Growing Northern Plants – By Mark Govan, Host of “Florida Gardening”

Gardeners from throughout the country have moved to Florida and found the diversity of plants grown here to be lacking. What they found to be lacking are the plants they grew up with are not grown here. Floridahas a tropical climate and many of the plants grown here are beautiful but they are not the plants they grew up with. Because we long to grow plants we are familiar with, many of us bring Northern plants here and plant them. Some of us order through catalogs or go online to find plants and then order and plant these in our gardens. This can be fun or it can be costly if the plants do not survive. Some plants may do fine in our environment unfortunately, some do not. For many of us this is the fun part, experimenting with plants to see which plants will grow and which plants will not.

            However, in practical terms, knowing the right place to plant your tree or shrub is as important as knowing what plant or tree you are planting. Whether or not you bring a new plant here from a Northern state or purchase a plant locally, you need to know its growth habits. This week I am going to tell you a few stories that I experienced which may amuse you. I am also going to give you some information of where to find out which plants grow the best in Central Florida and which do not. The stories I am telling you are true and may be the reason I felt the need to learn more about plants and their environment. I hope you will enjoy these stories as much as I had experiencing them.  

            Several years ago I received a tropical flower arrangement from a friend.  This arrangement of tropical’s had some of the most unusual flowers. Proteas, Hibiscuses, the Bird of Paradise, and other tropical flowers filled the vase along with several long cuttings of Pussy Willows. These long cuttings brought back memories of the Pussy Willows I grew back in Michigan. Knowing these plants do not grow here gave me an idea. I think I will root them and grow some here! To my surprise my cuttings did root and grew large enough for me to plant outside in the shade. These plants lasted two years growing right here in Largo, FL before they finally died but the pleasure I got from that gift was immense! Now, whenever I send flowers to a friend or loved I ask the florist what types of tropical or unusual flowers they currently have. Then I will select the tropicals I want in the arrangement. Most florists will work with you and your budget in order to send your loved ones something they normally would not see. Some of the arrangements which I have selected flowers for turned out beautiful and I thank the florist for his or her skill in putting them together.  

            Being able to grow a plant that was not supposed to grow here made an impression on me. No longer will I arbitrarily tell someone not to plant a plant here because someone says it will not grow here I say, give it a try! Many plants will grow here but maybe they will not bloom or they may not take the summer heat but trying is fun. If you have a plant you have always wanted to grow here and you do not know if the plant will work, try it! At very least call and ask me or maybe one of the Master Gardeners at the county extension office if they have ever tried to grow the plant you like, but beware. My following stories will relate experiences which will give you a reason why some plants should not be grown here or in certain areas.

            Colorful blossoms are very attractive especially when you find a plant that requires little work and flowers several times per year. For the experienced gardener or novice gardener there is one plant you should try and that is the bougainvillea. I was first introduced to this wonderful plant many years ago and I grew it in my backyard. Although, my plant was a common red variety, I allowed it to grow unrestrained by pruning. What a mistake. In a short period of time this beautiful small flowering vine had transformed itself into a what my wife referred to as “The Claw” reaching out with its thorns to hook or grab anything or anybody venturing to close to its base. Without regular pruning, this plant had grown nine feet tall and fifteen feet wide. With the rest of the garden in jeopardy I knew I had to do something. This is when I learned about pruning and proper plant placement.

            Have you ever regretted planting a small plant that someone gave you? I had a tiny attractive looking plant that came to me as a gift in a little terrarium. I remember planting this small soft-leaved plant right next to the house. This plant looked like a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree and I knew it just needed a little care to grow. I decided to plant the tree in the ground outside so I gave the plant the site it needed. A protected place about eighteen inches away from the foundation of the home would be its new home. The tree loved its new area and did well over the next couple of years. One day a friend of mine, Gil Whitton, told me the name of that poor little plant. The plant was called a Norfolk Island Pine tree. The tree was twenty five feet tall and going when I finally had it removed. Had I not removed the tree, the tree could have grown to a height of over fifty feet and the root system could have damaged the homes foundation. Remember, right plant right place.

            I remember another time I had given my wife a cute little plant while she was in the hospital. This plant had a few different plants in the pot. One plant was an ornamental and the other was an Ivy plant. They both grew nicely in the pot and when they got too big for the pot I decided to plant them outside. I had a screen porch and I figured I would plant the ornamental plant just outside the walkway leading up to the door of the porch. I had seen this plant before inside people’s homes and I figured it would grow to about four to six feet in height. In three years time this plant grew vigorously. When the plant was taller than the peak of my roof and the door of my screened in porch could no longer open, I identified the plant as a ficus benjamina. Ficus have massive root systems which are intrusive to plumbing systems and foundations. This tree should never have been planted so close to the home. Finally, I called a tree service which removed the tree. Unfortunately, ficus trees are resilient even to being cut down. This tree continued to send up new spouts from the base and tried to re-grow. I fought the tree sprouts with pruning shears and chemicals. Finally, I won and the tree died. 

            With a little help from a few books I have used over the years, many of the questions above could have been answered. My favorite book and the one I use regularly is called Landscape Plants for Subtropical Climates by Dehgan. This book and another called Florida Landscape Plants by Watkins and Sheehan are a must buy for any Florida Gardener. These two books contain the best information regarding the plants used by homeowners in Central Florida. Both books are divided into sections such as Vines, Palms, Ground Covers, Shrubs, etc… Each plant depicted in these books include a complete breakdown of that plants growth habits, blooming characteristics, temperature requirements, and, description with photo.       

            For those of you needing additional plants and information I recommend choosing 500 Plants for South Florida by Morton. While there is not as much information about each plant in this book as the ones listed above, you can be assured that all the plants in this book will do well in your garden. If you need to learn about the identification and certain uses of landscape plants and trees or if you are a student looking for a text to help you with woody landscape plants then you need the “Bible” Know it Grow it II by Carl E. Whitcomb, Ph.D.

            With the use of the internet or other online sources books seem to be going by the side of the road. I hope that you will take some time to visit a bookshop and review the books I have listed for you. These books have given me years of enjoyment and when the power goes out they are still there. Look to these sources to help you find the Right Plant for the Right Place. Good luck and remember, without plants we would not be here. 

2 thoughts on “Growing Northern Plants – By Mark Govan, Host of “Florida Gardening”

  1. what should Ii do to make my hibisuc strong and flower a lot. so pretty,

    1. Mark Govan says:

      Hibiscus trees flower on new growth so the best way to improve the flowering is to fertilize your plants lightly once a month with a good quality fertilizer like and 8-10-10. Don’t overdue it or your plant will only grow but not flower! Good Luck!

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