Tropical paradise

We all want to create our little corner of paradise in our gardens and it’s fair enough that Kiwis look to the tropics for inspiration, after all, most of us have had a memorable South Pacific or north Queensland holiday.

The bad news is that we live in the sub-tropics which means we can’t have a true “tropical” garden as it’s not only about temperatures and rainfall but the almost unvarying levels of daylight through the year nearer the Equator.

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The white-flowered variety of Justicia carnea, the Brazilian plume flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Palms are the backbone of any tropical garden and while we can’t grow the coconut palms so typical of an island paradise, we do have access to a range of trees to suit our climate.The good news is we can achieve “tropical-look” gardens if we do our homework and are clever about plant choice.

Layers of planting – canopy, sub-canopy, under-storey and groundcover – creates depth and gives the impression that a garden is bigger than it actually is.

Large trees and plants include Parajubaea cocoides (Quito mountain coconut palm) that can handle strong winds and hard frosts; Chatham Islands nikau, Rhopalostylis sapida; Atherton palm (Laccospadix australasica) from Lord Howe Island (not below minus 2C); the fish-tail palms Caryota ochlandra and C.obtusa; the smaller Dipsis boroni (hardy sugar cane palm); Strelitzia nicolai (giant bird of paradise, looks like a banana palm); banana palms; and Meryta sinclairii (puka) which although frost tender, can be grown in shade.

In the display garden at Palmco in Kerikeri they have created a coconut palm effect by planting bangalow palms on an angle – as the trees straighten up and grow towards the light a bend develops in the trunk.


Bendy bangalow palms in the Palmco garden, Kerikeri. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Other plants to help the island paradise feel include hibiscus, bromeliads, taro, gardenias, day-lilies, rengarenga lilies, Chatham Island forget-me-nots, hostas, pineapple lilies (eucomis), canna lilies, vireya rhododendrons, star jasmine, orange jessamine (Murraya paniculata), cymbidium orchids, hoya and clivia.Smaller hardy orchids, such as Australian Dendrobiums or Zygopetalums, can be grown on trees or in ponga posts.

Ferns and tree ferns also add to the tropical look and are relatively easy to source.


Vireya Tropic Glow. Photo: Sandra Simpson

If you don’t have room for a pond, water lilies can be grown in a half-barrel or a large, glazed pot.

And don’t omit bamboo from your line-up just because of its weedy reputation. Choose carefully and it will add a grace to your garden that few other plants can achieve.

Robin Booth of Wharepuke garden in Kerikeri finds that once an area is planted, plants create their own micro-climate and “support one another”.


Cordyline fruticosa Fiji in Wharepuke garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

He imported Cordyline fruticosa Fiji in to New Zealand “many years ago” and says the small tree with its brightly coloured leaves will do well in a cooler climate. New Zealand grass trees (Dracophyllum) are another shrub-size alternative.

For more information and to buy plants, try these specialist New Zealand websites:

Don’t forget to check the listings on the Group page – members of specialist groups are always happy to help.


Updates, etc

With Sustainable Backyards Month coming up – you all knew it was March, right? – I’ve updated the Events page. Some of the events are free and many are low cost so if you’ve ever wanted to find out more about foraging for free food, worm farms, having a sustainable garden or permaculture this is your chance.

There are plenty of other events coming up that aren’t connected to Sustainable Backyards – including a free talk on cycads given by Janine Gray on March 16 at her Coast Palms and Cycads nursery (between Papamoa and Te Puke). Janine will be the featured gardener in the Bay of Plenty Times on March 9.

And if you’re interested in tropical-look plants, check out the listing for the Australasian Bromeliad Conference which is in Auckland from March 14-18. Among the guest speakers is Elton Leme, a high court judge in his native Brazil who spends his spare time hunting for new plants.

One of the early commenters on this site was Ann Chapman who with husband Lloyd established Trinity Farm garden and heritage rose nursery in Otaki. Ann has just published a book about the people that some of our heritage roses are named for – Missionaries, Wives & Roses (Steele Roberts, $39.99) – and is giving an evening talk in the garden on March 14 about her research for this book and her previous one, Women in my Rose Garden. As you will see from her blog (click on her name, above) she has plenty of other books and ideas waiting in the wings.

The vege gardener has excelled himself once again and made his first boiling of tomato sauce. Despite fears that we didn’t have enough tomatoes ripe at once, a rummage round the plants on Saturday came up trumps.

Going bananas

Yakking to David Harricks in his Greerton garden yesterday (his efforts at sustainability will be featured in next Saturday’s Bay of Plenty Times) and spotted a young banana tree – a Blue Java variety, also known as the ice-cream banana because of its texture and flavour.

David got the tree from Rodger Bodle of Gisborne and he told me a bit about Rodger’s pioneering work with bananas. This interview with Rodger is from 2011. Please note that Rodger sold his garden in 2015.

Rodger has been working with bananas since the 1950s and says his biggest bunch to date has been 15kg of the Pesang variety from Indonesia, a tree that has acclimatised to his conditions. He calls his garden Bermuda Palms Banana Research and believes it is the southernmost banana research station in the world.

His garden is home to varieties from Fiji, Samoa, Ecuador, Brazil and Israel, and he also has outdoor plantings of pineapple, coffee and orchids.

Email Rodger or find him on Facebook.

This bunch of Ladyfinger bananas ripened naturally on a tree in Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Welcome inn

Guests at Katikati Motel are able to pick fresh organic fruit and vegetables from a new garden – and are then asked to recycle their food scraps to the chickens or worms in a closed-loop fertiliser system.

But when Kate and Kent Pfenning bought the motel a year ago, the garden was an area they called their “problem child”.

