gar­den­ing is eas­ier both north and south of Or­lando,” he con­tin­ued. “The north is more tem­per­ate, so you add a few trop­i­cals like the Vic­to­ri­ans did for sum­mer colour and tex­ture. And South Florida is trop­i­cal so the pal­ette is sim­pli­fied.” Bow­den’s great­est plea­sure is his win­ter veg­etable gar­den, a se­cret re­served for top-notch gar­den­ers who can crack the up­side-down sow­ing times. Af­ter spend­ing a dor­mant sum­mer in the shade of his porch, from Novem­ber till April Bow­den har­vests broc­coli, let­tuce, toma­toes, chard and herbs, the plants rush­ing into growth in fall with the on­set of lower tem­per­a­tures.

I rented a du­plex in one of the older (ie 1950s) neigh­bour­hoods of Or­lando. Com­pared with the blis­ter­ing ug­li­ness of typ­i­cal Florida ur­ban sprawl — a flat, high­way-and­mall-dom­i­nated hell — Colo­nial Town was a haven of brick streets, quaint bun­ga­lows with porches and charm­ing gar­dens.

Rows of amaryl­lis gaily lin­ing a chain-link fence seemed a morethan-fair swap for the daf­fodils of home. Even the drabbest front yard could field a daz­zling yel­low tabebui (golden trum­pet tree) to make our sub­ur­ban for­sythia seem in­sipid. Cy­cling around th­ese neigh­bour­hoods af­ter work was an ideal way to en­joy the the­atrics of a warm-cli­mate flora — bromeli­ads hang­ing from im­pro­vised trapezes in the trees, scar­let poin­set­tias in full leaf. The groomed lux­u­ri­ance of deep, cool lawns in the shade of live oaks, swirling borders edged with flu­o­res­cent be­go­nias; trees hang­ing with gi­ant philo­den­dron and staghorn ferns — it’s im­pos­si­ble not to feel a lit­tle woozy with the cin­e­matic ro­mance of it all.

One land­scape ar­chi­tect familiar with the ter­rain of Florida (real and imag­ined) is Jorge Sanchez from Palm Beach. “Gar­dens here are a Long Is­lan­der’s in­ven­tion of the trop­ics,” he says. “They cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that is more Bali Hai than Florida, but it’s fun and a con­trast to the sable palms and cy­press that grow here nat­u­rally. I don’t dis­ap­prove. Ver­sa­til­ity is what makes Florida won­der­ful.”

As a steady stream of ex-pat Brits con­tin­ues to trickle into Florida, at­tracted by in­vest­ment prop­erty deals and year-round sun, the state’s ac­com­mo­dat­ing ways are to the fore. A slightly dis­ori­ent­ing but mag­i­cal king­dom — if you can learn to live with a lit­tle un­re­al­ity.

Sun­shine su­per­man: (clock­wise from above) Ray­mond Jun­gles of Mi­ami has made an art form of trop­i­cal gar­dens; putting the fi­nal touches on a Mickey Mouse top­i­ary; Viz­caya, for­mer es­tate of in­dus­tri­al­ist James Deer­ing; golden trum­pet trees ( light up the sub­urbs in spring; cloned or­chids such as Ever Spring King ‘Lee’, are big busi­ness.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.