A Seattle gardener shares his culture tips for growing tropical plants.
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If exotic plants tickle your fancy, you're probably keenly aware of all the sub-tropical plants available at nurseries and garden centers these days. Heat-loving plants are becoming focal points in backyards everywhere — even in places you might not expect them. Take Seattle, for example. In the heart of the Pacific Northwest, this city receives about 150 days of rain each year, and while that sounds tropical, the temperature doesn't get hot enough to grow tropical vegetation.
"Here I am in Seattle, surrounded by houses," says tropical plant expert Jeff Hedgepeth, "but when I walk in my tropical garden, I feel like I'm somewhere. According to master gardener Paul James, the real magic in this garden is the tropical feel that Hedgepeth has created by combining lots of plants, including a few Fahrenheit-finicky tropicals.
Hardy plants such as English laurel, or Prunus laurocerasus, golden hops (Humulus lupulus), assorted clematis and an Asian pear tree tolerate Seattle's cooler temperatures and make up what Hedgepeth calls the backbone of the garden. Ideal backbone plants include low-maintenance plants that drape the yard in foliage and fill every space, leaving not a bare spot of earth.
"I then look for the true tropicals that really add zing to the garden," he says. "My favorite is Canna 'Tropicana'. Who couldn't love a plant that has green-, orange-, brown- and yellow-striped leaves?"
Cannas and bananas surround the cabana and set the mood. "Believe it or not," says James, "these true tropicals grow very well anywhere the climate is moderate to warm, like summers in Seattle. But as the mercury drops, so will these special plants, if they don't get some special care."
Generally, if you're going to leave plants in the ground, you're not going to be able to protect the plant more than maybe one or two climate zones beyond the one you live in. This Australian tree fern, or Cyathea australis stays in the ground with a little over-winter help.
To provide some protection, Hedgepeth builds a simple cloche using bamboo poles for structure, plastic sheeting for insulation and clips to secure the sheeting in place. This structure will buy 5+ degrees of frost protection. "If I hear that we're going to have a serious cold spell, I'll often come out and plug in a little heat lamp as an extra source of heat just to raise the temperature a degree or two," says Hedgepeth.
Tina Marzell would like a lush and colorful place to spend her time outdoors instead of the worn and dusty backyard she has bow.