The recent rave is the tropical look for our gardens, get out and get under the continent, go south, enthuse the pundits, quite forgetting that the gardener up north has always enjoyed the tender and the cosseted and is entirely familiar with their needs. Take the vegetable garden. Eggplant, tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, basil, to name some, are clearly from southern climes. In the flower garden, we have zinnias, marigolds, calendulas, dahlias, gladiolas . . . and so many others. What are being proposed now are bigger, brassier, and extraordinarily demanding. And I’ve succumbed. I grow brugmansia, even though they are a magnet for white flies, have to be set back into dormancy by a variety of methods the first sign of chilly weather. Images of Ellen Wilmott’s 99 gardeners wheeling agapanthus in huge pots out for summer’s recreation and then wheeling the behemoths back into the greenhouses sweep my mind as I similarly handle my few.
I’m also raptured by alocasia foliage, which runs from a near chartreuse to an almost ebony and is similarly allergic to cold, although the huge leaves of gunnera manicata do give them a run and are perennial. But an alocasia (or calocasia) in a pot simply has no substitute and once you try one you’re a victim. So many of these plants have to be wheeled, protected against strong sun, and wind is of course out. They are like a pair of grandparents put out for an airing on the lawn and have to be quickly wheeled in first sign of a cloud. (Grandma needs water and Grandpa has had enough sun.) No matter. They are glorious.
Abyssinian gladiolas are abundant in their blooms and extremely graceful and require no staking but lifting in the fall, free of soil and put in peat bags for the winter if such be your pleasure. They are, however, so delightfully cheap that starting with a fresh batch each season is a clear possibility.
Lemongrass goes out each late spring and in again for the winter in early autumn and so does rosemary. Don’t be gulled by trumpetings of winter-hardy rosemary. They don’t exist for zone seven. Not reliably, that is.
That wonderful nursery person Cathy Warren has given Madoo two enormous cycads. I don’t know what I’ll do with them this winter. Eat and sleep under their fronds, I suppose. Somehow I’ll make room for them.
Of course I have dreams of things citrus, particularly kumquats, and must restrain myself. If only the greenhouse were larger, higher, I would do palms and tree ferns and, of course, avocados. I did once grow the latter from a pit and, after it reached the 15-foot ceiling of the winter house, I was forced to give it away.
Caladiums come in colors fine and ghastly and should not be dismissed out of hand because most gardeners tend to grow the most obnoxious varieties they can find. Imagine a cosmetics counter under aerial attack and you have the sort I mean. Jelly beans on cocaine.
Nothing soothes more than a tibouchina in bloom. It says hush.
The greatest caveat with the tropicals is their outrageous sexuality. They come from a climate of incredibly competitive plant life and thus their foliage and flowers are almost always larger, shinier, more colorful, more odorous, more aggressive than our native species and are apt to overwhelm your planting scheme. I recall a tithonia that tried to eat the inner garden and nearly succeeded. A stewing vegetable if ever I saw one.