Street Smarts

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Ben Appel began Appel Horticultural Services in 2000, using the botanical expertise he honed while working for Tropi-Flora and MarieSelbyBotanical Gardens. His own garden, on Main Street near downtown Sarasota, is a striking testament to his passion for orchids and other exotic species—and for creating inviting outdoor retreats. I start every project by meeting with […]


Ben Appel began Appel Horticultural Services in 2000, using the botanical expertise he honed while working for Tropi-Flora and MarieSelbyBotanical Gardens. His own garden, on Main Street near downtown Sarasota, is a striking testament to his passion for orchids and other exotic species—and for creating inviting outdoor retreats.

I start every project by meeting with the client to find out their specific needs, maintenance, aesthetic values. Then I try to put my spin on it—they usually give me the leeway. It comes out more art than landscaping.

I spend two to four hours a day in my own garden—half working and half relaxing. I’m visualizing new designs, and I do drawings. It helps spur on the creativity. The whole basis of my own garden is experimentation—when I get an idea, I try it out there first. Then I can bring a client here to showcase that uniqueness.

The key to a garden is having all the essential elements. You need hardscape—boulders, field stones, gravel, shell. And you need areas that you can utilize for outdoor living—fire pits, tiki bars. You get the most impact having a water feature. It invites a lot of creatures, and it also has aesthetic and auditory values. The plants thrive in it. It provides evaporation to the surrounding areas.

For water conservation, use plant pockets with berm barriers to isolate watering. Berms create sort of a moat system that helps retain water around the barrier. Overlapping foliage can shade plants. Arborescent aloes, royal palms or other trees provide shade so plants don’t get burned by the sun. If you’re going to have an irrigation system, use micro-misters or other items out now that control water flow.

You need an open area so it’s useable. For my garden, I imported a tiki bar from Thailand through Décor Direct. We have a Christmas party there—this will be our eighth year. There’s live music, and a lot of my clients come.

Insects—they’re everywhere. The key is not to spray, or to spray only if there’s an isolated case of over-colonization. There are a lot of beneficial insects, farming aphids like ladybugs. You can spray problem insects with water—just the physical pressure can get rid of them. Of course, any gardener knows you’re going to have trial by error; the key is persistence.

Usually, I will take into consideration the height of the house more than the look. High houses require taller plants, bigger berms. I want to settle the house within the property, so it looks like the house—and the garden—were always there.

One of my recent projects was a restaurant, Lonjevity. It used to be a Mel’s Diner. It was run down, over-weeded, in a high-traffic area [on U.S. 41] and really dry. We removed the lawn, bermed up an area parallel to the building and 41 and created a backbone of Alexander king palms. We created a water feature in the central foyer and used sand that’s usually used under brick pavers, but it gives a really clean, Zen-like appearance. Plus, it’s easy to maintain, which was really important.

Fertilization studies show the damaging runoff from too many golf courses. Keeping lawns green means overfeeding. It gets out of hand when you add everyone into the picture. I like less grass—little pockets.

I use taller trees to create backbones—the basis of the garden. The second level of the garden could have pygmy date palms, foliage, trees, then shrubs and plants, creating all different layers, similar to a rainforest. Then you’ve got orchids and epiphytes in general in the canopies, giving the garden a three-dimensional aspect. You look up into the canopy and see large, bright maroon bromeliads.

I encourage people to use unique plants, exotics. A lot of people think exotics are invasives. Some are—those ones are listed on the invasive species list. But exotics are things that come from Australia, Asia, South America—they’re not invasive if there’s no overpopulation of “volunteers” or seedlings, no root systems that are invasive. Migration is what’s supposed to happen, it’s a good thing.

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