Creating a Tropical Paradise

miniature Cymbidium orchidIronically enough, you may solve the problem of creating a tropical microclimate by the positioning of tropical palm trees overhead. It may also be helpful to live in a densely built or densely planted neighborhood, which would tend to protect you from the chilling winds and intruding fingers of frosty air encountered in a more open location.
This, in any case, is the environment in which Ron Veto’s tropical paradise can be found, at the end of a quiet street on a cul-de-sac in Reseda.
“Every species you see I planted myself, in an orderly fashion,” Veto explained. “From the palm trees on down, I developed graduated layers of protection so that, by the time you reach ground level, it is warm enough to grow Hawaiian and indoor plants.”
This all started when Veto went to Hawaii several decades ago and returned with “that typical package of three ti plant logs.” For the uninitiated, a “log” in this context is a piece of ti plant stem, several inches long and about one inch in diameter. You place the logs horizontally or vertically in water, moist sand, or potting soil and, within weeks, are rewarded with sprouting roots and shoots. If you place them vertically, make sure they are oriented properly, with root end placed in the downward position.
Traditionally, ti (whose Tahitian and Maori pronunciation is tye, even though everyone in our part of the world says tee) plant has been a mainstay in the economic and cultural life of Polynesian peoples. Its sweet rhizomes are edible and have both culinary and medicinal value.
Its leaves are used as roof thatch. The original hula skirt was made from ti leaves and Hawaiian kahuna or priests wore ti leaf necklaces in performing religious rites. One of the botanical names of ti plant is Cordyline terminalis, with the species name referring to its use as a living fence, defining property boundaries or terminuses. In the tropics, you stick ti stem pieces directly in the ground and watch them grow.
Ti plants are tropical and, although they have been known to recover from a freeze, would not normally be recommended for outdoor growing in the Valley because of their sensitivity to cold. Yet, under sheltering trees, temperatures may be 10 degrees warmer than in exposed areas. To create this microclimate, Veto first planted a queen palm (Arecastrum romanzoffianum), which now dominates his garden at a height of around 30 feet. Beneath it, and half as tall, an unblemished king palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) is the picture of health.
Queen palms can be something of a maintenance headache. To look their best, they must be pruned at least twice a year, in May and in October. Old fronds bend but never break so you are faced with the constant task of cutting them off unless the sight of brown and graying fronds is not an issue for you. At the same time, you only want to prune decrepit fronds since removal of healthy fronds higher in the canopy will distort queen palm growth and cause the top of the trunk to bend away from the vertical.
When your queen palm reaches maturity, your pole pruner, even with extensions, may not be long enough to cut the fronds, unless you are balanced precariously at the top of a ladder.
However, if you engage a tree trimmer to prune your queen palms, ascertain that spikes, which make holes in the trunks, are not used for climbing. You also want to prune flower stalks before they set seed since seeds will drop and germinate readily, especially if your queen palms are growing in a lawn. In extreme cases, a lawn can be completely taken over by queen palm seedlings. Queen palm fronds may also turn yellow from mineral deficiencies so make sure the trees are regularly fertilized.
Maintaining a king palm, by contrast, is much simpler since its leaves detach and fall on their own and no pruning is necessary.
The outstanding feature of these palms is their trunks, easily identified by their green color and smooth texture when the trees are young. The red seeds of mature king palms are a nice ornamental touch and they do not germinate when they drop.
The only problem is that, in the Valley, king palms cannot grow in full sun locations or frost pockets without getting their fronds burnt. As in Veto’s garden, they must be protected from the elements.
Not only do ti plants grow under Veto’s queen and king palms, but he has a flawless triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi) as well.
This palm, so-called because of its three-sided trunk, is frequently seen in local nurseries but rarely succeeds in Valley gardens. It is one of the most drought tolerant palms, but also needs the sort of microclimate protection from hot sun, wind and cold that Veto’s microclimate affords.
Another plant normally grown indoors that flourishes in Veto’s garden is false aralia (Schefflera elegantissima). The beauty of its complex, lacey, sea green foliage is unique and rivets your attention with its delicate and repeating serrations. Like many tropical plants, it is surprisingly drought tolerant given proper conditions for growth.
Numerous tillandsia, which are a kind of miniature bromeliad, feel at home in Veto’s garden.
Sometimes called air plants because of their ability to grow in no more than a handful of soil, they are often found clinging to petrified pieces of wood or volcanic rocks, flourishing in no soil at all. Tillandsias have tough, leathery foliage that allows them to endure long periods without water. They are also easy to propagate, producing pups that may be split off from the mother plant.
Veto has two specimens of Silver Lady fern (Blechnum gibbum). Also called dwarf tree fern, this plant benefits from a diet of seaweed extract and other mild, micronutrient rich fertilizers. It reaches only three feet in height and is more elegant and lush than the taller and more familiar Australian (Cyathea cooperi) and New Zealand (Dicksonia antarctica) tree ferns.
Tip of the week
Ron Veto has a breathtaking rosy red cybidium orchid growing in a pot. Cymbidiums are the easiest orchids for outdoor cultivation in containers. They bloom in winter and spring. Although they should be fertilized twice a month for maximum bloom, they will yield some flowers even when you completely forget about them. They produce pseudobulbs so you can propagate them by division at the roots. However, keep them in their pots as long as possible since crowded plants bloom the heaviest and it may take years for new divisions, which should include at least three pseudobulbs, to flower.

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