Bring the tropics to your garden

April 19, 2011

By Tim Pfarr

Western Washington is not a tropical environment, but with the addition of a few exotic, tropical plants — and maybe a heat lamp to warm you up — you can turn your garden into a tropical oasis.

Evening glow New Zealand flax makes a nice addition to a garden with its warm red tones, reminiscent of a summer sunset. By Tim Pfarr

The hardiest tropical plants that can survive in the Pacific Northwest are windmill palm trees — which are native to Asia from central China to northern Burma — Mediterranean palm trees and New Zealand flax, said Carole Moklebust, shrub buyer at Squak Mt. Greenhouses & Nursery.

“Everybody loves that look,” she said about tropical plants and trees. “Those who are lucky enough to have swimming pools love the palms.”

All three can be planted in the ground or in pots — there are advantages to both. Potted plants can be easily moved when the winter weather turns too harsh, although they do dry out quicker. Those planted in the ground can better withstand the cold.

“One factor in plants surviving is obviously how cold it gets,” said Matt Pommer, Squak Mt. Greenhouses & Nursery general manager.

Moklebust said spring is the best time to plant tropical plants, because spring yields the best selection at nurseries and comes at the tail end of nippy winter conditions.

In summer, tropical plants flourish, as conditions are more like the plants’ native environments. Just be sure to keep their soil moist, especially when weather is driest in late summer, Moklebust said.

In winter, tropical plants can endure frost and bursts of cold, but not long periods of freezing conditions. To keep them alive, either move them to your garage or wrap them with burlap. Tying down palm tree limbs can help as well — it keeps snow from piling up on leaves and gusts of wind from snapping branches.

If you opt to move tropical plants indoors, do not move them to a particularly warm spot, such as in the house — just keep them in a spot warmer than freezing, Moklebust said. Moving the plants someplace too warm could trigger spring and summertime behavior, causing sap in the palm trees to start flowing. That can result in extensive weathering when the plant is placed back outside in winter conditions.

However, if you choose to leave the tree or plant outside for winter, be prepared for even average conditions to weather it temporarily. This weathering is common, and the plants and trees will return with their full vibrancy when spring arrives.

If you care for your tropical plants properly, they can survive for years. Moklebust said her neighbor in Fall City has successfully maintained a palm tree for years, even bringing it with her from her former Seattle home.

“They’re pretty tough,” she said about palm trees. “They’re tougher than they look.”

Tim Pfarr: 392-6434, ext. 239, or Comment at

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