Subtropical gardening is a style of gardening in which an attempt is made to create a garden in a temperate climate such that it appears to be in a much warmer climate. “The lure of the beauty of tropical landscapes like those found in Hawaii, Key West, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Bali, and other exotic locales is undeniable. Such beauty has an almost irresistible appeal . . .It is the stuff dreams are made of” (Riffle, 1998).
This style of gardening is based on what has been dubbed the “tropical look.” “The tropical look is a bit difficult to define with words alone, but its components include all palms” as very important and distinctive subjects, “all plants with relatively large or boldly shaped foliage and flowers, and all plants with colored or variegated leaves and large and spectacular flowers and flower clusters . . .The tropical look is also based generally on evergreen plants, especially large-leaved herbaceous plants like bananas, bold-leaved trees, and ferns. In short, the tropical look is one of flamboyant forms and contrast.” (Riffle, 1998).
The tropical look can also be considered to include many exotic xeric plants, not just plants that give the appearance of a rainforest or jungle. "The climax community aspect of [desert] areas is uniquely exotic, tropical and colorful" (Riffle, 1998).
It must be acknowledged that the vast majority of true tropical and subtropical plants will usually not grow well in temperate climates. Although the subtropics are geographically defined as the areas of the Earth within a certain distance of the Equator, this definition is of limited usefulness in subtropical gardening. “ . . .A tropical looking plant need not be strictly tropical, either in the geographical or horticultural sense" (Riffle, 1998). Truly tropical and subtropical plants will not survive if there is too little heat in summer, and more likely too much cold in winter. Therefore subtropical gardeners must learn a variety of tricks to achieve a tropical look outside of the true tropics.
There are four main ways in which a tropical look can be achieved in a less than tropical climate. “First, one can use plants which have tropical looking characteristics but which also have some degree of hardiness. Many people do not realize how many tropical looking plants can be grown well outdoors outside of the truly tropical and subtropical regions” (Riffle, 1998). Such plants can be called “tropical impersonators, hardy plants with a tropical look” (Reynolds, 2000). The more tender plants are “grown . . .with a variety of other exotic but relatively cold-hardy plants to create the appearance of a jungle garden” (Reynolds, 2001). A vast knowledge of plant material is necessary to achieve this, and gardeners who limit themselves to the narrow selection of plants that are the most common in the nursery trade will have a very difficult time doing so. “Tropical impersonators” are important for creating the backbone of the subtropical garden, since it would be foolish to risk a marginally hardy plant in a location where its function in the garden is important (such as a windbreak or shade tree). (This also points to the importance of “plant hunting” and collecting for the purpose of having a sufficient variety of material to choose from in a subtropical garden.)
"Second, some protection--burlap-wrapping, poly-sheeting, and so forth--can be given to tender plants" (Riffle, 1998). Protection can also be offered in the form of growing plants in large containers (or even digging them out of the ground before cold periods), and storing them somewhere warm until the weather warms. The knowledge of microclimates should also be used to provide suitably sheltered places for more marginal plants according to their needs. “The modification of microclimate through garden design can . . .capture sunlight in winter, storing heat . . .Dense plantings can also mitigate cold coastal winds” (Beatty, 2001).
Third, “ . . .the gardener may choose to use plants that "die back" to the roots in freezing temperatures, but which will grow again quite vigorously when warmer temperatures return in the spring" (Riffle, 1998).
Finally, the use of hardscape elements generally associated with tropical regions such as bamboo structures and pools to invoke a tropical feel cannot be underestimated.
The gardener who is able to combine all of these elements with a general knowledge of garden design and plant care will be able to achieve an amazingly tropical-looking garden in any climate. It is certainly one of the more high maintenance forms of gardening, usually requiring more time and energy to create and maintain than other sorts of gardens. However, the rewards of subtropical gardening are well worth it.
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