Growing subtropical plants

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Edible subtropical plants offer fruit and are handy screens, writes Meg Liptrot.

Banana plants are perfect for making an area look lush - and they produce fruit. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Banana plants are perfect for making an area look lush - and they produce fruit. Photo / Meg Liptrot

We're lucky in the warmer parts of Aotearoa that we can grow wonderful subtropicals. On the occasions I've visited the South Island and have been tempted to move to Riverton, or maybe Oamaru, my big stumbling block (apart from it being a little expensive to visit family in Auckland) is "what about my bananas and cherimoya?" What about the warmth and rain we have in the north that allows us to grow the most wonderful array of lush subtropical plants? Which is why I'll be staying in Auckland.

Most of the gardens I've designed have featured subtropicals. They are particularly suited to filling awkward spaces quickly, and make dull fencelines look lush, or quickly block views that you don't want to see. Bananas are perfect in this situation.

At home, our little villa is surrounded by two-storey infill housing, and we get little snapshots of a sea view in between. The overall impression was one of being hemmed in. The best way to deal with this was to create screens of lush foliage in layers, giving a jungle-like quality, creating the illusion the backyard is bigger than it is.

The first layer of foliage is viewed from the metre-high verandah so the leaves are at eye level, with another layer in the background against the boundary fence. The chosen plants were relatively simple, not busy, and filter light beautifully. That's when banana leaves steal the show. Their leaves glow when light is viewed through them, so are perfect on the north side of the property.

When planning a subtropical garden, aim to create a moist, humid, sheltered and warm situation to mimic the environment these plants came from. Plant a canopy of sorts, which allows dappled light into the next levels in the garden, but prevents them from being parched in the sun. Choose tall plants such as mountain pawpaw and bananas, or smallish trees such as tamarillo, Tahitian lime or cherimoya to provide a good framework. Under these, plant lower-growing vegetation such as canna lily, taro or ginger. Then use bushy ground covers such as pepino. Some native ground covers work well too, such as the small limey green leaves of Fuchsia procumbens.

If you have more space, subtropical shelter species might include quick-growing sugarcane, which is non-invasive (unlike some bamboo). According to the late Joe Polaischer of Rainbow Valley Farm, sugarcane juice makes a delicious sweet mixer in a cocktail, replacing refined sugar syrup.

All you need is an old modified wringer to crush and juice the cane. Muddle some pieces of lime from your Tahitian lime tree with a few sprigs of mint in a glass and mix.

Backyard mojito, anyone?

Subtropical picks

Tall canopy: Avocado, casimiroa (also called White sapote or icecream fruit). These trees need lots of space and good shelter. Sugarcane, mountain pawpaw are good as shelter plants.

Smaller trees: Cherimoya, babaco, Tahitian lime, tamarillo, tropical guava

Shrubby plants/groundcovers: Taro, white or red ginger (eg galangal, non-invasive), pepino, wild pineapple (related to the bromeliad, and edible)

Subtropical gardens to visit

(The top two are also nurseries.)

* Landsendt, Oratia (Dick Endt introduced tamarillo to New Zealand. A gorgeous, show garden; visit by appointment, plus nursery).

* Subtropica, Waipu (by appointment, excellent nursery, great advice).

* Unitec Hortecology Sanctuary, Mt Albert (has a mature food forest.

* Sustainable Living Centre garden, New Lynn.

Also, join Tree Crops Assn.

Do you have subtopical plants in your garden? Any tips for making them thrive?

- Herald on Sunday

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