Bill Carr’s home is on a curve in the road, resulting in a small, very colorful and well-designed front yard. But his back yard is huge and there it becomes a secret garden.
Once you enter, you can’t see where you’ve been or where you’re going. Well-paved paths lead you from one surprise to another. And when you come to the end, you follow back by another path with more lovely vistas. Hidden in side paths are his nurseries and work area.
Bill’s grandmother Sally gave him his love of gardens. As he moved across the country, he created several gardens from California to Georgia. He and his wife, Elisa, started their current garden on two thirds of an acre when their Walden Lake house in Plant City was finished in 1985.
Its large bromeliad collection began when his friend Tom Wolfe visited 10 years ago and gave him some suggestions, starting with the raised beds along the path. Throughout the garden the bromeliads are mixed with Florida natives, crotons, gingers, lilies, palms, angel trumpets, desert plants, begonias and more.
One recent year Bill collected coleus and still has many different kinds. He also collected ground covers, but he keeps most of them and all vines in pots. How I wish I had been so wise. He doesn’t let anything run wild. That includes a few clumps of fine bamboo, which he controls as needed, sometimes by letting friends dig some out.
Bill has found some secret methods for success with particular plants, as well. His gerbera daisies are full of bloom because he discovered they want alkaline soil and most of our soil is at least slightly acid. Ground limestone makes soil more alkaline.
Bromeliads will spread on their own by sending up pups or side shoots, but the parent that has bloomed will not bloom again. If you cut dead stems off, leave enough of the stem so you’ll know which is the parent. Pups should not be taken off until they are at least half the size of the parent plant. At that time they will not have roots. Bill showed me how he roots them.
First he fills a pot halfway with cypress mulch (or any similar mulch). Then he throws a handful of good soil into the center, makes a fairly deep hole and peels off the bottom leaves just like you’d peel them off a pineapple top. Did you know pineapples are bromeliads? Then he anchors the pup in the hole and fills the pot with more mulch. He adds a bit of Osmocote fertilizer, waters with a bit of Miracle-Gro solution and keeps it in the shade. Sometimes he just follows the same routine for planting in the ground.
Bill’s entire garden is watered by a low pressure mist. The filtered shade is essential for most bromeliads and also provides some frost protection. His orchids and hanging begonias are moved onto the patio for the winter.
This year the weather has confused some of the plants and they are blooming at odd times. Azaleas are early and happy from the winter rains. His papayas are loaded with fruit and the herbs are thriving. If the gardeners up North could see this garden, they would pack up and move here.
Spotlight plant: Torenia
Today’s pick is the trailing torenia, supposedly an annual but determined to be a perennial. While the upright torenias die off at the end of summer, Bill has found the trailing ones continue to bloom right through the winter and into the next year. Different varieties have flowers of yellow, shades of pink and purple. My favorite are the blue with yellow and white centers. They will take full sun to almost full shade and are called wishbone flowers because there is a small wishbone within each bloom. You won’t find these until spring, but once you get one, cuttings root easily for more. For best results, don’t let the soil dry out between waterings.
Now’s the time ... to gather leaves for mulch. When the new leaves come out in March, they push off the rest of the old ones, and trees will soon have spring green foliage.
You can feed your citrus now, your roses and anything else that needs a boost. Be sure to spread dry fertilizer only when the soil is damp or it can cause burning. If you get some on the leaves, just shake it off so it doesn’t burn there. Organic fertilizers do not burn.
Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 11 gardening books who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit her website here.