Front Garden Update 2008-9


In addition to doing a full-on edible garden this season, we are also re-vamping the front garden, which is way overdue.

First, the bed between the front windows used to be planted to ‘Tricolor’ Sweet Potatoes, which are lovely but had reverted to all-green.  Still beautiful plants, but we wanted more color here.  A trip to Living Color Nursery in Fort Lauderdale yielded a whole new bed, which only took a couple of hours to plant once the potatoes were lifted.  Around forty sweet, starchy tubers were a nice bonus. 

Two notes – first about reversion of variegated plants to green.  Variegation occurs as a genetic mutation in nature, but usually reverts back very quickly because green is the leaf color that produces photosynthesis (due to the chlorophyll, which is where the green comes from).  Any variegation away frtom green, therefore, results in a weaker leaf that produces less photosynthesis, which is what feeds the plant.  So a variegated leaf is not the best thing in the eyes of nature.  Variegated strains survive in cultivation because someone saw the sport (plant or leaf), liked it, and propagated it vegetatively.  Even so, a variegated plant must be watched closely, because if you turn your back on it for long, it may revert.  This is happening with my variegated Chinese Privet in the front garden after several years, and happened with the ‘Tricolor’ Sweet Potatoes within just two or three.  The Privet has entire branches that are green and I have to cut these back all the way to the trunk every couple of months now to keep it under control.  Or I could pull it out, plant a new one, and see how long I can ignore it before it does the same…

Note number two – all Sweet Potatoes are edible, even the ornamental ones.  They just were bred more for their leaf shpes and colors than for their tubers, so are often much starchier and drier than the ones you get in the grocery store.  They may not behave quite the same when baked, so you may need to experiment with them.  They seem to microwave better than they bake.  Haven’t tried boiling them yet.  The grocery store orange ones tend to turn to mush quickly when boiled, and are best baked.  Baking brings out their sweet flavor better than microwaving because the sugars carmelize. (The leaves can also be cooked as greens, but this will reduce the number of tubers you get.)

We planted the bed with some Aloysia (sold to us by Searle Brothers as a dwarf Buddleia, but actually related to Lemon Verbena – this variety has similar but smaller flowers to Aloysia virgata, the Sweet Almond Verbena, but the flowers and leaves are smaller, and the foliage is glossy rather than hairy – the flowers have the same wonderful sweet scent that carries in the evening but is not overpowering – this is a more refined plant than its larger cousin) as the larger shrubs, plus pink Pentas, native prostrate Porterweed, some magenta Periwinkles and Portulacas, blue Walking Irises, and lime ‘Margarita’ Sweet Potatoes, which like ‘Blackie’ and other alternative-colored sweet potatoes, will not revert to green.  Their leaf color is constant and not a variegation.  Above and below are pictures taken soon after planting and before the plants filled in.  I have since planted a couple of groundcover peanuts to fill in some of the space at the front as well.

A note about Living Color Nursery: They have a wonderful selection and the prices are good, but someone in a managerial position on the staff is not very customer-friendly.  I went with friends and together we got a really large number of plants – we stuffed a big pickup bed to the gills and spent hundreds of dollars. We were told when we bought them that they should all last a long time.  We told them we needed a low-maintenance selection of plants and these they said would fill the bill.  Within a couple of weeks, some purple verbenas (similar to bonariensis but stockier) we bought all died at once.  My friend called and was told by this person that those were seasonal and it was now too hot for them.  She let them know that between us we had bought around twenty of them and had been assured they should last much longer.  Mind you, this friend is a very mild, sweet person, who would never be antagonistic.  The nursery person was very nasty about it, gave no recourse, and no offer to refund or replace anything. Basically she said we should have known better – when we were told differently by their staff. This is not the kind of service you go to an independent nursery and pay their prices for!  So except for the few things I noticed they had that I hadn’t seen anywhere else, I won’t be going there again.  That means a fair amount of money they’ve lost, since I spend big when I go plant shopping, and I made sure to tell my friends.  For shame, Living Color!

