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On Gardening: Tropical style garden all about attitude

Norman Winter, Tribune News Service on

Published in Gardening News

After the Polar Vortex visit, it left many of us thinking about life in the tropics or at the bare minimum longing for summer, gardening, and splashing in the pool. In reality, it will not be long until the backyard becomes our corner of paradise, our secret garden if we add a few tropical plants.

The tropical style garden is about an attitude as much as it is about style. Many of us made treks across the seas to far-off islands where the crystal-clear water, fragrant blossoms, and lush surroundings made us forget the stresses of life. Though we might have been there for days, maybe even making more than one trip a year, time seemed fleeting.

We find ourselves wishing we could create that look, that feel, at home, so that when we have fought the four lanes of commuting traffic, after a contentious day at the office, we can slip into cutoffs and transition ourselves to paradise. This will become our nest, our place to cook and unwind, and like Jimmy Buffet sings in "that one particular harbor."

This past summer my son took a couple of photos for the 'old man' while at the Atlanta Zoo. I take my hat off to the zoo staff that created such a picturesque setting, serving as an inspiration, or example of what can be done using everyday plants from the local garden center.

Transforming the garden to the look of the islands might be as simple as adding some coarse-textured foliage. At the Atlanta Zoo, they combined variegated bananas, black elephant ears, golden thyrallis, Persian shield, and bromeliads into what looked like a Jamaican retreat.

In another garden, they used more bananas, a couple of tree ferns, coleus, philodendrons, and elephant ears for a rain forest look. When visitors walked by, I'm sure they were not only talking about the animals but also how beautiful the Atlanta zoo is, and how they felt as though they were on an exotic vacation to the tropics. Plants will do that, they will create the mood.

There are many tropical plants at today's garden center that are more-cold-hardy than you ever imagined. They may freeze to the ground and return in the spring but that's the nature of many of our regular perennials too.

There are bananas for sale like the Japanese fiber banana that's has been known to return from minus 20 degrees. But then there are plants like hostas and ferns that simply look tropical.

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Another consideration for going tropical is our long growing season. Take, for example, a city like Baltimore that has around 238 days of frost-free weather or Louisville, Kentucky with 220 days. This means for over 7 months those cities can look like the Balata Gardens in Martinique.

Another factor is summer heat. When the stifling temperatures have sent you indoors where it is much cooler, guess what plants are looking good out in the garden. More than likely they are tropical plants like lantanas, mandevilla, ixora, crossandra, princess flower, and hibiscus.

The banana grows extremely fast. Last year a Red Abyssinian banana in Columbus froze to ground level in my son's landscape. In May it put up a shoot a couple of inches tall, by the middle of August it was taller than the roof of the house.

Don't be afraid to create your corner of paradise this summer using a healthy addition of tropical plants, put on your Hawaiian shirt, fire-up the grill and imagine that you are hearing the sounds of the steel drums in the distance.

(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)

(c)2019 Norman Winter

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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