Top 5 Florida Gardening Mistakes

florida_gardening_ mistakesWhen someone says transplant here in Florida, we are probably more likely to think of people who have moved to Florida from another location than we are something garden related. As most of us know, and as many will find out, gardening in Florida is very different from anywhere else. I’m certain gardeners everywhere make mistakes, but no matter how experienced a gardener you may be, gardening in Florida is bound to throw you many curves.

Here are the Top 5 Florida gardening mistakes that should be avoided.


  1. Buying plants first~ This is an almost unavoidable mistake. As a gardener, I often make a detour through the garden center before making my way to my real destination, be it the Home Depot, Target, etc. By doing so I risk an unplanned purchase every time. I will ponder the placement of a potential purchase and once in a while it will actually work out fine where intended. But very often I find that for whatever reason, it’s just not a good fit. So off I go, wandering the garden, plant in hand, trying to find just the right spot. This usually has a happy ending with me finding a suitable spot, but once in a while an unfortunate specimen winds up languishing in it’s pot, waiting on a spot that may or may not open up before it either peters out completely, gets horrible looking from neglect  or just roots in place wherever I’d set it.

    The worst case of this scenario is when the gardener either sets off to the garden center and decides to purchase “enough plants” to create a garden somewhere or they simply make the decision once there. “Oh, these are pretty, I bet they’d look nice by the front door. You know nothing has ever really done well there.” So they proceed to scratch their heads and try to figure out how many plants they will need. After choosing an (often) arbitrary number of plants they set off for home. Once there they set about pulling up the old, struggling plants and set up the new purchases.Usually in a pattern determined solely by the number of plants they arbitrarily decided they needed.

    This plays out at garden centers and homes countless times and it is something that I run across in my business all the time as well. Maybe those plants will do just fine, it sometimes happens that way. But more frequently those plants that looked so perfect in their little pots grow into something entirely different than what the gardener had hoped. Sometimes they don’t do any better in that location than anything else had done. Sometimes they do too well and get completely out of hand.

    Choosing the plants should be one of the last things you do when creating a garden. You should have the spot prepared and ready to supply your plants with everything they need. You should know the conditions of the garden and then you can start selecting your plants. Once you have a handle on the plants that will (hopefully) thrive, you can make up a plant list. You will most likely use several plant varieties in most garden settings, so you should lay them out in combinations. I like to group 3 different plants, creating a little vignette. A single garden may contain several of these. You usually lay plants out in triangular grids of odd numbers.

    Choose your plants carefully, lay them out artistically and you will have a beautiful garden for years to come.

  2. Ignoring Your Site ~ Florida is a diverse climate. Conditions vary widely from north to south, east to west, county to county, town to town and even street to street. Here in Fort Myers we have several major arteries running north and south. Depending mostly on their proximity to the Caloosahatchee river, they delineate our county into several micro-climates. Furthermore, there are many pockets, either warm or cold, contained within each. Factor in other conditions such as salt, wind, rainfall, soil conditions and you have many things that can potentially impact any given plant. You may love the look of plants growing at the beach, but many may not be able to thrive in a non-beach Eco-system.  If this wasn’t enough, an individual home-site can present additional challenges to the gardener, or if one is lucky, even advantages. The southeast corner of your lot may give you just those couple of degrees of extra warmth to push the envelope a bit and successfully raise that plant which may be too tender for you neighbor to grow.

    It’s pretty much impossible to catalog all the nuances of your garden site before you start gardening there. That will only come with experience. You can get the general state of things by observing the plantings of your close neighbors and asking gardeners in your area. That will be the safest way to get started. But really, until you have been gardening at your location for at least a full year, and paying attention to every single condition that affects the garden,  you will have to wing things just a little. There are so many little things that affect plants that you will need an intimate knowledge of your garden that can only come with years of specific experience. But the more you know about your site and the better you apply that knowledge, the better your chances for a wonderful garden. Keep the bulk of your garden within safe parameters, take an occasional chance and above all, learn from your mistakes and those of others.

  3. Designing with your eyes instead of your head ~ If there’s one magic word in the world of gardening it has to be color. Of course garden centers know this and you will find displays of colorful plants prominently placed at every turn where no gardener can resist their allure. Ask about their requirements and you will no doubt be pleased to find out they are all nearly perfect in every respect and you simply could not go wrong in buying and planting these garden gems. Hmmm.

    While colorful plants certainly have a place in the garden, like any plant careful consideration should be given to their cultural requirements as well as their place in your garden. They are neither poor choices nor great choices, but their place in the garden should be granted just as with any other plant. Sure, it’s perfectly acceptable to give their consideration just a tad bit of extra weight based on their beauty. After all, that’s what we’re all after is a beautiful garden. But to base their choice solely on their beauty is a mistake.

    All plants have good attributes and lesser attributes. Planting decisions need to be based on carefully weighing those attributes. Oleanders provides us with a spectacular bloom season. However they have a pest named after them, the Oleander caterpillar. That should be a tip-off that this plant will most likely have some pest issues and boy does it ever! The Oleander caterpillar is dependent on the poisonous attributes of this plant for it’s survival. (yet another thing to factor when considering this plant) It feeds voraciously on Oleanders and will totally defoliate them some years. You can treat against this pest, but that is something that needs to be considered before planting them. A couple will be easy and inexpensive to treat while a hundred will be much more difficult and expensive.

