Picture a time when Old Florida’s quaint fishing camps, sepia-toned postcards, and peculiar roadside attractions were in their hay day. Home to more than three hundred birds and reptiles nestled among sprawling banyan trees and tropical flora, Everglades Wonder Gardens was established as the Reptile Gardens in 1936 during Florida’s early land boom. Bonita Springs residents Bill and Lester Piper built this zoological park in the heart of historic downtown along the newly paved Tamiami Trail that linked Tampa to Miami for the first time. The attraction’s name was changed to Everglades Wonder Gardens to better reflect the one-of-a-kind experience offered to guests as its animal and botanical exhibits grew. The Wonder Gardens’ enchanting biodiversity is a product of its prime location: Southwest Florida’s mild climate is classified as zone 10b by the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map with low temperatures ranging from 35° to 40°F.
Everglades Wonder Gardens’ horticultural staff is a humble crew of two. We depend on a platoon of volunteers composed of aquatic gardeners, detail gardeners, maintenance gardeners, novice gardeners, veteran gardeners, and everyone in between. Committed gardeners develop a keen sense of each plants’ individual needs. From mineral deficiencies to invasion by pests or diseases, a plant’s leaf, trunk, stem, and/or root may convey encrypted messages. It is the gardener’s life work to decode this vegetal vernacular. Seldom acknowledged in the mainstream approach to integrated pest management is the employment of sterilized tools and equipment within a landscape. Nurturing the Wonder Gardens’ 3-acre botanical collection imposes a stress test not only on the equipment in a gardener’s toolbox but on the gardeners themselves. This sublime subtropical setting epitomizes the adage that a gardener is only as good as the tools at their disposal.
EWG Essential Tools
Frankly, a gardener should take pride in the sharpness and sterility of one’s shears. The upkeep of one’s Felco F-2 bypass pruners or one’s Corona FS-4350 Thinning Shears must be central to daily gardening, for reasons that the beekeeping community has acknowledged since time immemorial. Assays of propolis—a sap-based resin manufactured by honey bees to seal their hives—suggest that tree sap harbors a wealth of microbiological life. So the gardener who turns a blind eye to accumulated tree sap on their tools is a very efficient vector for pathogens. For example, Fusarium infects new Musaceae tissue with every use of one’s sap-caked Felco F-2 bypass pruners; similarly, Tobamovirus gains a stronger foothold amongst Solanaceae with each swoop of one’s untended Corona bypass loppers. When it comes to pruning small- to mid-caliper branches, one’s RIDGID Sawzall with a Diablo pruning blade is indispensable. Meanwhile, count on an Oregon cordless 16-inch self-sharpening chainsaw for larger caliper cuts.
How would you feel if a phlebotomist approached you with a dull, unsanitary needle during your next yearly physical examination? Did you immediately think the phlebotomist’s needle might be carrying a disease? If you’re a gardener who is guilty of approaching your plant allies with unsharpened, unkempt pruning equipment, it’s not too late to change your practices. Set time aside to sharpen and sterilize your pruning equipment. Make sharpening and sterilizing integral to your gardening practice. To this end, fine steel wool, coarse steel wool, hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, Felco 2-30 adjustment key, Felco 990 synthetic grease, and DMT diamond field sharpener are essential tools in every mindful gardener’s toolbox.
EWG Garden Defense
Installing newly acquired nursery plants in any one of our multitude of gardens always poses a challenge. Large-scale plant acquisition is often expensive, and when nursery-like conditions are not maintained the health of the nursery stock declines rapidly. Each plant’s first line of defense against the onset of stress is its suite of subterranean microbial alliances. Consequently, after digging a proper hole using a Fiskars long-handled steel digging shovel, sprinkle an endomycorrhizal inoculant like MycoBloom or MYKOS® into the hole and directly onto the roots of each nursery plant while installing them. New installations should be top-dressed with quality compost and mulch from a local source. Ensure that the mulch does not make direct contact with each plant’s base because the agents decomposing the mulch will eventually begin to decompose the tissue of the new plantings!
The November 30th terminus of 2020’s record Atlantic hurricane season brings much relief to us here at Everglades Wonder Gardens. Both Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Eta affected our region and served as reminders to pay close attention to the weather resources at our fingertips. Lightning-fast access to live doppler radar, Tropical Tidbits, the National Hurricane Center, TropicalWeather Reddit, and HurricaneTrack is essential. Of equal importance, stakes, half-inch plastic tree tape, half-inch mule tape, and a hammer should be on hand for a rapid response to wind damage. Gardeners in South Florida who have weathered many hurricanes possess intrinsic respect for these storms. Amid the all-encompassing confusion that surrounds hurricane season, these gardeners become amateur meteorologists who nerd out about every tropical depression beyond the horizon.
Decades of rampant development led to the destruction of many roadside tourist attractions like Everglades Wonder Gardens. The Wonder Gardens is one of the few remaining cultural icons of Old Florida. Our tight-knit horticultural crew reveres this hallowed artifact from a bygone era and employs unconventional methods to preserve its well-being for future generations.
The author of this piece is Marshall Nathanson, EWG horticultural technician, and a friend of Garden Simply!