Hobby Gardening

Learn how to attract birds and butterflies to your garden as well as how to grow fruit.

Gardening for Birds and Butterflies

by Margaret Braisted

Gardeners in the Florida Keys can create a backyard habitat to attract birds and butterflies throughout the year by providing the basic necessities for their survival - food, water, and shelter. If you would like to attract a particular bird or butterfly, learn the specifics of what food, water and shelter it prefers.


Birds, whether year round residents, summer breeders, winter visitors, or seasonal migrants, require a consistent and varied natural food source. Through proper plant selection, a Florida Keys garden can provide a wide variety of flowers and fruit all year long. Flowers attract insects and insect eating birds. Jamaica dogwood, gumbo limbo, pigeon plum, seagrape, and locustberry are a few spring blooming trees that attract migrating warblers, vireos, and flycatchers. Fruit of the blolly, seagrape, gumbo limbo, short leaf fig, white stopper and even poisonwood ripen in summer and supply summer breeders like cardinals, black whiskered vireos, gray kingbirds and white-crowned pigeons with a food source for raising their young. These trees and many others have fruit that persists through fall and winter, supplying food for fruit eating fall migrants and winter residents. Plant a geiger tree, beauty berry, Bahama strongbark, powderpuff, necklace pod, or firebush for the migrating ruby-throated hummingbird.

Birds need shelter that provides protective cover for breeding, nesting, and preening. Species differ in their habitat preferences, so choose a combination of higher canopy trees, smaller understory trees, and dense, or thorny trees and shrubs to attract the greatest variety of birds. For example, black whiskered vireos like to nest in taller canopy trees, such as Jamaica dogwood or seagrape. Cardinals and white-eyed vireos prefer to nest closer to the ground in smaller trees, such as the darling plum or white stopper, or in denser trees, such as the locustberry and saffron plum. Red mangroves, black mangroves, and buttonwoods along a canal, or shoreline, will attract green-backed herons, night herons, prairie warblers, and possibly the elusive mangrove cuckoo.

The edge area where different canopy layers meet are often the most frequented. Create a lush, wild growth in one area of the garden to provide protective cover and leaf litter for ground feeding birds, such as the ovenbird. Add some low shrubs or ground covers, such as necklace pod, bay cedar, and sea ox-eye daisy, for the migrating yellowthroat warbler who feeds close to the ground. Leave a few standing dead trees and snags for perches, insects for food, and nesting cavities for the red-bellied woodpecker.

Absolutely essential is the requirement to furnish a dependable source of clean water for drinking and bathing. A birdbath is an excellent way to do this. Spring and fall migrants who dehydrate easily, and summer breeders dealing with excessive heat will use it often. Place the birdbath where there is vegetative cover nearby for perching and preening. Anything from a commercial design, a ceramic dish, or an old garbage can lid will work as long as the sides slope gently and the water is only 2-3 inches deep.


When designing a Florida Keys garden for butterflies, study the food requirements of the particular species of butterfly you want to attract and the plants needed to supply the food. Plant a food source for the larval stage or caterpillar, of the butterfly, as well as a nectar source for the adult stage, the butterfly. A larval host plant for the large orange sulfur, for example, is blackbead, but a nectar source is fireweed. The Orange-barred sulfur prefers Bahama senna for both a larval host plant and a nectar source. While most adult butterflies drink nectar from a variety of flowering plants, the larvae are more limited in what plants they will eat. The one larval host plant for the Zebra longwing, Gulf fritillary, and Julia is the corky-stemmed passionvine. Planting wild lime or torchwood will help increase the territory and population of the endangered Schaus swallowtail, and giant swallowtail butterfly, which uses them for a larval host plant.