    There are many considerations to be made when designing your garden. Color and beauty should most certainly be two of them. But it should always be remembered that each plant carries with it 3 costs;
    The cost to buy/plant it.
    The cost to maintain it.
    The cost to remove it.

    Keep in mind that any and all of these costs can make or break a gardener.

  4. Not seeing the big picture ~ I can almost sum this one up in these five words; A garden is never done. All too often a garden is considered as nothing more than a weekend project. But it is so much more than that. First of all, even a modest garden can rarely be completed in a single weekend. Considering all that a good garden can offer, why would anyone want to just throw a garden together in a weekend and then just forget it? Of course, you might try to forget it, but plants are not static fixtures like furniture. They are dynamic, living, changing things with fairly specific needs. They will change and if you haven’t chosen wisely, they can change for the worse. It is a fairly easy thing to create a garden that looks just fabulous the minute you are done. But the truth is, you may be done, but the garden is just getting started. Those seemingly perfectly spaced plants may close in on each other and if they can, they will happily smother any smaller, slower growing plants. In Florida plants can grow at rates only dreamt of in most other locales. Again, know your plants and their requirements. Never underestimate the capacity for any plant in a Florida garden to grow fast enough to consume every weekend of the rest of your life as you desperately try to keep it from overrunning your garden and maybe even your house.

    Plan for the finished product, not the “instant effect.” Take small, manageable bites rather than trying to get too large an area done at once. The benefit of this strategy is that the more time you give yourself to choose plants, the better the choices you will make. I have found over the years that when customers become serious about having a landscape done, they inevitably start to notice plants everywhere. I can usually count on someone asking about some plant at the house on the corner. The plant was always there of course, but now that their interest is piqued, a whole new world opens up. Time is the gardener’s best friend. It always has been and always will be. The big picture is quite simply the lifetime of your garden while under your care until the next gardener takes it over. It will never be done.

  5. Trying to beat Mother Nature ~ There are a lot of things that make gardening easier, but there really isn’t anything you can do to make it easy!  In my lifetime of gardening, I have seen some pretty hokey products come down the pike. The Garden Weasel, Topsy- Turvy Tomato grower, Chia-Pet. Eh, I guess the Chia-Pet isn’t really that bad.

    Certain products have preyed on the fact that there are always new people becoming gardeners and they are probably overwhelmed enough to want something that will magically make weeds disappear and keep grass from growing into their beds. Two products that have never really  lived up to their claims, yet continue to sell well over the years are landscape fabric and vinyl edging. (at least here in Florida) They’ve been around as long as I can remember and I’ve been pulling them out of garden renovations as long as I’ve been in business. There are many products that seem like a good idea but in reality don’t deliver. It takes a couple years or more until the reality of how relentless nature really is before the ineffectiveness of these products becomes apparent.  No matter how tight you stretch that fabric, no matter how well you pin it down, eventually it will wrinkle and bunch up and no amount of wrangling will make it smooth again. We may not have frost heaving here, but we sure have some pretty good gully-washers. There will be many times during a typical summer where the ground will swell to capacity after heavy rainfalls only to drain very quickly. Another factor in the fabric rising above the surface is quite simply the fact that weeds will grow very happily on top of the fabric. The mulch, whether it be organic material or stones will still collect copious amounts of organic matter in the form of grass clippings, blown soil, leaves, etc. Water drains slower through the fabric leaving this layer moist and Violá! A Custom-made hydroponic system for weeds. Weed seeds blow onto this thin, yet rich layer and germinate. Pull them and their clinging roots gleefully bring up a fistful of that landscape fabric. You can spray them, but that is how we control them in beds with or without landscape fabric. The fabric no longer offers any advantage at this point, but you will be looking at that bunched up fabric now. If you used stone mulch, you will also have to put up with dirty, messy stone that eventually can no longer be cleaned. Now it looks terrible all the time and you want to get rid of it and start over. So now the fun starts and the reality hits. That not too long ago weekend project will now take many weekends of hard labor (or great cost if you hire it out) You will also have to dispose of the stone and fabric. The dump charges by weight. As for virtually all edging, let’s just say no St. Augustine lawn worth it’s salt will have any problem jumping right over it. You will most likely end up creating a “cheat strip” and maintain the grass a few inches from the edging. If you like the look of the edging, this is perfectly acceptable. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking any edging will be able to keep healthy Floratam from quickly overrunning your beds. The rule that best applies here is If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

    The best shortcut to a low maintenance garden is to choose your elements carefully. Stone mulch may seem like it will last forever, but it quickly fills with garden debris. Not only does it become unsightly and raise a fine crop of weeds, it will be very labor intensive and expensive to remove. Choose plants that have the look you want “out of the box”. Plants that need shaping to look the way you want take a lot of work. Replacing organic mulches year after year may seem like a waste of money, but fresh mulch is the best weed deterrent there is. I favor mulches that are rich in organic matter and I like creating raised beds. The Florida growing season is long and your garden will grow very fast. You will have much better luck working with Mother Nature, than against. You will find out here in Florida, she definitely has the upper hand.

    ~I’m certain these mistakes apply to other places, but Florida is less forgiving of them. Unfortunately, it isn’t only homeowners who make these mistakes. I often run across professionally installed gardens where the homeowner finds after the 3-5 year reality check has transpired, they have a nearly unmanageable mess. It pays to think ahead and know that the Florida garden is completely different than virtually any other place on Earth.

    Happy Gardening!

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