A Touch of the Tropics

Last Year's Garden this Year


by Derek Burch and Ellen West Demmy

Pest or prize, weeds or welcome returns, there are garden plants everywhere that blindly spread their seeds. Nature is kind to some, guarding them until the next growing season.

The strength of Florida's gardens, particularly in the south of the state, has always been the wealth of broad-leaved evergreens. They make up not only a backdrop, but are major players in the picture with their rich palette of size and form and texture, and even colour.


In the extreme south, and to a certain extent in Central Florida, annuals were seen as being "difficult," and.because our seasons were backwards with annuals used for winter bedding,this was reinforced by the problem of obtaining seed in good condition at the correct time for planting. The seed supplies were the forgotten packets in the garden stores, packed for sowing in "Spring 19xx," that we would have to hope had maintained vitality through the hot humid summers (no air conditioning then) as we planted them in the fall of 19xx or even the winter/early spring of 19xx +1!

The seed companies have learned now, and so have we, that many more annuals than anyone had realised can actually be persuaded to perform for most of our year. Seed and plants are readily available now, and many gardeners have embraced the opportunity to go for changing, colourful displays for many months. The beauty and the utility of the woody material is still there, but it is complemented and accented by the wider use of bedding plants.

Even more recently there has been a softening of the appearance of the private gardens of people who have grown tired of the tight masses of carpet bedding, and have moved on to a more billowing effect from their annuals and perennials. The look has been described as "the American cottage garden" or more grandly as "bold romantic gardens." It does not fit with the straight lines of foundation planting, or raked bare soil under bareshanks sheared shrubs, but rather tends to rounded beds with smooth flowing curves, which often replace some of the barren lawn area. It goes along with labor-saving ideas, and brings a more relaxed approach to gardening with less bondage to strict deadheading and weed removal, and tearing out and replacing a planting as soon as it begins to look tired.

A part of this style of gardening is the realization that not only weeds, but our own plants can produce seeds, and may self-sow to give us repeated crops through the season, and even year after year. The more controlled style of gardening would make no distinction between conventional weeds and these determined colonisers. It would be "off with their heads," for all of them, but in the more relaxed approach to what grows where, these surprise renewals can be quite acceptable, or even wonderful!

We have learned, from chance seeding, how the powder blue of ageratums both softens and intensifies the harsh colours of a mixed bed of some of the larger growing pentas. The same blue ageratum gives an astonishing combination with the chartreuse of a planting of Golden Wizard coleus or Margarita sweet potato. We also learnt by accident what skilled gardeners have probably known for years: which is that Cosmos bipinnatus will lift themselves above a low planting of impatiens or verbena to give an ethereal depth to the combination.

Be warned, however, that these reseeders have no manners, and grow wherever they fall or are dispersed by their cunning parents.. On the other hand there is an automatic screening that fits precisely the principles of xeriscape gardening: if the water relation of a particular spot does not suit the needs of the plant, it simply will not grow. If only all the precepts of integrated landscape management and "smart plants" all the other "new" gardening programs were as easy to meet!

Gardening with this relaxed approach to what is going to be in the garden does require its own set of rules; first and foremost, decide how much control you wish or need to exert; learn to recognise plants in their early seedling stage of growth; become ruthless in moving or destroying those plants which are absolutley out of place (do this early, before the beginning of flowering weakens your resolve); and, finally, bend all these rules if necessary and enjoy the surprises that come from the ultimate mixed packet of seeds that was last year's garden.

This article was first published in 'Proceedings of the Florida State Horticultural Society' 108: 104,105. 1996 and is reproduced here with thanks.

On to a list of plants that reseed in Florida gardens

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