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How Does Your Garden Grow

Picture a tropical garden and what springs to mind? Bright colours, lush vegetation, glossy green grass overlooking a deep blue sea�

An idyllic scene perhaps, but one that could be found anywhere from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Such generic descriptions have led many a horticulturalist up the garden path. To be a sustainable gardener in the Caribbean is to leave preconceptions at the garden gate, recognising that the greenest designs are those that incorporate the land’s natural characteristics.

Getting started

The first step of landscape design is to observe your surroundings and study the natural vegetation, preferably in an area untouched by Man. The flat, sandy islands typical of the West Indies create a very different habitat to the fertile earth in Jamaica or the eastern Caribbean’s rich, volcanic soil. Understanding this – the relationship between environment and location – is vital for a successful, sustainable garden.

The second essential step is to make an honest assessment of your land’s physical attributes, noting existing plants, prevailing wind direction, annual sun and shade patterns, soil quality and topography. No matter how bad your sketching, draw a plan of what is growing. Even features that may initially appear negative can be absorbed into the design to become a focal point.

Dig deep

A familiar challenge to homeowners in the West Indies is low-lying, flood-prone land. For nine months of the year, it appears good territory for cultivation, yet during the rainy season it may lie under several inches of brown, brackish water. An immediate reaction might be to fill the offending area and raise the ground level above the water table. However, embracing the challenge more creatively can transform this beautiful, teacoloured pond into an unusual inland mangrove garden.

While most agree that mangroves provide an important storm buffer in coastal areas, few realise that they can grow inland, given the right conditions. Similarly, gardeners may linger under the misconception that mangroves attract mosquitoes, yet in actuality, the attraction lies in stagnant water where they can lay their larvae undisturbed. Aerate the water properly, using a small solar-powered pump for example, and mosquitoes will be no more a problem than elsewhere in the garden.

Instead, a pond will likely become home to a wonderful array of wildlife, including mangrove buckeye butterflies, whistling ducks and moorhens. Birds can spot water from great heights, and may choose to stay a few months en route to distant climes or even take up permanent residence. What is more, an area for seasonal flooding around the pond will encourage black and white mangroves and native trees such as silver and bull thatch palms, buttonwood and mahogany.

So, contrary to filling low-lying land, dig a little deeper to a depth of four or five feet, to create a proper pond. Shaping is part of the fun: creating a ledge around the sides, about a foot below the surface, ensures that red mangroves and other aquatic species can propagate. Similarly, adding rocks here and there disrupts straight lines whilst creating a more natural look. Even consider tying orchids to the branches of mangroves to provide additional visual interest.

A final consideration is how to connect the wetland area to the rest of the garden so that it is integrated into the overall design. Constructing a timber walkway winding through the mangroves and surrounding woodland, provides a nature trail right on your doorstep.

The wild side

A further challenge gardeners face is how to handle areas of dense woodland. The old adage of ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’ is particularly apt, as it can often seem easier to clear entire areas and start from scratch, than realise nature’s potential.

Yet, in amongst that tangle of bush, overcrowded saplings and unruly weeds, it is possible to uncover some real treasures. With the average tree bought at a nursery taking years to reach maturity, and the spiraling cost of planting trees, nature promises a head start on your landscaping - if only you take time to look.

Creating a garden with native, indigenous or endemic plants is sustainability at its best. These plants truly belong and will thrive with very little attention whilst attracting native fauna – from birds and bees, to bats and butterflies.

Laws of attraction

A butterfly garden is a great way to turn dense thicket into a magical place to delight children. Native palms, such as areca, coconut, date, pygmy, royal, Christmas and bull thatch, in particular attract butterflies. In sandy areas, sea lavender and sea purslane provide colourful ground cover, as well as also being popular with butterflies. It is well worth having a few plants nibbled by caterpillars to have these delightful creatures fluttering around the garden, and there can be no better education for young minds than watching nature at work.

Build on this education and introduce by principle of earth-to-table by eschewing perfectly packaged supermarket fare in favour of the delights of homegrown produce. Before clearing land, look for native fruit trees - mango, papaya, guinep, soursop, breadfruit, tamarind, avocado and cherry – as a starting point for an orchard. There can be no doubt that eating a piece of fruit flown hundreds of miles in a refrigerated container cannot begin to compare to the pleasure of biting into juicy flesh you have watched ripen in the sun.

In either sense of the word, landscape design does not have to cost the earth. If you build on the foundations laid by nature, your garden will be more interesting, individual and sustainable than any preconceived idea of how a tropical garden ‘should’ look whilst being, most likely, friendlier to both the environment and your pocket. So, throw caution to the wind and go native!

For more information visit Sandy’s blog at: www.sandy-urquhart.com

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