Forget the Drought; Head to the Tropics

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 13, 2007

At some point this summer, the objective in my garden shifted from watering plants to keep them pretty to watering plants to keep them alive. This required a lot of effort and resources for a landscape that became increasingly distressed. Depressed, I devised the ultimate drought gardening strategy: I fled the country.

In England for a few weeks, I was not around to see the dawn redwoods drop their needles or the willow shrubs shrivel or the hakone grass brown. It was wonderful.

Now I am back with a garden that is stunted and parched. The only good thing about this summer is that it is drawing to a close. The fall and winter will offer the opportunity to right the keel.

Lessons here? The conventional wisdom is to choose plants that are drought-tolerant, such lovelies as yarrows, artemisias, dianthus, coreopsis, liatris -- and other perennials that, once established, will take the dryness and still look pretty good. The difficulty is that we don't have a predictably dry climate. Stick them in clay soil or in areas of stagnant air, and you may lose them to rots and blights in a hot, wet summer such as last year's or in winter dormancy.

Joe Seamone thinks a little outside the box, and he has come through the summer splendidly with jungle plants native to rain forests. Two sides of his end townhouse in Germantown are now clothed in foliage plants of unimaginable size and lushness. Enter the gate to his back yard, and you step into a Hawaiian paradise, complete with solar-powered faux tiki torches, Polynesian totem poles and layer upon layer of exotic plants, most in pots.

A jungle in a drought may seem counterintuitive, but Seamone's philosophy is that if you are going to have to water plants all the time, you might as well get ones that lap it up.

The result is quite extraordinary. At the base of his entrance steps, a single bulb of elephant ear has produced the largest leaves of colocasia that I have seen, even more astonishing when you consider this was from a young bulb. Most big-leafed colocasias are from bulbs that have had a few years to grow large. In this case, Seamone planted an oversize variety named Jack's Giant, and he measures the largest leaves at four feet long and 30 inches across.

At the top of the stairs are two red Abyssinian bananas, dark maroon and fanning out several feet above the front door. The journey to them is rewarded with orange- and red-flowered cannas, yellow-blooming mandevillas and foliage plants.

Decorative and hardy banana varieties form the big-leaf bones of the display in the half dozen or so sub-gardens that have become his tropical playground in the Manchester Farm neighborhood.

Out front, a hardy banana (Musa basjoo) has stayed in the ground for four winters, sprouting again in the spring. The other banana types, the red Abyssinians, the Saba banana and the variegated Rojo variety, are cut back in October and brought inside.

Some of the flora is in mulched beds. Much of the material occupying his yard and his deck is in pots. He counts 173 pots, some of them more than 20 inches across.

These are not plants that enjoy droughts, so how does he do it? He has three hoses, one in the front of the house, one at ground level in his back yard, a third on the deck.

If he were to water everything in one go, it would take him 90 minutes. In a normal summer, he waters each plant three times a week, but this year it was five to six times. He also uses fertilizers -- a granular 10-10-10 at planting time and then two to three seasonal dressings of the organic fertilizer Milorganite. The tropicals are lightly mulched with pine fines, the hardy shrubs and perennials with shredded hardwood mulch.

He became an early disciple in the tropical plant movement, which has now swept across the entire continent, after working in Florida as a commercial landscape consultant. His nickname within a circle of other tropical maniacs is Boca Joe.

Over the years, he has learned to discard plants that haven't excelled and try others that have. Among some of his attractive plants is a plumeria that is seven years old, heavily branched and sporting exquisite bi-colored blossoms, sweetly scented. Cannas abound, and with them hummingbirds that feed boldly from them, ignoring us as we sit on his deck a few inches away.

There is a variety of elephant ear called Tea Cup. It is upright like a chalice and holds rainwater. There is a tender shrub from South America called juanulloa, with odd, elongated orange blossoms. Castor bean plants offer coarse, palmate foliage, and one of his favorite plants is a striking variegated canna named Stuttgart.

He said he and his wife, Debbie, were away for eight days in June. They have two friends they can call on to water the plants.

Returning home from work, he said, is like checking in to some tropical resort. The mood lightens, the stresses of the day melt away, even the burdens of watering in a dry year seem light. Is there anything he hates about it?

"October," he said, when frost will force the lifting of the material. In this paradise, however, drought appears to be no worry. Thanks, Boca Joe.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company