A South Florida Garden Tour

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Day One: South Miami and Homestead

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Sunken garden at Patch of Heaven Gardens.

I traveled to Florida this week to attend a board meeting of the Garden Writers Association, but hey! A guy’s allowed to have a little fun, right? That’s why I was pleased to be able to add onto the intial trip a 3-day media tour linked to the TPIE (Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition), a major foliage and tropical plant show held annually in Fort Lauderdale.

As a result, I spent Tuesday January 17 touring gardens and plant suppliers in the Miami/Homestead area with a group of other members of the Gardener Writiers Association, plus the tour’s organizers, Jennifer Nelis and Sylvia Gordon of the FNGLA (Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscapers Association).

It turned out to be a beautiful day: sunny and warm with some clouds, about 75ºF (24ºC ) with a gentle breeze much of the time.

Here are some of the highlights of this exceptional day:

The Kampong

img_1207This fabulous botanical garden is not well known to the general public, even though it is located within the boundaries of the highly visited city of Miami, just off Biscayne Bay. It’s the former estate of David Fairchild, a botanist and plant explorer who traveled throughout Southeast Asia and other tropical locales in the early to mid-twentyth century to gather exotic plants and introduce them into the United States.

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At the entrance, a giant banyan (Ficus benghalensis) threatens to overwhelm a Roman bust.

The Kampong wasn’t originally planned to be a botanical garden, but rather a private residence: it’s built on a very narrow strip of land, stretching from Old Cutler Road to the ocean, but it’s jam-packed full of plants, mainly trees and shrubs, including many unusual fruit trees.

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The Fairchild residence, now an administration complex.

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Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), actually not a moss, but a bromeliad, drips from the trees.

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Curious flower of the cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis).

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The dock with a background of mangrove, the Miami region’s natural coastal vegetation.

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Trees and palms line the vast lawn.

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Biscayne Bay viewed from The Kampong.

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The fragrant flower of the Tahitian gardenia (Gardenia taitensis) is used to make Monoi perfume-oil.

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Here is a happy-looking group of garden writers if ever I’ve seen one!

You can’t just drop by and visit The Kampong unannounced: it has limited car parking and reservations are required. For information, email kampong@ntbg.org or call (305) 442-7169. You can also visit their website at ntbg.org/gardens/kampong.

Patch of Heaven Gardens

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A hand-carved main gate greets you as you arrive at Patch of Heaven Gardens.

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Crane sculptures outside the gate house.

This is both a very old and a very new garden. The 20-acre estate was once the home of the Matheson family, rich land-owners in the Miami area, then passed through several hands. Indeed, it was once a petting zoo! But much of the installations and plantings had been long abandoned when the Chesney family purchased the land in 2008. They have since set about restoring the environment – a South Florida hardwood hammock, home to a number of threatened species – as well as the structures. With the help of horticulturists Frederick Hubbard and Roberto Del Cid, they have also installed extensive and indeed very striking gardens. It’s amazing how much as been accomplished in just 8 years!

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We were allowed to visit the house, where nature mingles with family life.

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The spectacular indoor swimming pool.

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Inside the house there are waterfalls and streams: only screening separates it from the outside environment.

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Immature pods on one of the cacao trees (Theobroma cacao).

Among the many projects, the Chesney family is developing a cacao plantation. Agriculturists have never considered cacao (Theobroma cacao) to be hardy enough for Florida’s climate, but with global warming, it’s winters are becoming warmer and the Chesney think the situation has changed. If this project works out, it will be the first cacao plantation in the continental United States.

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Pathways lead away from the house.

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Water drips from the limestone walls of the sunken koi pond.

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A reclining Buddha.

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A quiet corner for relaxation and meditation.

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This Buddha sculpture really reminded me of my visits to Thailand.

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A spectacular barn, brand new, houses 4 Frisian horses.

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There are plenty of places to sit and relax.

The owners live in the main house and are working on projects to make their venture sustainable, such as producing and selling their own chocolate and cacao plants as well as opening their gardens to visitors and leasing the facilities for TV and film shoots, weddings, receptions, etc. You want to visit Patch of Heaven Gardens, send an email to info@patchofheavengardens.com or phone 786-719-9903. Their website is www.patchofheavengardens.com.

Costa Farms Trial Garden

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A very partial view of the vast Trial Garden.

Costa Farms is a third-generation, family-owned farm, one of the largest wholesale growers in the United States, with facilities in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and the Dominican Republic. They’re best know for their houseplants and tropical plants, shipped throughout the United States and Canada, but the 2-acre Trial Garden, featuring new annuals and perennials, is a more recent venture: it’s in its 7th year.

