Gardening in Florida; An Idiot’s Self Taught Journey

I can see it now…my own little tropical paradise. Birds of paradise, tropical hibiscus, bougainvillea, plumeria. A feeling of a relaxing Caribbean vacation when I step outside my front door. Growing up in the Michigan countryside, so many fantasies were conjured in my mind when I found out I was relocating to beautiful and sunny Tampa, Florida.

But oh my god. What kind of living hell nightmare is this??

Florida summers provided nothing more than incredible heat, torturous humidity, and rain. So much rain! And weeds. God, the weeds! And weeding in the incredible heat, torturous humidity, and always wet circumstances was not what I had fantasized about.

Carrie Mobley and her husband bought a house on an oversized lot, and they created the perfect foundation for all kinds of tropical vines, year-round fruits and vegetables, and stunning color that would make a rainbow envious! 17 years later she still has that beautiful and tumultuous love-hate relationship with gardening in Florida.

Let’s find out from Carrie what it’s really like to garden in a tropical climate!

As time has gone on, lessons learned, experiences been had, expectations in check, and a little self forgiveness, I am a smarter and more successful gardener. Now, I am happy to share my top 10 list of what to be aware of when gardening in a zone 9, like Tampa, Florida!

1. Know your zone.

I grew up in zone 5. So a lot of the nostalgic plants that reminded me of my mom would have never made it in my new garden. I desperately wanted aromatic lilac plants and big beautiful hydrangea plants. And believe me, I tried. $100 down the drain. Twice. Fortunately, I lived next-door to a budding and creative gardener as well! Joe and I experimented with things and his comfort with ordering plants online allowed him to have a much more exciting and unique garden and it still inspires me to this day. I learned a lot about beautiful tropical vines, planting more perennials than annuals, and finding more low-maintenance yet beautiful plants that require less from me in the disgusting summer months.

The unmistakable Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia)

2. Find a good nursery.

Because I now live in a city filled with big box stores, I took the path of least resistance for many years by purchasing my plants from those stores. I mean no disrespect, there are hard-working people, and some who are quite educated in their department and you cannot beat the one year money back guarantee on their plants… with user error included. I can’t tell you how many (dead) plants I returned in a bag.

However, once you break out of that level, there is a world of incredibly educated and helpful true horticulturists and master gardeners at some of your local small nurseries. And they don’t sell plants that aren’t meant to thrive in my zone!

One of the biggest problems the heavy rain causes in Florida is the fungus mould and mildew on my roses. I can go into some home-improvement stores and they will try to sell me the impossible dream. The truth is… there’s not much that can be done. I have found that cutting back my roses in the intensity of the summer protects them from major corruption and allows them to flourish incredibly well in the non-rainy season.

3. Prepare the areas.

Good garden soil, knowing if it’s in full sun area YEAR ROUND, and providing enough space for a fully mature plant, are all things that can help you alleviate unnecessary issues in the future. Florida soil is heavy with clay. It’s gross. It doesn’t drain well at all. So, all of my gardens have a mix of native soil and lots of very nice, store-bought garden soil. Since it rains so much, I wanted to make sure it drained well. I cannot emphasize how important this is. Also, realize the sun changes throughout the year. And part of that year long wait is because full sun in February is part shade in August. You know, science and rotation and all that shit.

4. Stay on top of weeds.

There was never anything more discouraging than finally getting the motivation to go tend to my garden and finding it overrun with complicated and difficult to remove weeds. The hot sun and daily rain in the Florida summer was the perfect scenario for weeds to thrive.

One or two weeks could go by and I would have so many weeds, be so discouraged, and genuinely hated being outside that I would cover my beautiful vegetable and annual garden with a tarp. “I’ll deal with this in November”. Two or three years straight I did that.

This year, as my youngest of four boys is much more independent, I took more time to nip those weeds in the bud. And while I still hate going outside and seeing how quickly the weeds can overtake my gardens, I have learned that in 30 minutes, I can change the course of the summer.

5. Have an area to experiment.

I have one section of my garden that I continuously rip out and replant with whatever I’m feeling inspired by or interested in. Sometimes it’s new herbs, sometimes it’s a unique fruit plant I found at the nursery. Right now, I’m playing with succulents. But it’s an area not seen by many and allows me to play around. Container gardening is also a great place to do this, as I have with these succulents. I have lots of friends who save the seeds from their avocado here in Florida and grow an entire tree! Same thing with pineapples and plumeria. Just shove it in a pot and cross your fingers.

6. Look around, and ask questions.

My area of the country is the second largest producer of strawberries in the United States. Second only to California. And we do love our strawberries here! But taking long walks and looking at other people’s gardens and noticing the plants at beautiful parks and botanical gardens opened my eyes to the incredible possibilities of gardening in Florida.

You will not believe how excited I was to be able to grow my own citrus. And when you drink as much vodka as I do, having multiple lemon trees is something I cannot brag enough about.

Oranges, avocado, limes, and lemons are some of my favorite trees in my yard. But I also have a nectarine tree, an apple tree, and tonnes of berry bushes.

7. Make a realistic decision about going all natural/organic.

My rule of thumb is if it’s going in my mouth, I will garden as organically as possible. I have found and actually sell one of the most incredible all natural “multivitamins” for your plants on HSN. You literally spray it right on the plants and using foliar feeding, it’s basically like steroids for your plants. But you are bound to develop insect problems, diseases, etc, that may require something a bit more intense.

8. Be honest with others.

What I love about gardening and gardeners is their self-deprecating honesty. When I first joined the online gardening community, I was so refreshed by what I have found with most gardeners; an honest look into their lives. I have always thought that gardening is one of those rare things in life where you got out what you put in.

I don’t have to deal with my plant’s emotional baggage, who screwed them over in high school, or their parents divorce. None of this will ever affect my roses… if I tend to my garden, it returns the favour.

I have so many friends who turn to me for advice, and vice versa. Be that person to someone. Gardening can change someone’s life.

9. Forgive yourself.

This year has been my best year yet. But next year, things could get more complicated and busy in other parts of my life. I may go back to the tarp! So take lots of pictures when things are beautiful. Brag about your garden. But also don’t be afraid to show the ugly. And truthfully, that’s a great lesson in life as well. Our social media existence breeds a fear of looking imperfect. But I have made more friends, formed deeper relationships, and had a great laugh over showing my failures as well. It lets other people’s guards fade away and real relationships can begin. Believe me, I brag when things are good. But I work hard for my successes! Accept each other and love each other!  All in the name of being a plant geek.

Carrie Mobley is a wife, mother of four boys, gardening expert on HSN, television personality, professional singer, and a lover of butterflies, vodka, and music.

Find Carrie on Instagram

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