Picking the right plants for your home garden

A well planned garden’s success can be measured by its ability to
give the illusion of naturalness. Evolving over a timeline measured in weeks,
months and years, it is the perfect contrast to the dynamic balance plants in
the wild achieve.

And while Cayman may well be a
tropical paradise, that doesn’t mean gardening doesn’t pose its challenges. But
it’s reassuring to know that from the simple task of deciding on a look for
your garden to the more complex decisions involving what plants to pick, a
little homework goes a long way.

“Spare yourself disappointment
right from the beginning by figuring out what kind of environment you are
planting in,” says Heinrich Lindhart of Power Flower.

“A basic question, for example, is
whether the garden is inland or next to the ocean.”

Location will have an immediate
effect on wind and salt exposure, water table heights, soil composition and
when it comes to the plants, root systems; all of which will impact the kind of
plants that will thrive in the garden.

Of course you should pick plants
that you find appealing, though choosing a good mix of plants for looks and
plants with lasting power will ensure at least part of your garden will endure
over the long term.

A number of plant nurseries are
joining the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and the Department of Agriculture
in offering a range of plants native to the Cayman Islands. Incorporating an
attractive selection of these tough survivors into your garden, considering
they are not only well adapted to the climate but Cayman’s particular types of
pests, is a no-brainer.

And that’s not even the best reason
for planting them. They play an integral part in Cayman’s heavily stressed
ecosystem, hosting and feeding the Island’s native creatures. Adding interest
to a border with a spiky Old George or two, a plant so threatened it may soon
be gone for good if not for the efforts of gardeners and preservationists,
could be the ultimate act of Cayman guerrilla gardening.

Facing the elements

Picking plants also means taking
weather into consideration.

“Facing a hurricane season every
year you should be looking into low, medium and high wind tolerance, which a
landscape designer can assist with,” says Lindhart.

“Definitely pruning is very
important,” says Lindhart.

For example a coconut can have
hundreds of pounds of mass of weight in dead fronds. If you remove a lot of the
weight you give the trees a chance to withstand a storm.

The Atlantic storm seasons
culminating in the big years of 2004 (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne) and
2005 (Dennis, Katrina,Rita and Wilma), provided a perfect opportunity to show
which plants were more storm-resistant than others.

It also gave landscapers the chance
to note how well plants fared in high winds depending on how and where they
were growing.

Research collected by author Pamela
Crawford found some obvious trends. While not much can be done about a direct
hit from a hurricane’s eye, a distance of just a few miles can make a huge
difference in the damage done to plants.

Collaborating with landscapers and
researchers, she found Casuarinas, now proliferating in Cayman, were toppling
in winds as low as 50 mph. Other trees, like the pygmy date palm, make it
through Category 5 hits with nary a scratch. But not all lessons are remembered.
Crawford found that in the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, downed ficus trees
in south Florida caused more damage than any other species, many of them
planted after Hurricane Andrew demonstrated their vulnerability in the Miami
area in 1991.

Cayman considerations

But there are a lot of other
factors determining which plants are right for your garden.

Sun and shade matter a lot as many
plants will wither or worse if they have too much or too little sun.

On his Plantation House blog,
Cayman eco-toursim pioneer Joel Walton notes that leafy vegetables such as
lettuce and swiss chard are happy with two to three hours of daily sunlight
(preferably morning sun), while vegetables that produce root-crop such as
beetroot and turnip can get by with three to four hours of direct sun daily,
preferring dappled mid-day and afternoon shade.

Generally, vegetables that produce
flowers and fruit such as tomatoes and eggplant require more than six hours of direct
sunlight daily. Yam and cassava and Mediterranean leafy herbs such as rosemary
and sage are notable exceptions.

Cayman’s dry season also means it’s
worth sticking to plants that can handle, or even thrive on, long periods
without water, unless you are you prepared to use irrigation.

Lindhart also notes having a
fantastic lawn is no easy task.

“With all the bugs we have here, it
is actually not easy to grow grass,” he says.

“As with any type of monocrop it is
more susceptible to pests and other issues.”

But if grass is a must, Lindhart
says it’s important to not over fertilise or over water.

“Try to leave it higher during dry
spells as condensation collects overnight, which helps keep it moist,” says
Lindhart.

“Zoysia you can shear down but you
can let it go, St. Augustine you want to keep at two to three inches.”

But all kinds attract different
bugs, which can cut the roots or stress the grass in other ways.

“Grass also is very expensive, $2
per square foot, or more, add in delivery and installation,” he says.

He notes however that
environmentally friendly insecticides are available on Island.

Groundwork

In Cayman many properties are built
on fill, which provides an inhospitable starting point for many plants.

That means gardeners looking for
long-term success need to create proper flower beds that contain good quality
soil. These differ from raised beds or grow boxes as they allow growers to more
closely manage their plants, in particular food crops.

An easy way to build up topsoil
quality is through compost.

“We make our compost out of garden
debris,” says Lindhart, who has built a series of circular compost pens in an
out of the way section of his garden from stakes and garden netting.

The heaps are turned from time to
time as they “cook” for several weeks until they are ready.

“It costs almost nothing to make a
compost heap, just don’t put meat in there and you should not have problems
with pests,” says Heinrich. Dog and cat feces are also a no-no though a small
amount of manure is fine.

Finding materials for your compost
heap can be as easy as asking your local landscape company for shredded debris
and adding in kitchen scraps, ensuring there is a good mix of browns and
greens.

“Despite what you may think, when
planting your garden, you should not just dig a big hole and fill it with pure
soil,” says Lindhart.

“You actually need to mix the soil
with the marl, at a ratio of half and half or even only one third good soil.
That will make the plant, in particular if it is a larger plant like a tree
that will keep growing bigger and bigger, much more stable. You can do what is
possible to make the hole extra large and you need to make sure that when
planting, you don’t leave any air pockets below the surface, which would cause
the roots to die.”

If planting a single tree, Lindhart
advises building a small berm around the area covered by its crown (the
distance its branches extend outward), which will keep water from running off
when it rains.

“When you water, water deep and
less frequently,” he says. “That will make the water descend, and it will
encourage the roots to go down and increase stability instead of growing along
the surface. It will also keep the water from evaporating too quickly.”

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