Azaleas are one of Florida’s signature spring bloomers, and for good reason. They burst into heaps of pinks, purples — even whites – when our “winter” gives way to spring.
But … spring doesn’t officially start till March 20. This year, the azaleas, and lots of our other spring bloomers, are making an early appearance.
I found these beauties growing at a house near Memorial Highway in western Hillsborough County. Old neighborhoods like this one, with landscape plants that may be decades old and are often heirlooms, are my favorites for drive-by gardening.
If you’re falling in love with all the azaleas in bloom and itching to get your hands on some, keep in mind, they require just the right conditions to survive and thrive. They like filtered light and acidic soil, so they do best in yards with oak trees. They’re not drought-tolerant, so they’ll need water when it’s dry. Most bloom only once a year — they’re green shrubs the rest of the time — but some varieties (the Encore series) will re-bloom.
Bougainvilleas are also strutting their stuff!
Bogies are wonderful color for Florida gardens nearly year-round. Plant where they’ll get lots of sun and have plenty of room to sprawl or you’ll be cutting them back more often than you care to. (I can always tell when someone’s been trimming their bougainvillea — their arms are covered with scratches from the thorns.) This beauty was covering a wall in another old Tampa neighborhood, Palma Ceia.
A few blocks from this home, on South Brookline Street, you’ll see a rare sight around these parts: A bed of blooming tulips! (But move quickly, because they won’t last long. Or check back next February.)
Tampa gardener Janice Straske plants tulips each year, as does her mother and a couple friends. They’re the only local gardeners I know who have mastered the tricky horticultural feat of tulip beds this far south. If you want to try it, you’ll need a spare refrigerator. Learn how Janice does it by clicking here.
You might have better luck with the easy-to-grow Hong Kong orchid tree. I found this and several others blooming along Elliott Drive, off Memorial Highway. I wasn’t surprised to see several neighbors with the same tree — they’re easy to propagate from seed and tend to produce lots of volunteers. To avoid that problem and the mess of seed pods raining down on your yard, get the hybrid variety, which doesn’t produce seeds.
These are beautiful trees, which are just as pretty when they’re not in bloom. They have rounded leaves on branches that tend to have a weeping form, which forms an attractive canopy as the tree matures. Like azaleas, they prefer acidic soil. If you have lots of decomposing oak leaves, you likely have acidic soil, but you can always get it tested for just a couple bucks at your local University of Florida Extension.
If you’ve got room for a seriously fast-growing, vigorous vine, you’ll love this one for gorgeous winter and spring color.
Florida flame vine is popular for covering walls and fences in Central and South Florida. At this time of year, you can see it blooming along Interstate 4 — which tells you something about how hardy and drought-tolerant it is. But be warned: If you don’t have a big area to let it go nuts, you’ll have a big headache trying to contain it!
I found this one at Sprout, the garden complement to Relic home furnishings in South Tampa. No, I didn’t buy it. I’ve finally learned there’s room for only one or two “vigorous” vines in my small garden!
Remember, before you plant anything, be sure you know how big it will get and plant in a space with that in mind. Even drought-tolerant plants require regular watering when they’re first planted so they can establish a good root system. The rule of thumb is water new plants every other day the first week; every couple days for the next two weeks; and at least once a week for the next couple months. During the rainy season, that’s not a problem.