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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Mar 24

The Tropical Garden

Posted on March 24, 2017 at 8:50 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Palm trees and tropical gardens appeal to many homeowners—especially after returning from a vacation in balmy ocean climates. Who wouldn’t want to recreate that sense of carefree ambiance right in our own backyards? The good news is that some of the plants found in tropical gardens will thrive in Marin, offering those illusions from distant shores. Yet there is a price one pays to achieve that type of environment.

Palm trees, for example, have some strong positives: They can withstand harsh winds and require minimal care. Some, such as the California fan palm, have low water needs. On the other hand, palms also have legitimate negatives: They may draw rats that live in the fronds, they don’t provide the shade and cooling effect that other trees do, and their prunings do not compost well, adding to landfills.

As with any garden, it’s important to take growing conditions into consideration before planting. Know the Plant Hardiness Zone where you live. Most tropical plants thrive in zones 10-11. Places in Southern Marin push very close to that number, so gardeners there can play with a much larger plant palette than those in Woodacre or north Marin.

Our soil types also are far different than those found in the tropical islands. For the most part our soils are clay-based, while palms thrive in the sandy soils of the tropics. Water moves through sandy soils quickly—ideal for the frequent year-round warm showers that provide adequate irrigation to these tropical natives. In Marin, our native plants are accustomed to the annual drought months from May through October and require very little, if any irrigation. However, many of the ornamental plants that mirror the tropical look do require irrigation and appreciate overhead spray mists to emulate humidity—not the classic low-water-user profile. But if you are looking for tropical plants for your water-wise garden there is hope. Some such as bougainvillea and bird of paradise thrive in my Novato home without any irrigation.

Travelers Palm
 Traveler's palm
In last week's blog, I spoke of the private garden walk I took with the head gardener of the resort where I vacationed in Jamaica. He spoke of many plants that are also found in temperate areas of Marin. A relative of the bird of paradise particularly captured my attention. The plant looked more like a palm tree and even carries the common name of traveler’s palm. This anomaly was located directly outside the door to my room. Its fronds were positioned in a singular pattern forming a large fan facing due east to west, thus supposedly helping travelers find their way. Besides its directional growth, this unique plant had an interesting water-conserving feature: It is capable of storing over a half gallon of water at the base of each frond. While it is not recommended the water be used for human consumption, rumor has it that it can provide sustenance for the parched traveler. Given the height of this plant, I would venture to guess the athletic ability of such traveler! 

Plants, no matter their origin, require that gardeners investigate the best growing conditions to provide for their health and our own sanity. Pushing a plant to grow in foreign climates requires more from the gardener to cater to those special needs. The outcome of that effort can be stunningly beautiful or a source of frustration. Just ask me about my beautiful Daphne odora that moved to Lassen County.

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