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Colorful hedges brighten dull gardens

Below: Hawaiian ti plants (Cordyline terminalis) spaced 1 to 2 feet apart to create an eye-catching row of living exclamation points boasting brilliant magenta, pink and burgundy tones. They root very easily from cuttings just stuck in the ground each summer. Their colors are richest in full sun and damp, mulched soil.

JOHN A. STARNES JR. | Special to the Times

Below: Hawaiian ti plants (Cordyline terminalis) spaced 1 to 2 feet apart to create an eye-catching row of living exclamation points boasting brilliant magenta, pink and burgundy tones. They root very easily from cuttings just stuck in the ground each summer. Their colors are richest in full sun and damp, mulched soil.

Lack of color is a constant complaint among gardeners. How can it be that in Florida — our "land of flowers" — we can spend a fortune on annuals and perennials and still end up with a landscape the color of split pea soup? • The two main sources of that drab greenness are lawns and hedges. Grass is green, there is nothing we can do about that . . . but hedges can be sources of bright, cheery colors. Imagine replacing those boring ligustrums, pittosporums and junipers with boldly flowering, colorful shrubs and tropical perennials. • If you wait until the summer rains return, and keep an eye out for sales of those choice plants, you can reinvent a dull yard with brilliant colors, yet not bludgeon the budget.

An icon of tropical Florida is the hibiscus; it boasts a dazzling array of flower forms in every color except true blue and purple. (Those tones are being closely approached by breakthrough breeder Curt Sinclair at www.exotichibiscus.com.) Few shrubs grow more quickly and easily here, defying drought well once they are established and bouncing back quickly after rare freezes.

Years ago I helped my Davis Islands clients Larry and Donna Bevis create a hassle-free colorful hedge. They bought plants in colors they liked, on sale in 1-gallon pots, spaced them 3 feet apart, and planted them 3 inches deeper than they grew in the pots. Then they mulched the bushes with chipped tree trimmings.

In a year's time the hedge graced a formerly drab slab of their yard with a lovely blend of colors that says "Florida!" loud and clear. One hard pruning each spring, plus the four feedings they give their yard annually, are all it takes for stellar performance.

These hibiscuses are among the very few plants in their yard that have not suffered sad declines since the Bevises signed up for recycled water, which can contain plant-damaging levels of chlorine and sodium. Watch at the garden centers: At this time of year 1-gallon hibiscus plants go on sale for as little as $2 to $4 each.

Azalea: clouds of color

To those who insist we have no change of seasons here, I say: "Behold the Indica azaleas," also sometimes called Formosa azaleas. We've all seen these husky, low-care azaleas create head-turning monoliths of color in older neighborhoods. They love our naturally acidic soil and can thrive in both full sun and quite heavy shade.

The dwarf azaleas that so often disappoint us with their wimpy growth are bred from species that require more winter chill than our climate affords; they are better suited to North Florida. But the southern Indica hybrids love it here. (Go figure: They were originally bred in Belgium in the 1840s.)

The azaleas create a hedge that bursts into lovely tones of pink, white, burgundy, salmon and magenta just as the robins make their spring migration through here. Look for these varieties on sale in 1- and 2-gallon pots: 'Gerbing' (white), 'Formosa' (lavender pink), 'Red Formosa,' 'George Tabor' (white and red), 'Duc De Rohan' (salmon).

These plants' needs are simple. Mulch around them each spring with a layer of oak leaves 6 to 8 inches thick. Feed them each spring and fall with an organic soil food like menhaden fish meal or Calf Manna from a feed store, or a balanced quality chemical fertilizer with trace elements (I use Sunniland Palm 8-6-6). Prune them only after they have flowered, up until early July, to avoid thwarting their bloom phase the following spring. Or just let them billow into their graceful lusty fullness, perfect for an informal landscape.

Suit landscapes to a ti

Want your landscape to exude a truly tropical elegance and grace? Indulge in Hawaiian ti plants (Cordyline terminalis), spaced 1 to 2 feet apart to create an eye-catching row of living exclamation points in brilliant magenta, pink and burgundy tones. They root very easily from cuttings just stuck in the ground during summer. A few specimens purchased on sale (or cuttings from a friend) can quickly lend colorful splendor to a drab landscape. Their colors are richest with full sun and damp, mulched soil, though light shade still permits very bold tones.

They are amazingly drought-tolerant, bounce back quickly after a freeze, and seem virtually immune to bugs and disease. I've seen them fail and die only when they grew in chronically soggy soil. As you shop for this gem, keep in mind that many varieties have been bred, so you can use your yard as an artist's canvas and go wild with color.

Groovy, kids

Are you a child of the '60s and '70s like me? Then use crotons to create a truly trippy hedge of crazy colors and surrealistic leaf forms in place of boring green bushes. They come in spotted and striped combos of mixed hues, or starkly bright single shades. Spaced 2 to 3 feet apart, crotons create a splash of psychedelic splendor, yet they're very undemanding. You'll find them inexpensively priced in 1-gallon pots. They're easy to root in summer from 6-inch cuttings stuck into damp soil.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

Colorful hedges brighten dull gardens 05/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2008 4:31am]
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