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Going Tropical in Your Own Backyard

Don Nicholson

Look no further than your local nurseries, garden centres and even some grocery stores if you have an interest in developing a tropical/sub-tropical look to your garden. I am growing everything from cannas, begonias, Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus), papyrus and pink waterlilies to hibiscus, a banana tree and a lemon tree for starters.

Remember, jungle areas and the rain forest are dense with foliage growth and by thinking of your gardening areas as rooms in which you can read, entertain and relax with lots of plants, you will have developed a mini-tropical home away from home. Here I am in Peterborough, Zone 5, and people who come and have tea with us in our secret garden are astounded with the possibilities.

Several years ago we purchased dracaena commonly known as "spikes" at $2.00 each. In the late Autumn, we bring them into our slightly heated garage and donít water them again until April/May. Then we return them outdoors. One grew to be 5 feet tall and looks like a mini-palm tree.

I used to think tuberous begonias were a lot of work to store over the winter. I now plant each one in a separate pot and place the whole pot in the ground in a shady area. After the begonias have been hit by their first frost, I take the pots to the garage and donít water them until I see them starting to put forth a bud again in late March. I lift the tuber gently from the pot before my first watering, discard the top half of the soil and loosen the bottom half and mix it with compost. Then I add some new potting mix with compost to the pot until the pot is ĺ full. I replace the tuber and put potting mix that contains fertilizer granules around it. All of this is watered with a fish fertilizer that can be purchased at any nursery/garden centre.

We started to grow the Passion Flower vine, and the Mandevilla vine (both tropicals) on the same 10 foot pole along with morning glories. The Passion Flower comes in several shades and is called "passion" because of the crown of thorns-stamens shaped like nails in the flowers reminding one of Christís crucifixion. The Mandevilla flowers can be yellow, pink or white and are waxy in texture with glossy shiny foliage. We grow each plant in a separate 16 inch pot. By the end of the gardening season, they have all reached the top of the pole and are intertwined. In the Fall before the first frost, we cut them all down to 6 inches and bring the Passion Flower and Mandevilla into the house and place them in a sunny window. We usually have to cut them back twice during the winter to their 6 inch growth. We fertilize them during their outdoor period and slow down on the watering and fertilizing in the winter.

Our banana plant we purchased last summer in a grocery store. It was only about 8 inches tall at the time of purchase; we grew it outdoors and brought it in before the first frost last Fall. When I was visiting Cuban gardens this past February, I was told with the proper climate, a banana plant will grow to its full height and produce bananas within 9 or 10 months. My expectation is not to have my banana plant produce bananas but to use it as a specimen plant in my garden.

Brugmansia is another tropical plant we grow. It can grow 8 feet tall in one season and has blooms of yellow, pink or white that can be 12 inches in length. At night they give off the most hypnotic fragrance. We bring them into the garage just before the first frost after they have bloomed, cut them back to 4 to 6 inches and donít water them again until March when we bring them back into the house. If the plant has not bloomed before the first frost, we bring it into the living room and let it bloom inside. We like to spray it with a mild solution of soapy water before bringing it indoors because inside it is susceptible to white flies. It is good to replace some of the soil each season. They do appreciate fertilizer.

Try making your window boxes or planters look tropical too by adding rex begonias with all their beautiful foliages along with dracaena, tuberous begonias and ivies. In the Fall, the rex begonias can be lifted, re-potted and grown indoors.

In our pond, we grow papyrus, used for making paper in Egypt. There are several varieties and since our pond is fairly small, we choose the pygmy size that is available at some of our area nurseries. I once asked a leading horticulturalist if the canna we grow in our gardens could also be grown in ponds. I now grow any variety of canna in our pond. I plant them in plastic pots specifically manufactured for pond plants. I first line the pot with landscape carpet to keep most of the soil in the pot, add soil and compost and plant my canna. Before submersing the pot in the water, I add an 1 inch layer of pea gravel to the top to keep the soil from coming out into the water and the fish from digging in it.

Donít be afraid to experiment! Remember, hostas and any kind of fern also gives that tropical look . . . just keep the planting dense.