I normally aspire to inspire visitors to attempt new items in the garden, but this before-and-after project comes with a story that I hope will inspire you to start a garden where you’re in life, with or without house ownership. When it’s on your windowsill, in the backyard of an ailing family member, for the apartment complex or for a whole community, a garden is a therapeutic gift that brings joy to others and yourself in different ways. When my life gave me manure, I used it to plant this garden at my apartment complex in Jacksonville, Florida.
I Planted an Apartment Garden
I should probably start by telling you how I obtained the crops and inspiration to start this garden in the first place.
Many years back I planted a garden for my mother, Nancy Asbell, who suffered from an autoimmune disorder called lupus. She received a motorized wheelchair if her spine broke as a consequence of competitive steroid treatments, so I hoped to alleviate the pain by planting a garden she could see out of her porch.
Lupus, with its many complications and treatments, tortured her body relentlessly. In the past year of her life, she fought to pay medical bills with exactly what she would earn by selling her artwork and teaching piano, and the phone calls from the bank made it very clear that she would soon lose the house and garden she adored.
Here is the thing: Despite her hell on earth, my mother was madly in love with the planet had to offer and also celebrated each and every day. She saw illness as a means to understand and reach out to other people as a lupus urge. She had been a infectiously delighted woman who saw miracles in the windswept leaves which many would consider jumble, and reveled in the regular experiences with humanity and nature.
The least I could do in her absence was discuss her garden so that others (such as myself) might get some kind of joy in their everyday lives.
The bank had been threatening to foreclose on my mother’s house, so I asked my very own property supervisor if I could temporarily replant her garden at my apartment complex until we could find my mother another dwelling. She agreed.
When my mother passed away last year, just after her 50th birthday, my only solace was that I could discuss the world and its own miracles with other people, one plant at a time. It was absurd to presume anybody would care one way or another, but because I had been so used to gardening for my mother, the premise gave me serenity.
I chased moving the garden together with the hopes that it might benefit my neighbors, but truth be told, digging up plants and ferrying them over the St. John’s River gave me a feeling of continuity and purpose, which can be so difficult to find after the passing of a loved one.
Construction the Garden
I began with the barren patch of grass and mulch outside the apartment complex’s laundry room.
Pretty dull, huh? The mulch-covered area was especially tricky, since the arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis) had choked the soil with a dense network of roots, leaving the entire area under the tree dry as a bone for most of the year.
While I was able to save a few of their most treasured plants out of my mother’s garden, I needed to purchase other people to fill out the distance and keep it from looking like a hodgepodge. To make the narrow pathway look larger and brighter, I picked plants with chartreuse and lime-green leaves.
AFTER: My remedy for the dry shade under the tree was to plant bromeliads (Neoregelia, Aechmea, Billbergia hybrids, USDA zones 8b to 11), since they take in water through their waterproof cups and do not rely on their root systems, because most crops do. From the protected area long the wall, I planted more tender tropical crops, such as reed stem orchid (Epidendrum radicans, zones 9b to 11), which may also flourish with very little water.
The original lilyturf (Liriope ‘Evergreen Giant’, zones 6 to 11) planting has become established now and provides a soft backdrop for whatever bromeliads I choose to plant in the foreground.
Here you can view a sampling of these plants I used under the tree. Clockwise in the upper-right-hand corner are a Tillandsia (Tillandsia spp, zones 10 to 11), Neoregelia cruenta (zones 9b to 11), a Neoregelia bromeliad, fireball bromeliads (Neoregelia ‘Fireball’, zones 9b to 11) and a container of coleus (Solenostemon hybrid annual) and variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’, zones 9 to 11). Because the coleus and shell ginger are in a container, then I will water them separately with no water’s getting absorbed by the greedy roots of the arborvitae tree.
It had been hard to think these newly planted hands and bulbs would flourish within the calendar year, but expect was all I needed to work with during this moment. So I began digging and planting, drawing cautious stares in the tenants as I ripped out the bud and tracked dirt all over the sidewalk. I took this photo soon after adding the initial crops earlier that week you’d have observed a sad patch of grass in their place.
The back of the planting includes ice cream banana (Musa ‘Blue Java’, zones 8b to 11), radicalis palms (Chamaedorea radicalis, zones 8b to 11) and also woman palm (Rhapis excelsa, zones 8b to 11).
The apartment complex straddles line between zones 8b and 9, so I was able to use slightly cold-hardier versions of tropical crops, lending a hotel feel to the north Florida poolside. But for the moment, it looked downright awful.
What a difference a year and a half made! The very small banana plant now towers over the laundry area, with different suckers at its base. The ti plants (Cordyline fruticosa ‘Red Sister’, zones 9 to 11) have grown tall in their protected microclimate, as well as the ornamental sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’, zones 9 to 11, annual elsewhere) has taken it upon itself to pay the garden with a glowing green living mulch.
You may be wondering if the ornamental sweet potato vine gets out of control in such a little area. Yeah, it does. I have been pruning the vines after weekly to keep them off the sidewalk and will replace them with a less-enthusiastic ground cover following year.
Why Everything Works
I’m a professional garden designer, and since I bought the nonrescued plants in my dime, the funding was quite little. What I think makes this distance work is that the combination of low-maintenance plants having sufficient foliage curiosity to turn heads with no use of flowers. While everybody loves flowers, I used them so there would be year-round attention — and of course less job removing the blossoms.
Continuity was also key, so I repeated certain elements during. By adhering to a colour scheme of pink, white and lime green, then I was able to incorporate a variety of plants without even making the garden look cluttered.
The corrugated tin shed was ugly, plain and simple. The tin was peeling away at the bottom; stray cats had made it their residence; also it jutted out like a sore thumb. But I thought it would be cool to use its industrial appearance and add some daring neon-colored plants which would turn the utilitarian shed into an attractive architectural element. Because I planted layers of leaves with different heights in a narrow area, the area feels larger and more lively.
I am often applauded by the other apartment complex residents because of my presumed green thumb, although I am thankful for their kind words, the fact of the matter is I rarely do anything to the crops in any way, besides occasionally pruning wayward stems.
Because I did not plan to reside at the apartment complex forever, I picked plants which would require little maintenance and may survive by themselves. Tropical bulbs like Caladiums (Caladium ‘Red Flash’, zones 9 to 11), blood lily (Haemanthus multiflorus, zones 8 to 11) and Siam tulip (Curcuma alismatifolia, zones 8 to 11) go dormant in winter and endure through our mild winters.
If they die back in autumn, they’re temporarily substituted with winter annuals and vegetables to keep the show moving. Sweet peas ramble over the dormant leaves because a nice disguise.
The Pitfalls (and Joys) of Gardening for the Public
I was satisfied with skepticism for expecting residents and their children not to steal or trample over the crops, but besides a few bromeliads that went missing during the first two or three months, neighbors have gone out of their way to defend the garden.
When a team of landscapers (the mow and blow crew) took a weed whacker to the crops and sprayed with herbicide, I could rely on my neighbors to set them straight. Apart from those mishaps, the garden has been a massive success. Each week a different neighbor goes out of his or her solution to thank me because of my job or inquire about a new flower.
Oh, and also the gardens bring a lot of character, such as this cranky toad. Occasionally I will find someone delicately stepping across the plantings for a close look at a flower, tree frog or garter snake, and also with those very small displays of wonder and fascination, I know I have accomplished my goal.
You can’t change the world by planting a garden, but you can use it to help make folks just a little bit happier. And happy folks make the world a better place; wouldn’t you agree?
More: How to Give a Garden Soul