Monday, December 22, 2008

Plants and all that green stuff

When we first moved into our house and I inspected my new garden, I was overwhelmed to say the least. My previous backyards ran the entire gamut from 3 acres with wild bush and wiry grass at Pigeon Lake to a tiny Ontario suburban backyard in a new development with no vegetation whatsoever.

And now I was standing in my new backyard which had enough different plants to make even an experienced gardener's head spin. But that's not what scared me - it was the fact that other than something that looked remotely like a fern, I had no idea what any of these plants were called, or how to take care of them. Of course I recognised the palm trees, but what did I really know about palm trees? I laugh now, but when we moved in, the palm trees had a lot of dead leaves on them, and I was convinced they were dying, until I learned that they were just dropping the old leaves as the new ones were growing....you never see these things in resorts, where plants always look immaculate and frozen in time, as it were.

Speaking of - I think a lot of people, myself included, have this notion that on a tropical island things just sort of grow by themselves. With sun and plenty of rain, how could things not grow by themselves? In fact, a beautiful tropical garden is a lot of work, and that not just 4 months of the year but 12 months.... Why is that, you wonder? Well, FIRST of all, heat and humidity create the ideal environment for bugs and various types of pests, some of which are actually works of art themselves, as you can see below.

Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race


These caterpillars can eat an entire bush in about two days, and I know that because I literally watched them make quick work of a large leaf in less than 20 minutes. They seemed to multiply just as quickly, and so I was a bit torn between admiring these fascinating and beautiful creatures and hoping to find a way to make them go away. Looking at one up close, they actually look hand painted, and reminded me of the song 'God must have spent a little more time on you'. Alas, my fascination had its limits, and in the end I decided I liked my (intact) shrubbery more than the caterpillars...

SECOND - not only is the growing season 12 months of the year (although things do slow down in the winter months when there is less rain), but plants also grow faster down here, I swear.

I was pretty oblivious to this when I first contacted some nurseries about a regular garden service. The idea of paying someone to do my garden seemed a little foreign to me at first, but I warmed up to it when I realised that my tropical garden knowledge was a bit like my knowledge of computers - just enough to do a lot of damage.

So I heeded the advice and invited several nurseries to view the garden and quote on a regular service. I was having a conversation with one of them about planting new fica bushes, and I asked him how long it would take to grow to full height (about 6 feet). He thought for a while and then, with a tone not unlike a doctor trying to break bad news gently, advised me that I shouldn't expect too much, as this would take a fairly long time. My Canadian brain heard "a fairly long time" and converted this into about 3-4 years. Still, that seemed pretty reasonable to me. He laughed when I told him what I thought, and said, oh no, I was talking more like one year. I couldn't believe it, but as I thought about it, it made sense, because growing season never really stops here!

In some ways I am in heaven - I like garden work, and living down here means that I never have to stop gardening. And you even get a bit of a break in the winter when things don't grow at break-neck speeds. Having said that, you never get a full break from gardening - you know, the snow kind of break where you can sit inside and not feel guilty about not working outside...but I don't mind.

So what exactly do I have in my yard, you wonder? Here is a little selection.

Ficas

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The fica hedges I wrote about earlier look a lot like the Alpine Currant hedges we have in Canada (maybe they even are the same). I just planted some new ones and am going to see how long they take to grow... They are very common down here, and almost exclusively used for hedging. Curiously, front fencing is not as common here, as there are bylaws limiting the height of front fences to about four feet. This is based on the traditional Cayman style of fencing whereby the house and yard are supposed to be visible, and I think it also has to do with the fact that at one time this was a very small community, where people socialised and looked out for each other. This rule does not seem to apply to hedging, such as fica hedges or oleanders, which can grow quite high in many places.

Travelling Palms
I first thought these were fan palms, because of their shape, but learnt that they are called travelling palms because they literally travel the ground as they grow, with new shoots starting continuously. Here is a picture of a smaller one, followed by a palm that has obviously been there much longer - see what I mean?

Cardboard Boat Race

Cardboard Boat Race

The gardener I eventually hired for a while thought we were crazy to like the second palm the way it was, as it looked so awful in his opinion. People down here like their gardens very manicured (although I think that might just be the expats), and the thought of letting something grow naturally was anathema to his whole business, I guess..... So needless to say, the first palm is the 'desired' shape, whereas the second is what happens when you don't have a garden service or you are like us and like things to look 'natural'.

Cayman Palm

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I think these are lovely, although I am not sure they are actually native palms, notwithstanding their name. I was told that most of the palms on the island are actually not native, and some of them (like the Casuarina palm) are actually damaging and do not provide habitat. The same goes for a lot of other vegetation, like the hibiscus (on the left), for example.

Cardboard Boat Race

I don't really like this plant very much, but obviously our predecessor did, because we have about half of dozen of them. They are also susceptible to a pest called the mealy bug, which seems to have got this name because it looks a bit like a small cockroach that took a dip in a flour container. The mealy bug is to the Cayman Islands what the elm bark beetle is to Winnipeg - deadly stuff. So far we seem to have fared well, as I have not seen any bugs or symptoms yet.

Olive trees

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Absolutely gorgeous tree, non fruit bearing, but with a habit of staining anything under it, like our WHITE swimming pool concrete. Once, after a windy day, I went outside and found the entire pool bottom covered in little rust-like dots. I thought we had just ruined the pool somehow, until I realised it came from the trees. When I called the pool service, they advised that the chlorine would eventually eat away at the stains, and sure enough it did. The last hurricane did not much like the trees either and knocked one of them down.

Cardboard Boat Race


However, given that the tree's root system was lateral instead of extending deep into the soil (what soil?), the tree was simply put back up!

Cardboard Boat Race

And now, a good month later, the tree is doing well and sprouting like one of those little pots with faces which you feed and watch grow a full head of greenery....

And last but definitely NOT least - our mini banana plantation.

Cardboard Boat Race

When we moved, I thought this was just another palm variety until someone told me this was actually a fruit tree. Once the plant bears fruit it dies and another one shoots up, so if you have enough of them, you can have a fairly constant supply of bananas. Having said that, these are not the large bananas you might be used to seeing, but rather about a third of the size - they are called apple bananas and are supposed to be very sweet. I will know in about a week or so, as they are currently getting ripe on the kitchen counter....

Cardboard Boat Race

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