Tips for planting a subtropical garden

Things don’t always go smoothly when you re-create the tropics.
Tips for planting a subtropical garden

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “hindsight”as “the understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed.” And of course everyone’s got a quote on hindsight –even David Beckham. Mine is, “If I’d known how big it would grow, I’d never have planted it there.”

Sadly, I have a tendency to ignore myself, resulting in the saying, “If it gets too tall it’s no big deal to top it,” which has been proven time and again to be completely incorrect.

So I was secretly pleased to hear friends who had planted a spectacular subtropical garden from scratch confess that a few mistakes were made, and that most gardeners overplant.

Rod and Christine Brown bought their Far North property 13 years ago with the idea of establishing boutique accommodation in the midst of a subtropical paradise.

Rod’s much-coveted pond has taken on a natural, woodland look.

The “paradise” existed only in their minds – the site they found was an old citrus orchard but it was sunny and sheltered, with 5m of prime topsoil. The brief to their landscape architect was for a lush, subtropical garden with a spectacular water feature.

Rod was determined to have one even though everyone told him it would be fraught with problems. But it wasn’t. It featured water flowing over a 5 tonne feature rock beside the terrace, down a waterfall of rock slabs, under a slab bridge, and into a rock-lined pool below. It says something for the design and planting that it is even more spectacular today.

Once the structure of the garden was established, Christine began planning the planting. She was in charge and Rod was the labourer, although he was “a bit lippy for a labourer” she commented.

The garden incorporated old and new elements – inside the shelter belts they kept some of the citrus trees to provide fruit. Then they established a subtropical area, a bog garden, a pond garden and lawns.

It was hard to establish a subtropical garden on bare land, in the heat and with no shade. Understandably, some things struggled, while the bangalow palms, taros, cannas, astelias, orchids and kangaroo paws did well.

“But we did think carefully about what to plant and most of the plants were very successful,” Christine says. Probably the most successful was the chorisia speciosa (silk floss tree), a South American species with a tall, spiny trunk and spectacular hibiscus-like flowers.

The house has settled into its surroundings sheltered by trees and softened by the climbers growing over the pergola.

The banana palms did so well Christine wished they’d never planted them. “We foolishly planted them to give shelter, but they self-seeded everywhere. I think every seed that fell grew into another banana. We eventually had to pull them out.”

Initially they put in almost 1000 plants, and Christine realises she overplanted. “I think that’s a common problem,” she says. “We overplanted the subtropical area behind the pond and it was a shame because it didn’t show off some of the specimen trees as well as we would have liked.”

It’s a testament to their planning, vision and hard work that they are now able to look back and say that, apart from overplanting, there is very little they would have done differently. The birds agree – more than 20 species of bird regularly visit, including rosellas, Californian quail, pheasants, finches, tui, wild doves and pukeko who bring their chicks to swim in the pond.

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