Keys Homes
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Research is the key to designing a garden

By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club

Carl Gilley, a landscape designer for the last 25 years, told the Key West Garden Club that "the town has changed; the gardens have become more professional. In the last 10 to 20 years the use of natives is more popular."

When Carl Gilley Landscape Design creates a garden, it is approximately 65 percent hardscape (pool, patio, etc.) and 35 percent plant material. To create a balanced look, a plan, to scale, helps the gardener decide what to plant in a systematic way. Gilley cautioned the audience not to buy a plant on a whim. "It's like buying a candy bar in the supermarket checkout lane."

Research is the key to developing a great garden. It is easy to find information on the Internet as well as in gardening books. (Books are available to Garden Club members for research.) First, think of the big picture. There are a variety of gardens available from which to choose. A xeriscaped garden is an excellent choice for snowbirds who leave the garden over the summer. Gardens of native plants require less care. Decide whether to plant a formal garden or an informal one. Does the inside of the back yard need to be the same as the street side of the home?

It is the designer's job to plant the right plant in the right place. Check light, soil and water requirements. Think of the space the plant will need when it is fully grown. How much maintenance will the plant need? When choosing a shape think about texture and color as well. These are important qualities in making a decision about choosing the structure of a plant. Scale is important. Putting a 60-foot royal palm in front of a one-story bungalow creates problems of scale. Drawing a plan will tell the designer how many small plants are needed. If plants are not available, they can be ordered from landscape nurseries at no additional cost. Get exactly what you want.

Unusual palms were difficult to acquire 25 years ago. Now many rare palms are available at nurseries. "Consider long term maintenance carefully when choosing the big trees and palms which are the bones of a garden," Gilley advised. Many a gardener has planted a coconut palm in a place too small to get a lift in to cut down the coconuts. There are many small lanes in Key West that will not accommodate a backhoe that needs to deliver the palm. Getting the palm over a six-foot fence also can be a problem.

Some of the more unusual palms that grow well in our soil are the American oil palm, Baily palm, Canary Island date palm, sugar palm, Bismarkia, sable and talipot palm. Smaller palms include the silver palm, Florida thatch palm, saw palmetto, buccaneer palm and the Cuban petticote palm.

The rare old man palm grows very slowly and attains a height of 15-18 feet. "The initial investment is not cheap, but the plant does not grow to 60-feet in height either," Gilley advised. Its hairy trunk is sure to garner garden compliments.

Palms that do not like our alkaline soil can be planted in pots filled with fertile soil. Then the entire pot can be planted in the ground. The red ceiling wax palm is a good candidate for this technique.

"Everything grows quickly in Key West. Put it in the ground and the next thing you know it is King Kong." Gilley said that he planted a Puerto Rican hat palm and for six years it did nothing. "But some plants hold a surprise. It suddenly blew up. I can't wrap my arms around the palm trunk now."

Coconut palms have a huge root system. They will crack a pipe and lift pavement. Always know where your pipes and underground wires are located before digging.

"Landscaping is not rocket science," said Gilley. "But it does require planning and research."


Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit

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