Gardens of St. Augustine: Secrets of the Bayfront Marin House

St. Augustine Florida Gardens, Places to Stay in St. AugustineThere are so many reasons that I love to garden–the connection with the soil (I guess this farm girl hasn’t shaken that off yet), that good tired feeling you have after planting all day, the ability to enjoy the landscape you’ve created…but one of the things that I’ve really come to love is the fact that it’s a very public type of creativity. You can’t hide your mistakes in a closet, you can’t do it in a small dark room. When you create something, other people are bound to notice.

You know who notices the most? Other gardeners. Seeing a well-kept bed (or even just one that’s well designed, if not well kept at the moment) is like a not-so-secret handshake into the gardener’s club. You know you’ve found a kindred spirit.

I’m always happy to share any of my secrets. Here are a couple of questions I’ve been asked about the gardens at the inn, and my super secret responses.

How do you get your hanging baskets to look so good?

The short answer: start with the basket. Kinsman Company, a great little store (and catalog) from my old state of PA has the secret here. Their line of Pamela Crawford planters has little openings on the whole planter–including the sides, so you get a full basket, and not one just growing out of the top. Then I pick plants that will stand out against the inn’s colors–pinks and purples and sometimes some yellows. I always like a little chartreuse to make it look happy, and white is a great way to break up different shades of pink. Finally, Steve installed automatic drip lines that water them with a spray twice a day.

Every now and again a guest will play with our water hoses and inadvertently turn off our watering system (we have it taped up with a pound of electrician’s tape–but people can be persistent!) If you need to use a hose, use the one on the side of the house (next to 15) or–even better–just ask! Our water system is more convoluted than an old Roman aquaduct–even I have to think before I figure out how to turn the hose on and keep the water lines to the flowers intact.

Finally, I try to never replant the whole planter at once. I know–I should replace the soil now and again. And I do. Sometimes. But the big planters on the first floor are about 70 pounds, and it’s easier to just make sure the soil is soft (so roots can grow into it), mix in some slow-release plant fertilizer, and plant on top of the old soil. My dad has a couple hundred acres in PA–I’ve never seen him replace the soil in an entire field.

I do try to pick plants that will look good in the upcoming season and tuck them into some of the holes next to plants that look good now. So, I might put lantana in when spring starts, knowing that it will be really taking off in a few weeks, right when the pansies are giving up. Finally, I pick plants that have a little drape to them–pearls plant is a good one, as its a succulent and will look good 12 months out of the year. Sweet potato vine is a perennial favorite (although it’s an annual plant), and should be removed periodically for the health of the other plants. I’ve found that the mutated potatoes that grow from its roots will limit the other plants’ growth. And once those potatoes are big, they’re almost impossible to pull out without dumping the whole pot (which is one of the things I try to avoid).

hanging baskets of petunias at a waterfront St. Augustine bed and breakfast

by Lanier Star

The secret to our almost-always-blooming bougainvilla? Stress. No, not mine, and not even Steve’s. Bougainvillas bloom when they’re stressed. Mike and I had a bougainvilla in Texas that was submerged after Hurricane Ike in 2006. While the house did not bounce back from 9 feet of saltwater, the purple bloomer was the prettiest it had ever been.

I’ve always thought that was a lovely metaphor for life–you bloom the brightest after the worst events. You’ll have to excuse me–gardeners can really wax poetic when it comes to flowers.

How do we stress our bougainvilla? We dump the leftover ice from happy hour on it every couple of days. It’s easier than carrying it back to the kitchen, and it puts the water to good use. You can do the same thing with ice–or schedule massive trimming sessions. Both seem to stress the bougainvilla enough to keep it in blooms most of the year.

How do we keep all the beds looking so nice? Well, no big secret here–we dig out anything that doesn’t look good. If the plant is a perennial, and it isn’t completely dead (hopefully I’ve spotted the problem before that!), I give them to our staff or plant them at my own house. I love Cordyline fruticosa (sometimes called Hawaiian ti plants or Three Sisters), but they are a little wimpy when it comes to our cool spells. They look better in about a year–normally a month or two before the cold hits them again {insert gardener’s rueful grin}. I have a ton of them in my own backyard, where they are a little more protected from the cold wind, and they look beautiful. When they look beautiful enough for guests, I rotate them back to the inn. Don’t trim the dead leaves when you transplant–I like all the energy to go into the roots once they get into their new home. After a month or so I trim back the dead areas–and the plants usually sprout quickly after that.

This of course doesn’t apply to plants that have died because of bugs or disease–I don’t need to bring that problem into another bed. It also doesn’t apply to annuals, which oftentimes are just wiped out by the Florida heat (like my little pansies and violas–so gorgeous in February and March…so shriveled in May and June). Damaged plants get thrown out to keep the problem at bay, and dead plants get composted in a little heap on the side of the inn.

I know that’s an expensive way to garden if you’re not working on a commercial property. But you can do something similar with any hidden part of your yard–the side of the house often works well. Create a little sick bay there and move your unhappy looking plants into it.

The final secret is one you’ve heard before–plant what works. In the four years that we’ve owned the inn, I have certainly had some missteps (ginger plants, anyone?) Even if I think that the plant is the perfect plant for the space visually, sometimes it doesn’t work. Bullet proof plants include ixora, which is available in lots of colors, from a deep electric pink (which goes great in bold gardens) to a soft baby pink to a delicate purple; plumbago, which will live through most anything, although it can get hard to weed underneath its dense growth; pansies in the cooler months; and lots and lots of Tradescantia pallida–oftentimes called Purple Heart or Purple Queen. We do all of these, but we have lots of the last plant–after trying many varieties of plants around the gazebo, I finally settled on this, although I hate pulling the grass out when it grows through. How tough is it? I propagate it by snapping off a handful and putting them about 1/4 inch under the dirt next to it. Seriously. I don’t even water it, especially if I’m running late. That’s how I got it to go all around the gazebo–I never used a shovel. I’ve broken it off to trim it, left it lay on a pile for a month, and gone back to find that it had sprouted out and was growing up through the blackened dead plants I had pulled out from other places. So why get fancy?

Still think you can’t grow it? Check this out–growing out from the cement next to the Francisco Marin room. You can do it. I know you can!

historic house in St. Augustine, flowers in St. Augustine, bed and breakfast