When a garden can offer layers of interest and accomplish several concepts within a small footprint, everyone wins. Those who tend it, those who visit it, and the wildlife that feed from it all benefit when the designing eye hits the mark.
One such garden is the tropical garden at the Forsyth County Cooperative Extension office. This garden is part of the demonstration gardens that surround the building and extend east to the wood line. Tended by Extension Master Gardener Volunteers (EMGV), the demonstration garden is a public space that showcases a wide variety of both edibles and ornamentals.
The tropical garden plays a unusual role, as it demonstrates many different gardening principles within a tightly planted space. It is a perfect example of how to create a lush, tropical feel to an area using a combination of herbaceous perennials, hardy shrubs, and heavy-blooming annuals. It gives an illusion of the tropics — a rain forest opulence without the burden of replanting year-after-year. And it also showcases some of the best plants for late-season color.
Extension master gardeners Vicki Roddick and Patsy Cuthrell have both contributed time and labor into the tropical garden. Roddick especially so — as she’s taken this garden under her wing the last two years.
Harnessing the tropical garden is the towering banana tree — which has been in its present location for over a decade. The banana (musa basjoo) is as tall as the extension building — its stately leaves creating a touch of shade to the plants around its thick base. EMGVs had to thin it out a while back, as its suckers had spread out from the main plant.
“The banana has been planted at least since 2007 and is musa basjoo — Japanese fiber banana,” said Derek Morris, an agricultural technician for Forsyth Cooperative Extension Agricultural Technician. “It is very cold hardy, usually dying back to the ground in winter but grows very fast when warm weather arrives. It is grown for ornament, as the very small bananas are not good to eat. This banana will bloom and set fruit in our area, which adds interest.”
The tropical garden seamlessly wraps around the east corner of the building, spanning the distance between two entryways. Purple heart setcreasea borders one side, its thick purple foliage spilling onto the walkway. One of the toughest, most easily propagated annuals, purple heart is known to be a returning resident in the garden — mild winters and heavy mulch make it more of a perennial than an annual.
Foliage is key to creating a tropical feel to a garden. Cannas, elephant ears, yucca, lilies, zebra grass, palm sedge, dwarf palmetto and hardy amaryllis are only a few of what does the trick.
Roddick has prided herself in finding unusual species to plant in the tropical garden. She wants to make the space a true teaching tool, featuring new and rare cultivars. Many of her plant selections have come from Raleigh’s Plant Delights Nursery, which has a reputation for uncommon cultivars.
“My goal when I get plants for this garden is to make them specimen plants,” Roddick said. “To make sure we don’t have them anywhere else in the demonstration garden, and that they’re unusual in some way.”
The garden has a wealth of distinct lilies. Pineapple lily, oxblood lily, Lily of the Nile, Giant Spider lily, and ginger lilies are all present.
Roddick’s choices in elephant ears (colocasia) and canna lilies are all complementary to the space and to each other. Mojito elephant ear has a striking burgundy mottling to the green leaves and stems, a great contrast to the darker cannas. Also included in the mix is Illustrus colocasia, which is deep purple (almost black) with olive green veining. Jack’s Giant is a towering clump of colossal green leaves — this variety is known for their proportion to a real elephant’s ear. Another unusual choice is Hawaiian Punch, which has red stems.
“The Hawaiian Punch I like because it’s a smaller elephant ear,” Roddick said. “It’s got the interesting contrast between the stems and leaves, which is pretty.”
The tropical garden’s canna lilies are abundant, as well. Cultivars include Bengal Tiger, Australia, Phasion, and Blueberry sparkler. The cannas — and most everything else in the garden — hit their stride when the summer temperatures crank up. Their color is best in the warm days of autumn, and have been especially nice with the lingering October heat.
“I want color immediately, and you’ve got to wait until July,” Roddick said. “The cannas aren’t going to really start blooming until sometime in July. The ginger lilies start in August, but they’ll go through frost when it’s nice to have something that smells wonderful and will be blooming happily through October. That’s a nice thing to have.”
Foliage provides a lot of the color in this garden, but a host of annuals sure does make it glow. Plum purple vinca, tropical hibiscus, chenille plants, Mexican petunias and mounding lantana are all luminous — and are known to be their most beautiful in the weeks before frost.
These annuals are also a teaching tool for gardeners — representative of how to extend color in the fall garden and provide food for migrating pollinators. Many annuals can start to look a little ragged this time of year. But this garden is the perfect model for what to plant for lasting color.
“I planted the lantanas — which I had never dealt with before,” Roddick said. “I was amazed when two months into it, suddenly they took off and have given great color for the fall.”
The key to a successful tropical garden is heat, sun and plenty of water — a mimic of natural growing conditions in the tropics. The Extension tropical garden is planted between a brick building and a paved parking lot — where there is plenty of summer heat. Keep this in mind if you decide to try your hand at this style of gardening.
The Forsyth Cooperative Extension office demonstration garden is open to the public. Thee office is at 1450 Fairchild Road in Winston-Salem.