Plant butterfly plants in a sunny location with protection from strong winds. Create layers of vegetation, from taller canopy trees to midstory trees, shrubs, and groundcovers for optimum protective cover and food sources for the greatest variety of butterflies. Jamaica dogwood, seagrape, or pigeon plum could be planted first, adding a geiger tree, blackbead or torchwood, with smaller shrubs like Bahama senna, firebush, and golden dewdrop in front. Plant pentas, blue porterweed, lantana, and other flowers and groundcovers in masses. Choose plants with staggered blooming seasons and different size flowers to offer a steady progression of flowers throughout the year. The larval food plants will be defoliated periodically, but can be planted in an inconspicuous area of the garden. Refrain from using pesticides or herbicides in a butterfly garden.

Butterflies, like birds, need a source of fresh, clean water. They cannot drink standing water from a birdbath or pond, but must draw moisture from damp soil. Partially bury a ceramic dish and fill with sand or dirt, and add water. Put rocks in the middle and on the sides for landing sites.

Creating a backyard Florida Keys habitat for birds and butterflies, whether migrants or natives, will not only enhance the beauty of a garden and give excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing, but will also help assure the continued survival of these unique species.

Growing Fruit

by Carrie Smith

Some of the favorite fruit trees for backyards include the famous Key lime, the magnificent mango, as well as avocado, coconut, papaya, banana, Barbados cherry, guava, Spanish lime (local name, not a true lime), sugar apple, sour oranges, and tamarind, among others.

The Keys are tropical, and do not experience freeze or frost except on the rarest occasions in the Upper Keys. Although the temperature is favorable for tropical fruit trees, the environment of the Keys poses some obstacles for growing fruit trees. These include wind, salt intrusion in the soil, salt spray carried in air, micronutrient deficiency caused by the alkaline soil, drought and flooding.

Some of the environmental obstacles can be overcome. Salt intrusion and soil alkalinity may be avoided by growing fruit in mounds or containers. Buildings or other plants may be used as windbreaks to prevent wind damage, as well as pruning for wind resistance. Windbreaks may also protect from salt spray. Micronutrient deficiency can be avoided by using micronutrient foliar sprays four times per year. During periods of drought, occasional watering may be necessary; some fruit trees will lose leaves during drought, but will re-sprout when rain begins. Fruit trees should not be planted in areas that flood for more than 1-2 days during heavy storms, or in areas where saltwater and rainwater will mix during a flood.

General maintenance of fruit trees must be diligently followed to obtain large yields of tasty fruit. The needs of each fruit are different, so do some reading about them before growing. When planting, if roots have become wrapped along the bottom of the container, loosen them from the root ball. For many fruit trees, young fruit are picked off the tree for the first two years so that the plant can become established and to encourage growth. You may even need to pollinate your trees yourself for greater fruit yields. Fruit trees should be pruned yearly, starting with young trees. Prune fruit trees to reach a maximum height of 14 feet, in order to withstand storms and to be able to reach fruit for picking.

The amount of fertilizer and water vary among the types of fruit, as well as tree size. Mulch your trees as you would any other plant, with the exception of citrus- Do not mulch citrus because mulch promotes a rotting disease of the trunk which kills the tree.

In the Keys, fruit trees do not always bear fruit. A tree grown from seed may take 5-20 years before bearing fruit. Other causes of non-fruiting are salt in the air or water table, high wind, incompatible root stock, not enough water or fertilizer, too much water and fertilizer, lack of pollinating insects, and an improper cultivar for the environment of the Keys.

Each fruit tree has predictable problems. For example, mangos commonly get a fungal disease (anthracnose). Some varieties of coconut trees are susceptible to lethal yellow. Leaf miner causes a squiggled pattern on young citrus leaves periodically, but the citrus tree will develop new leaves after damaged leaves drop. Guava and papaya fruit often have the worms of fruit fly larva- this can be avoided by placing paper bags over fruit when development is just beginning. Bananas may develop Panama disease, which is a fungus that attacks roots and cannot be cured.

There is no sweeter success than that of growing fruit trees in the Keys. A full crop will provide enough fruit for family and friends to have full bellies!