On to the Rose and Perennial Court and the Mound.  These were very tired and overgrown, so we had the lawn service do a lot of clearing out.  This left lots of gaps, which meant lots of room for new plants! Since the Back garden is mainly for edibles, and the butterfly area there was getting more shade than was good for it from the fruit trees, it made sense to relocate the butterfly garden to the east (front) side of the Rose and Perennial Court.  We planted Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, Milkweed, Ruellias, Goldenrod, and a pink-flowered Jatropha there, and it I snow constantly buzzing with butterflies and bees.  The hummingbirds will find things here to please them as well, though the red Firespike and orange Clerdendron in the back stayed where they were because of their size, and we have already seen the hummingbirds back there again this year.  They also like Porterweed – even the blue-flowered one, which reseeds in both areas.

The Mound already had a Malabar Chestnut, a ‘Vietnam’ Pomegranate, a Grumichama, two magenta-flowered Azaleas, a red Camellia, a purple Beautyberry, a pink-flowered hybrid and a white-flowered Crinum, lots of purple Ruellias, some Blood Lilies, a large Philodendron, several nice Bromeliads, a salmon Mussaenda and a couple of Roses, but there were also too many things there and some were not delivering the color we wanted.  The climbing ‘Old Blush’ had been sited at a corner with the idea of its being trained over an arch that never materialized, so instead it kept growing over the sidewalk, presenting a hazard for pedestrians with its long, thorny arms dangling at face level.  The flowers shattered when cut, so it was never useful in arrangements, and it had very little scent.  So we decided it had to go.  Still there are a ‘Maggie’ and an ‘Abraham Darby’ Rose. We planted a Barbados Cherry and a Cherry of the Rio Grande on the North side, a Lemongrass, a Citronella Grass, a white-flowered Cat’s Whiskers and a Jamaican Pea Bush with pink flowers on the South side across from the Rose and Perennial Court, underplanting these with thornless Crown of Thorns (quite pretty, with large orange-red flowers and dark wine stems).  The entire East and South sides also got an edging of ‘Blackie’ Sweet Potatoes, a favorite of mine.  The SW corner now has a groundcover Russellia with orange tube flowers – totally different from the bushy/weepy type.  This one has small, glossy, arrow-shaped leaves and tendrils that crawl along the ground.  You can now actually walk up to the Pomegranate and pick its fruit.

Back (W) side of mound

In the Rose and Perennial Court, there were some underperforming roses that we bit the bullet and ripped out ('Nachitoches Noisette', 'Cecile Brunner' and 'Erfurt'). We replaced the Thryalis, which had gotten woody, and planted three Goldenrods, a Blue Flag Iris, a Bog Sage, a Beach Sunflower, red Ruellias, three Necklace Pods (the soft, fuzzy kind), five Bulbine caulescens with yellow and orange flowers, four groundcover Peanuts, a blue Spiderwort, and a Jacquemontia vine as a groundcover. There are some gaps left, which I would like to put Roses in, as well as some blue Walking Irises and maybe some Teletherenia. Still need to replace the double Clittoria terneata that grew in the square pot next to the Privet.  Then the beds will be the way I like them – stuffed to the gills with perennials, no weed problems, just gorgeous abundance!  And it will last years, too.

We hired a friend to enrich and mulch the entire garden, front and back, and he did a wonderful job.  Lawn services are often too busy and they will charge an arm and a leg, so I met our friend at Home Depot on two different mornings, rented the truck and filled it with mulch, organic compost, and Black Kow manure and drove to my place with it.  Frustrating, since I used to be able to do this myself, but it is sure worth paying to avoid the many migraines it would have cost me otherwise.  Those pills are $20 apiece!

East side of Rose and Perennial Court, before all new plantings were made

We still need to add a few plants to the area Behind the Wall – we will be shopping for these in the next couple of weeks – and take up the pot to re-do the stones spilling out.  Someday I would love to put a recirculating bubbler inside the pot – maybe in the spring… 


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