We were able to visit during the “Season Premier”, a chance to see new varieties even before they are unveiled at the California Spring Trials. More than 1200 varieties were on display!

Here are few samples:

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Many novel ideas on how to use plants were on presented. I actually have a special concern about reusing old tires, so was especially pleased with this one.

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Sedum balls like this are due to be commercialized in 2018. You just hang them up in a sunny spot and, in most climates, they won’t even need watering!

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I took over 450 photos in this garden, but this was my favorite plant: Caladium ‘Mesmerized’. What extraordinary leaves! It should be on the market in 2018.

Costa Farms also offered our group a delicious lunch. The soup, especially, was to die for!

You can find plenty of information on Costa Farm products at www.costafarms.com.

R.F. Orchids

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The gardens feature a wide variety of spectacular plants.

This world-renowned orchid growing facility celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010… and it’s been in the same family from the very start: the current owner, Bob Fuchs, is the grandson of the founder, Fred Fuchs Senior.

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Even the fence features a silvery vandaceous orchid.

Bob showed us around the gardens that surround the private home and nursery. He had plenty of anecdotes to share, including one about how Hurricane Andrew essentially obliterated the gardens and nursery in 1992, leaving only the house (specifically designed by grandpa to resist hurricanes) standing! All the trees were blown over, but Bob worked hard to save them and replanted the fallen giants: most are still alive to this day!

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The beautiful swimming pool is incorporated into the garden. It features a tiled representation of a blue vanda on the bottom.

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Path towards the sunken garden.

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The sunken garden features cascades of water and a deep pond with koi and giant pacu fish, not to mention several turtles.

The gardens are gorgeous, full of beautiful plants, and not just orchids: bromeliads, aroids, palms and native plants as well. We did see orchids everywhere though, including (indeed mostly) in the trees. Many were vandas and vanda relatives, the specialty of R.F. Orchids.

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Beautiful vanda orchids hang above the terrace.

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Spectacular vanda flower seen in the garden.

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Becky Heath, Vice-President of the Garden Writers Association and co-owner of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, demonstrates that vanda flowers are edible.

Of course, the sales area is vast and clean, with literally thousands of choices. I was only able to resist because you would need a CITES certificate to transport an orchid back to Canada and that meant I couldn’t bring any back with me.

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Just a small part of the sales area.

R.F. Orchids, Inc. is located in Homestead, Florida, and open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm. For information, call 305-245-4570 or email at info@rforchids.com. The website is www.rforchids.com.

Montgomery Botanical Center

After the visit to R.F. Orchids, our bus drove us back to southern Miami where yet another great garden awaited us: Montgomery Botanical Center (MBC). This non-profit botanical garden is located not far from The Kampong. I have to confess that this was my favorite garden of the day!

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Director Patrick Griffith with paintings of the garden’s founders, Colonel Robert and Nell Montgomery.

This 120-acre Coral Gables estate is the former property of two serious palm- and cycad-enthuiasts, Colonel Robert and Nell Montgomery, and was founded in 1959. It now houses one of the most complete collections of palms and cycads in the United States: more than 1,200 species.

Executive Director Patrick Griffith personally took us on a tour of the gardens, with its splendid vistas, ponds (where an American crocodile had been seen that very morning) and limestone ridges. Every possible care is taken to place each plant in an environment appropriate to its needs. Several plants on display are nearly extinct in the wild and are being preserved at the MBC not only for display and study, but also to produce seed so they can eventually be reintroduced into their native land.

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Patrick Griffith shows us the fruit of sausage tree (Kigelia africana).

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Looking towards the mansion.

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The pond: certainly beautiful, but we saw no crocodiles.

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The cohune palm (Attalea cohune) bears fronds up to 33 feet (10 m) long.

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The lollipop palm (Hemithrinax ekmaniana) has petioles so short and dense it looks more like a yucca than a palm!

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The curious and much larger petticoat palm (Copernicia macroglossa).

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The striking fibrous stipe (trunk) of Coccothrinax ekmanii.

A delicious supper in the main house – with an outstanding view of the garden! – followed the visit.

You can find further information on the Montgomery Botanical Center on its website: www.montgomerybotanical.org. Visits are possible by appointment: contact Tracy Magellan at 305-667-3800 ext. 114 or email tracym@montgomerybotanical.org.

Miami Beach Nightscapes

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Nightscape on Miami Beach.

By time our meal was over, it was already dark and time to head back to our hotels in Fort Lauderdale. We did stop along the way in Miami Beach for a few of nightscapes at 1111 Lincoln Road, but I’m afraid none the photos I took really render this beautiful spot justice.


It was a most glorious if long day and we such beautiful gardens and businesses, not to mention incredible plants: certainly a day to remember!

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