“It used to be an old swimming pool,” says Auckland-born Kate. “But it was filled in years ago, planted and walked away from.

“We thought we’d like it as a produce garden but it was physically too overwhelming as to how we could convert it.”


Kate Pfenning in Katikati Motel’s produce garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson


The couple saw a newsletter about a local permablitz and thought the programme based on the principles of permaculture might meet their needs.

Unfortunately, Kent had farm commitments to meet and flew back to his native North Dakota in the United States the week before the working bee, but Kate decided to go along and was impressed with the camaraderie. “I didn’t know anyone but it all just clicked,” she says.

Before their permablitz last October Kent and one of the local co-ordinators, Hugo Verhagen, broke up the concrete path that had been round the pool and built raised beds and a pergola.

The beds have been designed so the chicken coop fits over them, leaving the hens (which came with the property) to clean up, till and fertilise a bed at a time. There is also a compost heap and worm farm.


Mint grows in a recycled tin. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The garden is bursting with food, including herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, kumara, beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, grapes, passionfruit, citrus, raspberries and strawberries.


Kent is a third-generation farmer and, since their marriage 18 years ago, Kate has worked with him, raising beef, sheep and crops on a property near the border with Canada.

Until their move to New Zealand with their three school-age sons, Kate had her own business supplying lamb to the restaurant trade.

The couple moved to New Zealand to be closer to Kate’s parents and settled on the motel business having been “frequent receivers of motel hospitality”, she says.

“We may not know the motel business very well but we know business so we were confident we could make it work.”


A nasturtium grows in a retaining wall made from the concrete path around the old pool. Photo: Sandra Simpson

However, the couple couldn’t have afforded to make the garden they now have, courtesy of like-minded people.

“We’re trying to turn the garden into a working business concept – everyone in the motel trade is selling sleep so this is our point of difference.

“People are delighted when I say they can go and help themselves and do they want some eggs too?”

This article, which has been slightly edited, first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. 

Thursday digest

Orchid lovers are flocking to Kew this month for the annual Orchid Extravaganza, which includes a whole wall of vanda flowers. Read more here and see a photo gallery here.

I’ve recently joined the writing team at the GardenDrum website, run out of Australia by Catherine Stewart. It features a wide and diverse bunch of writers so there should be something to take your fancy. So far, Rose Thodey of Auckland is the only other Kiwi writer but Catherine hopes to add more soon.

Ever wondered about “no-dig” gardening? It sounds too good to be true, but here’s a whole blog devoted to it, courtesy of a Wellington gardener who established her first no-dig garden in England “a while ago”. Heaps of useful and practical advice.

Robin Booth has been planting and tending his Kerikeri garden since 1993 – and stuffing it full of interesting tropical and sub-tropical plants that you won’t see too many other places. We visited Wharepuke in the winter of 2011 and discovered that as well as the delicious garden there is also an award-winning cafe which is beautifully situated on the edge of the garden. Well worth the trek north. Robin, by the way, is the brother of “environmental sculptor” Chris Booth.

A huge project is under way to reveal André Le Nôtre’s original vision for Louis XIV’s Petit Parc at Versailles. Read more about that here.

Wine-making course

Colin Hewens at Whakamarama is getting ready to share his expertise in using garden produce to create wine.

He says a glut of feijoas got him started on the wine-making trail back in 1976 – the resulting tipple wasn’t great so Colin decided to get it right and hone his skills. He’s previously taught night classes at Tauranga Boys’ College “starting in the chemistry lab and ending up at my home”.

“People usually turn their noses up at home-made wines because they have been bitten by some noxious brew in the past, but I give them a taste of what we make here and their eyes light up.”

Colin and his partner Steve will start their classes next month, one night a week for four consecutive weeks from 7.30pm for 2 hours. Participants will make three five-litre batches of fruit wine by different methods, and sample several cellared brews to see what the results can be like.

Interested? Phone Colin on (07) 552 771 or email him.

Flowering now

Yes, it’s been a long, hot summer and yes, the summer flowers are starting to struggle a bit but there’s still plenty going on in the garden.

The other day I heard someone say that Gaura lindheimeri is much-loved by butterflies. But I think she was confused by the plant’s common name of butterfly bush, which comes from the way the flowers move about, not that they are particularly attractive to butterflies.

For the past couple of years I have trained my plant up through a stake and hoop system (bought from The Warehouse) to stop the long stems flopping all over the place. The effect now is rather like an explosion of flowers.

In the past I have tried the more strongly coloured hybrids and found them to be short lived, while the original pale pink variety just goes on and on. I cut the plant – a North American wildflower – back to the ground when it starts to look past its best.

Gaura is a drought-resistant perennial that flowers for many months.

A few years ago a friend who was cleaning out an old garden to establish her own gave me some Amaryllis belladonna (naked lady) bulbs. Completely by accident I planted them in exactly the right place – full sun with good drainage. The strappy foliage is nice and lush, and the messy dying back period lasts only for a short while.

The flower, as the common name suggests, comes after the foliage so are “naked” on a single stem. Mine are all white flowers, but there are also pink-flowered ones. I once divided a large clump of bulbs but found they “sulked” for a year or so before coming back into flower.

Amaryllis belladonna or naked lady.

Liriope muscari plants flower from summer into autumn and are good for a shady spot. The plants (they look like they might be bulbs, but aren’t) are easy to divide once they clump up and have a long flowering period. Locally, Ace Mondo offers a range of colours.

Ozbreed has developed Liriope Isabella, which the company promotes as an easy-care grass alternative for a lawn – it needs mowing only once a year!

Liriope muscari Joy Mist. The round leaf in amongst it is a native fuchsia.

I’ve had months of pleasure from vibrant pink cosmos and now the white variety is flowering strongly too.