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Garden Diary: 2016 - The Experimental Garden Year in Review

2016 was the first full year I had in this space, and as the year comes to an end, I'm looking back on my triumphs, tragedies and what I've learned from this tiny garden. With less than 300 sf to work with, no money to speak off, horrible soil and problems with sun and shade, the learning curve was steep, but I mucked along in my own "do or die" way and had a few triumphs.

Traditional Veggies Were a Bust, but Tropical Veggies Thrived

When I moved here, I had grand plans for growing veggies, but lack of sun quashed that idea, and I ended up getting very little by the way of traditional veggies at all. I did get a few tomatoes, but vowed never to grow them again. HA! I have tomatoes out there growing right now, and the Cherokee Purple and SuperSweet 100 have blooms and a couple of fruits, while the Everglades seedlings both in and out of the ground are doing well. I think the secret is in finding the right time of year to plant them, and moving them to a spot that gets more afternoon sun in the winter.

Some things that seemed to be doing well disappointed, like the Seminole pumpkin which grew a twenty-foot vine that only produced one fruit and died before the fruit could mature. I have it indoors now, trying to see if it will ripen in a sunny window, but I don't hold out much hope. The sweet potatoes grew beautiful vines, but when I went to dig them, I found no potatoes at all.

The big triumph so far of this year was that the banana tree bore fruit. It may turn out to be a tragedy, since the fruit is still in danger of freezing, and isn't mature enough to pick yet.

Another triumph was the pigeon pea,which gave me a decent amount of peas last year, but has grown to over 10 feet tall and  is loaded this year, along with a baby tree I planted from seed this past spring which is 6 feet tall and heavy with peas. Unfortunately, I have discovered I'm not too crazy about pigeon peas, so I'll only grow them as chop-and-drop material and to attract pollinators and give the peas away.

Non-traditional edibles, like edible hibiscus, taro, xanthasoma and Florida spinach (talinum fruticosum) grew exceptionally well, while traditional leaf vegetables like collards and lettuce struggled.

Bees and Butterflies

Last winter, a monarch decided to lay eggs on my milkweed, and one of the larvae pupated on one of the last remaining milkweed leaves. Luckily, it was in a pot, so I ended up bringing it inside during cold snaps to save it, and it finally hatched in early spring. Reading that they would return to their same breeding grounds the next year, I planted more milkweed, and sure enough, one lone monarch returned and laid her eggs. I had about a dozen or more larvae, with half already growing to maturity and going off to find a place to build their cocoons and the others still munching happily along. I don't see any cocoons yet, but I still may find one.

This year, I had many more butterflies and pollinators visit, as they discovered my little patch of flowers. Sulfur butterflies are frequent visitors, and the Cassia bicapsularis I grew from cuttings last year will be planted this year for them to eventually lay eggs on. My favorite butterfly this year, and one that did me the most good, was a tiny little long-tailed skpper who pollinated my butterfly weed so it would make seeds. I also saw a few gulf frittilaries, so I'm going to try to find a passion vine for them to breed on.

On the bee front, a couple of carpenter bees lay claim to my pigeon pea, and chased off many an intruder on their bountiful find. Native bees also loved the pigeon pea, and I had a couple of varieties of those gathering pollen. When the marigolds burst forth with bloom in early fall, there were all sorts of bees and other insects on them. In November, I made my first honeybee sighting, which thrilled me, because there are so many trees around here where they could build hives. I'm hoping to see more in 2017. There was a large cicada killer wasp that came around, but my paper wasps never built a nest, because my neighbor kept spraying them whenever they tried.

Beneficials and Baddies

My Confederate Rose (Hibiscus mutabilis) struggled this year, due to a horrible infestation of whitefly. I fought as hard as I could, but finally gave up the fight and decided to just use systemic insecticide next year. Then, one day, I noticed a ladybug on a leaf, and discovered that she had laid eggs and the larvae were munching happily on the whitefly eggs and larvae. The plant was too far gone for them to do much good, but they cleaned it up rather well, and I'm sure they will be back next year to keep it clean. Therein lies the dilemma, though. If I treat it with systemics, there will be nothing for them to eat, and they may actually be killed. Luckily, the butterfly weed has a ton of aphids, and they seem to be migrating to those, so maybe they'll be o.k.

I fought a bad infestation of army worms on my Brugmansia (angel trumpet) plants this year, going out every evening and every morning to pull them off and drown them. I'm sure they'll be back next year, so I'm prepared to do battle once again. Luckily, the brugs survived to burst forth in a glorious display of blooms in the fall.

I've learned a lot from gardening in this space this year, and although I had some failures, I know what to do and not to do in 2017 now, so the experiment continues with more flowers and a dedicated butterfly garden in the future.My plan is to strip the gardens and start all over, so Subscribe to The Consummate Gardener by Email for more adventures to come!