By Okhoo Hanes, U. C. Master Gardener of Napa County
The Big Island of Hawaii has captured media attention lately with the spectacular Kilauea volcano eruptions and magma flowing into the Pacific Ocean. The calamity destroyed many homes, numerous residents were evacuated, and communities disappeared or were severely diminished. Such a powerful geological phenomenon humbles us and drives home how fragile our lives are.
Yet life goes on in Hawaii, away from volcanos. Daily chores persist. In Hawaii as elsewhere, gardening helps people regroup and recharge.
In this article, I would like to share how many Hawaiians create beauty with tropical plants in a compact landscape.
The State of Hawaii consists of eight major islands with approximately one and one-half million people. Two-thirds of them reside on the island of Oahu, a modern metropolis with a bustling international airport and robust shipping industry.
Due to its population density, the Island of Oahu has the most urban trappings and suburban communities, to the chagrin of some who lament the loss of the Old Hawai'i. However, Hawaiians in the suburbs manage to preserve the spirit of aloha and Hawai'i in their pocket-sized landscaping.
When they put up fences to define their property boundaries, Hawaiian homeowners often build out little planting beds in the corners, on the outside perimeter. These “pocket” gardens face the street, allowing their creators to share their tropical landscape vignettes with other residents and passersby.
Perhaps these pockets gardens are also an attempt to memorialize some of the land lost to development. Their creators perpetuate aloha spirit by replicating verdant tropical scenes in miniature. Some of these tiny gardens resemble oversized flower arrangements.
These pocket gardens are not much larger than some garden containers, so ideas that work for container gardens work in these pocket gardens, too. To create a pocket garden in the Hawaiian style, you need soil with good drainage. You can purchase potting or gardening soil or amend your native soil with compost and organic nutrients.
Place the tallest plants in the back, medium-height plants in the middle and low-growing ferns, groundcover or cascading flowers or ivy in the foreground. If your pocket garden is free-standing and not against the fence, a showy palm or tree can be centered, surrounded by ferns and shrubs of lower height and a groundcover.
The tropical pocket garden can be adapted for Napa Valley, although it will need more watering. In Hawaii, frequent tropical squalls and showers pretty much negate the need for regular watering of established plants except in rare hot spells without rain. Drought tolerance is not a major issue in Hawaii. Still, authorities encourage xeriscaping for water conservation.
In Napa Valley, however, drought tolerance must remain a foremost concern in landscaping. If you love the tropical look, you can find tropical plants adapted to Napa Valley's Mediterranean climate, but they tend to require regular watering.
Whether you're gardening in Hawaii or Napa, it's critical to put plants with similar water needs together. Add a thick layer of mulch around plants to help retain soil moisture.
The following plants are relatively easy to care for and will give your garden a tropical look. For frost-free palms, consider Alexander palm, king palm, cascade palm, cat palm, triangle palm, cane palm, umbrella palm, Kentia palm, Macarthur palm and sago palm. For broadleaf plants, consider taro, elephant's ear and Japanese aralia. Colorful shrubs to consider are croton, heliconia (lobster claw), bird of paradise, phormium and bromeliad. For flowers, choose canna (although it's thirsty), lantana or angel's trumpet. Suitable groundcovers include aptenia, philodendron and various ferns and succulents.
Local nurseries offer many more varieties suitable for Napa Valley. Consult a knowledgeable nurseryperson about the best choices for you.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Growing Olives” on Saturday, July 14, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Location will be provided after registration. Would you like an olive tree or two in your garden? Olive trees are an attractive evergreen and can provide fruit when properly cared for. Learn what to do in every season to have a healthy tree and tasty harvest. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment)
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.