Vegetable Gardening

by Kim Gabel

October through April is the main vegetable growing season for the Florida Keys.  During this time the weather and seasonal patterns are changing from the hot, humid summer temperatures with long daylight hours to cooler, drier temperatures with shorter daylight hours.

In order to successfully grow vegetables you need to provide a sunny location, regular watering, a raised bed or container garden, wood mulch, slow release fertilizer, and vegetable seeds or transplants.

  • Sun - Fruiting vegetables will be more productive if given full sunlight for a minimum of five to six hours during the middle of the day.  If you have limited amounts of full sunlight grow leafy vegetables; they can withstand more shade.
  • Water - For a raised bed garden keep the soil moist to a depth of six to eight inches.  For containerized vegetables, check the plant daily to see if it needs watering. For newly planted surface seeds, keep the soil moist until they germinate then lengthen the period between waterings.
  • Water problems - Salt-laden winds and irrigating with salty water will harm vegetable plants.  During the winter months, if you live on the Gulf side of the Keys, provide screening from the strong north winds. For those who irrigate with well water, during the months of February to April check the water salinity levels.  Drop a sample off at the Extension Office for salinity testing.
  • Vegetable growing methods - The Keys' soils are low in organic matter, have a high soil pH level and are difficult to dig; therefore two successful gardening methods are raised beds and container gardening.

1) Raised beds - Construct a bed frame to a height of 24 inches out of concrete blocks, rock, bamboo slats, or wood.  If you are concerned about using pressure-treated wood in creating your garden box, cedar and cypress woods have natural preservatives.  Pickax the ground surface to a depth of 10 inches or so, then screen the materials through a 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch hardware cloth.  Loosen the native soil under the garden soil to improve the soil drainage.  Return sifted materials to the garden area, add a soil mix of one part sand to one part composted organic matter. Mix thoroughly in place.

2) Container gardening - If you do not have sufficient yard space or live in an apartment, try growing your vegetables in containers.  Almost any container is suitable as long as it is durable and large enough to hold the fully-grown plant.  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/VH032        Fill the container with the growing medium. Use any prepared potting soil mixes or create your own:

  • Two 5 gallon buckets of vermiculite, two 5 gallon buckets of peat moss, 1 1/2 cups of dolomite and 1 1/4 cups of 6-8-8 fertilizer with trace elements, thoroughly mix.

  • Two 5 gallon buckets of sand or garden soil, two 5 gallon buckets of peat, cow manure or well-decomposed compost, 1 1/2 cup of dolomite and 1 1/4 cup of 6-8-8 fertilizer with trace elements.

  • Mulch - Mulching is an important practice that reduces weed populations, retains soil moisture, prevents soil erosion, and keeps the soil cooler.  Common mulching materials are free mulches from the local utility companies or landscaping businesses or store-bought mulch, pine straw, leaves, sawdust wood shavings, pine bark, and newspaper. http://livinggreen.ifas.ufl.edu/landscaping/mulch.html
  • Fertilizer - To grow healthy vegetables in a raised bed garden you will need to provide organic fertilizer (animal manures or compost), inorganic fertilizer, or a combination of both.

      For organic fertilizers add 25 to 100 pounds per 100 square feet before planting.  Since animal manures are not a balanced fertilizer, supplement each 100 square feet with two to three pounds of a 6-6-6 inorganic fertilizer.  After planting add up to five pounds per 100 square feet area.  Remember that if the animal manure or compost is fresh, spread it a minimum of three weeks ahead of planting. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/VH019

      For inorganic fertilizers use a fertilizer that contains a balanced proportion of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, such as a 6-6-6. In a ten-foot row you can place five ounces in a furrow beside the plant or broadcast two to three pounds per 100 square feet.  During the growing season apply two to three additional light nitrogen and potassium applications depending on your soil type and vegetable crop.

  • Vegetable types - Beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collards, lettuce, mustard, onions, parsley, peas, peppers, potatoes, radish, spinach, squash, tomatoes, turnips, and more can be grown at this time of year.  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/vh021

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