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Monday, Sep 22, 2014
The Sun

You can have a lovely garden under the oaks

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Many homes in Hillsborough County are blessed with tall and spreading oak trees. But growing other plants beneath them can be a challenge.

Elizabeth and Richard Crawford found a way when they first moved from Temple Terrace to Brandon 13 years ago. Their son James helped them build wooden walkways and decks within the fenced back yard, which was actually the tightest part of their one-third of an acre.

Elizabeth grew up gardening and jokes that if her mother left a shovel in the soil for too long that it would bloom. This Florida native has been gardening for at least 30 years.

She wanted a fern garden under the oaks. Luckily, one of her friends had a fine fern garden of her own and gave her starts of all kinds of ferns: maiden hair, rabbit’s tail, staghorn, elkhorn, bird’s nest, asparagus, Boston, silver lace and rainbow. Most came to her in 4-inch pots and she put them in containers, since the oaks’ large roots made it difficult to dig large holes in the ground. This way, both the ferns and the trees got their needed water and nutrition.

For color she added coleus and caladiums, anthuriums with pink flamingo flowers and garden art. Many wind chimes add their own notes to the songs of the birds she feeds.

One end of the sitting area features a wrought-iron butterfly chair and comfortable wicker chairs surrounded by both ferns and succulents. I never thought they would go together so well, but many of the succulents do well in the shade. The wall of the adjacent shed is decorated with a trellis and thriving hoya plant that often has many showy and fragrant flowers, obviously doing well with medium light.

Beside the deck is an eating area a step or two higher and under roof. A large chiminea was still wrapped for safekeeping until the weather is ready.

Elizabeth has a fine flair for decoration that adds much interest to the background of fence and green. Both decks are visible from the back doors of the house.

The Crawfords’ gazebo has now become their outdoor kitchen. It sits beyond the fern garden where the sunnier part of the garden begins. And since the trees were recently trimmed — blessing that area with considerably more sun — they are planning to put in a vegetable garden.

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Today’s pick is the Jatropha or coral plant. It’s an evergreen shrub that can grow 8 to 15 feet tall. There is also a dwarf one called J. podagrica or gout plant — maybe because it has a swollen base — that doesn’t grow beyond three. All have red flowers through the warm months, and zebra longwing butterflies fluttered among the blooms when we visited the Crawford garden. The flowers also attract hummingbirds.

Jatrophas like sun. All parts are poisonous if ingested but none is very tempting and few of us eat our ornamental plants. These plants can die back in a freeze but usually come back in our area. I’ve tried and failed to root green stem cuttings.

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Now’s the time to ... say I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to talk to each person at my recent plant sales. I hope I wasn’t rude. We got pretty busy and sometimes I had several people asking questions at the same time. I really enjoy having folks come to visit, and I wish I could enjoy each person separately. I had that same feeling when I was raising my nine children. I hope you will forgive me, as they have. If you didn’t get my full attention, I’ll undoubtedly have another sale next year. Better still, email me and I’ll answer your questions.

Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 11 gardening books who can be reached at monicabrandies@yahoo.com. Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.

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