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Floating Garden

For years, David Childs has had two passions: boating and gardening. Growing up in Florida, Childs raced Sunfish and took family boat trips to the Bahamas. More recently, he has earned his 100–ton master's license and captained commercial tour boats, regularly piloting craft as varied as an ultra–quiet electric launch and a 100–year–old steamboat with no throttle, where he rings a bell to communicate with the engine room.

As for gardening, Childs worked as a commercial grower for many years on a converted pineapple plantation, harvesting ornamental palms. Keeping the plantation's 140 lush acres healthy gave him firsthand knowledge on the oaks, vermilions, and ferns that dotted the verdant landscape.

When he transitioned into retirement, Childs knew both passions would remain part of his life. Unlike many people, he has had the opportunity to make his interests into his work; he wanted to incorporate both into his new home. So, when he moved aboard his 42–foot Kadey–Krogen, Calypso, five years ago, greenery of all descriptions came with him.

"Plants are part of my life. The option of not having plants on board was ridiculous," he said. "Orchids, coconuts, vermilions, all do well on boats and it makes the boat an extension of your home."

It is a select group of boaters who do anything more than bring a bouquet of flowers on board now and again. Indeed, it requires the right boat and lifestyle to be able to properly care for a varied selection of plants. But contrary to what some are inclined to believe, for long–range cruisers, it can be remarkably simple to maintain a virtual rainforest on the aft deck. Childs was more than happy to share some of his tips.

An Aft Deck Greenhouse

Especially in the sweltering summer months, it seems that much of what was once growing-at least in my garden-is now withered and brown. The few of my shrubs that survived this far into the summer have guzzled gallons of water to fend off the extreme heat. If only there could be a mild climate year round.

In this arena, Childs has a unique advantage: the ability to change his climate, spending winter somewhere warm and the summer somewhere that is relatively cool. One of the benefits of living on a boat is that Childs is not tied to one location and he has found the perfect balance of spending half the year in Florida and half the year in Mystic, Connecticut. He spends about four months anchored in each location, taking a leisurely two months to transit the Intracoastal Waterway between them.

Still, he needs plants that can withstand the marine environment. There are a few qualities Childs looks for in the plants he grows. His plant selections are logical choices for his mobile lifestyle; he grows plants that are hearty, can tolerate a lot of sun, and that can withstand getting a little salty air on them. The obvious choice for keeping plants on board is in containers, but Childs still is able to maintain a large variety. Containerized gardening is, Childs says, "clean, easy, and you always get a great plant. When they die or get unhappy you can just replace them." It's also inexpensive, which means that experimental gardeners or those unfamiliar with boat gardening do not have to spend as much money as they might on bulbs that never seem to sprout.

Though kept in containers in a relatively small space, many of Childs's plants still make an impression. The largest plant he keeps, the sprouted coconut (copra), can grow up to 60 feet tall, its slender, leafy palms stretching outward in all directions. It is a year–round, hearty plant that survives well in Florida and Connecticut as well as all the places in between. Naturally, the sprouted coconut eventually becomes unwieldy. Childs buys the plants when they are small, but in two years or less most are too big to keep on the boat and are given away, replaced by a new small plant. Nonetheless, Childs says with regular care that they generally don't take up too much space on board. When necessary, he trims the leaves so that they don't take over the cockpit, which is essentially his back porch. If he has guests coming over and needs space to entertain, Childs can easily move the container temporarily to clear the area.

The other main plants on Childs's trawler are a variety of bromelias, a mostly tropical plant that does well in warmer weather. Their stiff flowering leaves offer a nice splash of scarlet color to balance the green leaves of the coconut plant. Bromelias happily bloom in a container, have a growth pattern that works well with the north and south cruising route, and are also tolerant of a salty environment. Another of Childs's favorites is the anthurium species, a durable flowering plant also easy to grow in containers. The cockpit of Calypso seems to be easily the most extensive and attractive collection of potted plants and flowers at any marina.

Common Sense Considerations

Rather than bother with regular watering schedules, Childs has figured out a trick that works well for both the plant and his liveaboard lifestyle. Childs's trawler is equipped with an ice maker so he simply dumps enough ice on his plants to cover the soil. "The beauty of the ice is that it melts slowly so the potting material absorbs it" rather than overflowing onto his cockpit flooring, he says. It also prevents a common gardener's error: over–watering and "drowning" the plant. The ice technique allows his plants to thrive without time–consuming daily tending.

Childs uses polyurethane foam planters and saucers, which can be nearly indistinguishable from concrete or terra–cotta and have several benefits: They are completely watertight (unlike ceramics, which absorb water), an especially important trait for the drip–collecting saucer that one should keep beneath the larger container. And they are extremely lightweight. "Remember, you're living on a boat," Childs says, "You've got to mind your weight."

Many trawlers have an open cockpit aft where the breeze can pass through a nice sitting area. Childs chose to enclose the cockpit of his Kadey–Krogen with a product called EZ2CY Enclosures. By enclosing the cockpit with EZ2CY's removable, transparent acrylic panels, he not only created a sunroom effect but also provided protection for his plants from heavy wind and weather. The clear panels allow the sun to shine in on the plants and when all the panels are closed they keep the cockpit warm, making the cockpit a greenhouse of sorts. Thanks to the aft deck's protected nature and his Krogen's stabilizers, Childs also says he has no problems with plants shifting or tipping over while he is under way.

To preserve his teak sole, Childs laid down green swimming pool carpet that absorbs any water that might overflow the saucers. Adding a touch of homeliness with a practical element, in the cockpit's center he has also laid down a decorative oriental rug that once belonged to his grandfather. The most essential part of Childs's gardening toolkit, however, is his fertilizer. He swears by Osmocote, a plant food from Scotts that time–releases by heat rather than moisture, ensuring the plants a steadier feed. Put a teaspoon in each container on the first of every month, Childs says, and all types of plants will flourish. His Amazon–on–the–ICW is a fine testament to that.

'Smiling Everyday'

Even in retirement, Childs has managed to keep himself quite busy. Though he works as a professional captain, driving ferries and tourist boats at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport, maintaining his Kadey–Krogen and tending his garden has never been a chore. It's something he looks forward to.

Childs seems to have discovered the essence of the cruising lifestyle: hard work and great reward. He sums it up with a simple, joyous statement: "I'm working five days a week and smiling every day."