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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Beautiful and tropical

The more I travel the more I’m struck by the commonality within the gardening industry and its people. Our hardiness zones, plant species, soils, seasonal challenges, and the timing of our tasks vary widely but horticultural principles are consistent – as are the passions of gardeners and the commitment of horticulture professionals.

I am writing from Florida, where my learning curve has been steep and stimulating. At the immense Tropical Plant Industry Expo (TPIE), and on field trips to growers and botanical gardens, I traveled with GWA (Association of Garden Communicators) writers and educators. I listened, looked, learned and took notes for you. We toured the 2-acre Trial Garden at Costa Farms (one of the country’s largest wholesale plant growers), R.F. Orchids (credited for the world’s finest vandaceous orchids, commonly called Vandas) and Bullis Bromeliads (which offers more than 300 varieties.) They and growers like them are part of a massive, dynamic plant industry – hybridizers, growers, wholesalers – that’s working to provide us all with wonderful plants. They represent the future.

My glimpse of the past was equally inspiring. At Fairchild Tropical Plants Garden and The Kampong I looked back at the story of Dr. David Fairchild, one of the greatest plant explorers of all time. From the 1920s, for several decades he gathered, planted and studied plants for potential U.S. agricultural use. For 17 years he was employed by the USDA as head of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. Over time Fairchild introduced 30,000 plants, including citrus, alfalfa, soybeans, dates, mangos, avocados, horseradish, as well as floral and foliage plants. He is also responsible for the first flowering cherry trees in Washington, D.C. The Kampong was his winter home, with wife Marian (daughter of Alexander Graham Bell). Fairchild Tropical Plants Garden was created in Fairchild’s honor by a small group of landscape architects, environmentalists and banker, Col. Robert H. Montgomery.

Robert and Nell Montgomery went on to create what became the 120-acre Montgomery Botanical Garden in Coral Cables. The garden houses the largest and finest private collection of palms and cycads in the world. Today its mission includes research, conservation of rare species, and education – this week for the benefit of our band of traveling garden writers.

Small, private efforts can also have powerful roles in preserving precious places and plants. In the Redland area of Miami-Dade County, a magical place called Patch of Heaven Gardens (which I believe it truly is) preserves an old growth tropical hammock with vegetation that can be found in only a few small pockets of the world. The passionate plant-loving, art-collecting owners are also experimenting with many varieties of chocolate – acao trees – made possible by the increasingly warm winters.

It was also a privilege for me to revisit the Block Botanical Garden (reported in The Buffalo News, February 2016), developed and maintained by the indefatigable Jeffrey Block, M.D. He teaches, he explains, and he shows off his plants as if they are his children – even though they include the National Grand Champion mango tree, an ancient spiny Pink Floss Silk tree, and the country’s largest remaining “Lipstick” or “Red Sealing Wax” Palm – currently dripping with orchids. Block is also a consultant and pioneer (Nurturing Nature Group Consultants) in science-based uses of medicinal or healing plants including medical marijuana, and in reverse-osmosis watering systems that make portions of his subtropical haven possible. Phenomenal: himself and his garden.

Ag is not easy anywhere
Speaking with private gardeners, botanical garden curators and staff, as well as tropical foliage and avocado producers reminded us all of what horticulture or agriculture has in common: It is not easy, in the frigid north or the subtropical south. Buffalo-area growers use poly houses and row covers to protect plants from frost; a Southern grower uses layers of shade cloths to protect from extreme heat and sunshine – we saw thousands of square feet of covered bromeliads. Insect and disease prevention and management challenge growers everywhere, but tropical insects and fungi grow really quickly without a winter to slow them. Each region has challenges.

Weather extremes are more than challenging, sometimes crippling the agriculture and landscaping sectors, whether north or south. In Western New York in 2006 a voluminous October snow storm felled up to one-third of the area’s tree canopy. Last winter WNY greenhouses collapsed under heavy, fast-falling snow that reached depths of 7 feet in places. In Florida disasters arrive in the form of hurricanes. In Miami-Dade County and its agricultural areas (the Redland), Hurricane Andrew (1992) ruined lives and homes and destroyed businesses. Landscape professional Sylvia Gordon told garden writers her personal story – just one of many. After Andrew she had little left of her landscape design-and-build business. Her customers’ landscapes and inventory were ruined, and she had no help for rebuilding anything because the storm drove the labor force away. She reinvented herself as a small-scale grower. Then in 2005 Katrina hit hard, knocking down or destroying 95 percent of the region’s natural and landscape plants. Two months later Hurricane Wilma finished the job, taking out the remaining structures. A good thing about tropical plants: they grow back fast. But how many wipeouts can a business or its people sustain?

We garden writers, bloggers, lecturers and educators left Florida with many different stories to tell. I have visions of new plants in my head, as well as design ideas, new products and new friendships. Some of us – myself included – will write for garden blogs or magazines or newspapers, about the gardens and the plant groups. I’m eager to write about bromeliads and other epiphytes, cycads and palms, as well as the tropical flowering shrubs and vines that we use as houseplants up north. The TPIE (expo) featured some strong gardening design trends with the millennials in mind, including plants as art. Lots to share – and that is the point of traveling to see gardens and study plants.

Thank you, FNGLA (Florida Nursery, Growers, and Landscape Association) for inviting garden writers and providing an unforgettable experience. This northerner has been recharged and reinspired with all that Florida flora has to offer.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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