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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Brandies: Thriving tropical yard attracts attention

Over the past several years, a certain house around the corner began to look more and more appealing. It had always looked good, but the front began to look like a magazine photo with tropical appeal and an excellent lawn. On the outside of the back fence, sad small trees began to thrive. But it was the clusters of papaya towering way above the fence that finally got me. For a while each slim trunk sported all these fruits with no leaves at all, but then new leaves popped out on top. I had to meet whoever was making this happen and learn how. I sometimes knock on doors out of the blue. And if no one is home, I leave a note and hope they will call me. Hugh Hurst did call, and I was back with my notebook and camera in no time.
This tall, handsome fellow is from Jamaica, where anyone with a backyard fills it with fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. Right inside his gate is a loaded peach tree, rows of sugar cane and a group of tomato plants full of fruit. A ladder stood beside the loquat tree for picking. Hurst is a man who loves nature and enjoys working and watching the plants and birds, and eating the best food — homegrown. Here are is some of what I learned from him. No one will ever live long enough to learn everything about all the plants. He had some I’d never seen before. Some I knew by other names. He was especially proud of his Scotch bonnet pepper. It looks somewhat like the habanero but has a unique flavor. It’s also very hot. The papayas had lost their leaves to the wind and weather, but new ones were coming. I counted at least 35 fruits in each of the clusters. He feeds them with an organic matter from the kitchen or the garden. I knew eggshells were a good way to ward off snails, but he says they’re also good for feeding the plants, especially the tomatoes and for keeping the diseases away. We both fish banana peels out the waste basket, but he even brings them home from work. He had several figs perish out in the open garden, but the one he planted by a wall is thriving. It is, I think, partly because of the nematodes that especially like figs and the cement discourages them. It may also add some nutrient to the soil. I was happy to see Florida hostas not only surviving but blooming in the front garden. Here is a surprise: These plants we grew in the shade up north like more sun down here, at least the Florida variety does. He lost some of his at the shady end of the bed. I’m not a lawn person, but I had to notice how lush his was. He gave two important tips. Use a mulching blade and leave the mulch to feed the turf. And never cut St. Augustine grass lower than 4 inches. Young and strong, he mows his once a week in the summer with a push mower, happy to get his exercise as he gets his work done. He is also a very good gardener. Best of all, he had some weeds among his plants inside the fence. I felt ever so better. Today’s pick is the stunning Bismark palm. Hurst has four of them in his front garden. They’re very dramatic with their great fronds of greenish/silver. They grow slowly – to as high as 30 feet or more – too big for a small yard, but ideal for Hurst’s six-tenths of an acre. Give them full sun to partial shade and water daily for 30 days after transplanting. They’re expensive to buy but well worth the investment if planted in the right place. Now’s the time to ... tell you about chayotes. Hurst’s vines had been zapped to the ground but they were coming back. We used to have them, and I remember cutting them up with the other dipping vegetables at my father’s 100th birthday party. They’re also good in a stir-fry dish. Hurst says they are best cooked with meat and they take on and enhance the taste of whatever meat it is, even fish. You’ll find these at produce stands sometimes and as they sit, the seed comes out of the blossom end and then a leaf and stem. Planted in a fairly sunny spot, they’ll give you great food next fall and winter. But don’t put them in a sunny spotlight. When we had a pool, I grew them on the deck railing and they thrived, but in the summer they wilted every day between noon and 4 p.m. no matter how much water they had. It was a bit depressing to see. They do well climbing up a palm tree. I must get some more. Sometimes they’re available at produce stands. Let one or two sit until the seed pops out, and then plant them horizontally just deep enough to be covered. Upcoming event The Town & Country Garden Circle will have its 10th annual plant sale on April 20 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Jackson Springs Recreation Center, 8620 Jackson Springs Road, Tampa. This year it’s adding a Gourmet Food Truck Rally and a Gardening Expo, with vendors on hand to answer questions about your yard or plants. Some will be conducting demos of products. There will be a playground to entertain the kids. No admission charge. Come rain or shine. If you go, take your broken or dull garden tools: hoes, shovels, loppers, clippers, scissors, saws, etc. Bill Herbert and his wife, Rachel, will be fixing and sharpening throughout the day. He has done this for me and is very good and reasonable. If you can’t get to the plant sale, you can contact him at his home in Thonotosassa. Call for directions: (813) 986-1568. I see him almost every week at church at St. Francis of Assisi in Seffner and take my tools to him there. Work is much easier with sharp tools.

?Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, author and freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected] Her website is www.gardensflorida.com.

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