When our first family trip to Florida -- and the inevitable Disney World -- loomed on the schedule last October, I was determined to find something of personal interest that I could enjoy. I love vacationing with my family, but amusement parks and long lines are not my favorite things.
I discovered that Florida has much to offer the Howard County gardener, not only in terms of landscape beauty, but in colorful lessons to be applied here at home.
For a gardener, the native flora of a tropical climate like Florida is worth a trip to experience just by itself. To see our houseplants growing outdoors year-round -- and reaching giant proportions -- is wonderful.
Hibiscus, Norfolk Island pines and jade plants are some familiar indoor plants that are landscape items in Florida. Understanding the native habitat of the exotic plants we grow indoors is almost always the key to home success.
More specifically, however, I had seen many magazine articles on the innovative gardening and landscape techniques developed for the Disney parks. I was anxious to see what their program entailed, especially at Epcot Center, and to see if I could use any of the ideas myself.
The acronym EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Coincidentally, the Epcot brochure sounded faintly like those touting my hometown, Columbia. Phrases like "utopian community" and "a community where people actually work and live" kept appearing.
The most obvious place to visit at the center, if you are interested in gardening, is a giant six-acre pavilion called simply, "The Land." The main attraction is a 12-minute boat ride that meanders through animated scenes from American agriculture. Raising food in desert, prairie and rain forest environments is shown from a historical point of view, accompanied by a lackluster commentary by the captain of the boat. The thing that makes "The Land" tour worthwhile, though, is the final destination -- the Epcot Center greenhouse complex. The boat navigates through the center of huge vaulted indoor growing environments for plants as well as fish.
The greenhouses are not just for display. They are put to practical use all year long. Most of the fresh vegetables and flowers that Epcot center's restaurants use are raised here. Many experiments and innovative techniques are also developed here. For interested visitors, an hour's guided walking tour is offered. As if to show that Epcot is serious about research and education, my tour was led by a Virginia Tech student, who was partaking in a six-month internship and study program.
The most striking thing about the greenhouses is that there is no soil.
Almost everything is planted in sand, bricks of wool or nothing at all. The plants are fed by carefully formulated water-nutrient solutions. Each solution is special according to the plant using it. Tiny emitter hoses at the base of each plant deliver the correct amount of water solution.
"Drip irrigation" for my own garden is something I've been considering for some time. To see it used in conjunction with fertilizer and pesticides was enlightening. The water and additives go right where they are needed and nowhere else.
No, the Epcot system is not free of pesticides, although efforts are made to avoid their use. But to maintain picture perfect plants, constant monitoring for problems is necessary. The frog tracks I spotted in the sand proved to me that the system was fairly free of toxins.
Almost a dozen kinds of parasitic insects, most of them tiny wasp species, have been used successfully. They feed on or lay eggs on the "bad" insects, thus minimizing insect problems. I know that the predator/host cycle operates all the time in my own garden naturally, but to see some of the introduced "beneficial" insects I had read about made the theory a little more real. In an enclosed environment like a greenhouse, it is easier to monitor the results.
Diseases relating to the high humidity of the greenhouse environment are more challenging, said our guide. Occasional applications of fungicides are sometimes made. The high humidity is related to the No. 1 problem that a greenhouse in Florida, or, surprisingly, Howard County, presents -- high heat.
Most cooling is done by water-evaporative methods -- water cooling.
Outside air is circulated and recirculated through layers of wet corrugated paper-like material. Whole 6-foot-high sections of greenhouse wall are composed of these several-inch-thick slabs of corrugated stuff and kept wet by water outlets above. Through venting, the air is gently pulled through, creating a gentle draft several degrees cooler than the outside temperature. Additional venting, shading and air conditioning are needed during the height of summer, but I was amazed at how much could be done with a low-energy approach.