Glorious Gardens – Keep It Simple and tropical

Gardening Editor Carolyn Ernst waxes lyrical about lush tropical gardens
and offers advice on how to plan for low maintenance.

June 17, 2018
Pacific Island Living

Pacific Island Living

June 17, 2018

I have just returned from a very quick trip to New Zealand, not much of a holiday, after eight days of frantic shopping and medical visits. I did however manage some good quality time with my family and of course, no visit is complete without a garden walk, where each special plant currently flowering is shown off and discussed. My gardening heritage was very evident and I have to admit I enjoyed the beautiful displays of the many different lilies, roses and gladioli that were in flower. The gardens were a sea of colour and I somehow felt our tropical gardens were lacking or came off second best to these delightful floral displays.

However yesterday, when I was taking photographs in my garden, I rediscovered there is nothing as luxurious and pleasing as our verdant green foliage. Also with an early wet season the garden is full of fresh new growth and there is lots of colour, with the frangipani in full flower, hibiscus, brunsfelsia and mock orange all adding colour and scent to the picture. If you are told to imagine the most luxurious garden you could think of, you would probably envisage the rich green textures of large multi-shaped leaves like monstera and spathiphyllum, with perhaps the addition of orchids, anthuriums and other tropical flowers. You see this in the foyers and reception areas of first class hotels as they set the scene for your indulgent experience during your stay with them. This is very easy to replicate in your own garden, especially for those of us lucky enough to live in a lovely tropical environment.

This tropical look is not only about the choice of plants, but also needs the jungle look or the appearance of depth, and this requires the use of layers. That is, tall plants and trees for the shade and height, the middle level of shrubs, tall grasses and lilies and then the ground cover and other low growing plants. One thing to remember is that your garden needs to have width to achieve this. If you are going for this look, then the garden bed needs to be at least one to two metres wide. This width is needed to give you the depth or density required, as most plants for balanced growth need to grow out as well as up and, while pruning can limit this outwards growth, a plant can end up looking thin and straggly if not given enough space to grow properly.


Plants for screening

This is the same if you need shelter or privacy; it is very hard to get height without the balancing width. Often the only choice in these areas is to use bamboo or some of the other tall grasses. Other choices might also include a support structure and vines. I am currently using passionfruit for screening purposes and we are about to harvest our first fruit, so this is an extra bonus. Unfortunately the normal passionfruit flower is not that exotic, so the big question is, flower or fruit. If flower wins, there are a number of lovely vines available. Thunbergia grandiflora is hard to beat, with its year-round, beautiful cascades of blue flowers. Another favourite is Clerodendrum spendens or glory bower vine with its rich green leaves and bright red flowers. The secret to all vines is in the construction of a strong structure to support their growth.

I am currently designing a very small garden and have decided this is an opportunity to indulge in all the plants that just ooze a lush tropical ambiance. While the site may not be the best because of the small area, each plant will be able to be nurtured and will create the rich tropical paradise I am aiming for. Plantings will include lots of orchids (of course) spathiphyllum, bat flowers, the lush leaves of the cigar plant, monstera and anthuriums (both flowering and leaf types). The site is on the edge of a cliff overlooking a river and there are already established trees and shelter. It is rocky and in some areas there is very little soil but these will be the perfect places to showcase bromeliads, orchids and anthuriums that don’t really require soil to grow. I believe the garden will frame the view perfectly as you look through the lush foliage into the river below.

Easy care planting

Small gardens allow us to look after all of our plants. One of the disadvantages of large gardens is there is simply not the time, without a large team of gardeners, to look after each plant equally. This is especially obvious after a prolonged dry season, it is just not possible to water all areas of the garden.

This does not mean these areas become a desert, but when replacing those that have died, look around and see what has flourished and coped with the season. No plant looks as good as it does in the rainy season but many of our tropical plants are able to cope with the prolonged dry.

Use these more hardy plants in the harsher areas of your garden and save the more fussy, high demand plants for the areas you visit frequently. Also, if these more delicate plants are all in one area it makes it easier for you to care for them properly.

Heliconias and all members of the banana family require a reasonable amount of rain or water to look their best, so if you can’t make sure they are watered occasionally, make sure they are well mulched going into the dry season. The best way to do this is use the ‘cut and drop’ system. This requires that all of the old leaves and flowers, when pruned from the plant, are cut into small pieces and dropped on to the soil under and around the plants. Very quickly, a rich mulch layer is created protecting the soil and this also cuts down on weed growth as well.

Do remember heliconias and all members of the banana family are like bananas and each plant bears once only, so once that plant has flowered or fruited it needs to be cut off at ground level and a new plant will grow and takes its place.

Plants are like humans and require food and water to grow and look their best. This does not mean you need to spend a fortune on chemicals and fertilisers. Remember that as with humans, happy plants are healthy plants and if plants are given what they need, they can cope with insects and diseases. There are always exceptions, but if a plant is having continual problems then you need to decide is the plant in the wrong situation – in which case can you move it – or is the plant just not worth the trouble. Insects are a problem and can create havoc in your garden.

You have two choices, one is to spray and kill the caterpillars, and this does not need to be a chemical spray as there are now many organic sprays available that are very effective. The other way is to realise this is a natural cycle and ignore it and the leaves will grow back after the caterpillars have finished this part of their cycle. Several things will influence this choice; one of them is the placement of the affected plant. If it is close to your main living area, the sheer indignity of one of your loved plants being stripped of its leaves in front of your very eyes will mean you may have to do something about it. I have a beautiful white Tabernemontana (false jasmine) tree at my back door. Every year it gets stripped by caterpillars, every year I used to spray it, but now my grandchildren enjoy collecting the caterpillars and watching them grow, so I no longer spray. The tree seems unharmed and grows healthy leaves after the caterpillars are gone.


Piling on the poo

Also when it comes to feeding our gardens there are many organic options. One is animal poo and most stables and chicken farms will have poo available for sale. Always remember this needs to be left to age or else you risk burning your plants and making life unpleasant with the smell.

Remember also most pets love poo, especially your dog – they love rolling in it and they love the smell, so the best choice is to add it to the compost pile and let it do its thing first, before adding to your garden.

There are also plants that make good fertiliser and many of these are legumes that have a symbiotic relationship with specific bacteria and fix nitrogen to the soil. Comfrey is a plant I’ve found to be a beneficial addition to the garden – use the leaves as a fertiliser or add to the compost heap – check it out, it is not only good for you but for your plants as well.

Happy gardening!

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