CHEATING YOUR CLIMATEIdentifying Microclimates
The further from the warmer tropics you are attempting to garden with tropicals, the better you must know your particular climate and the plants you will be growing. Some tropical looking plants can be very forgiving, and can tolerate many nights below freezing. While others won’t even tolerate repeated night time temperatures in the 40s F (5-10º C). Learning what your climate will let you grow is the key challenge of creating that garden with a tropical theme.
The keen observer can learn a lot by noticing what plants are growing in your immediate area. For example, finding a thriving mature citrus tree in a location similar to yours will immediately give the experienced gardener foolproof information about the climate, and what other plants will grow in that area. There is no short cut or end to this learning curve. And your own personal journey discovering what you can or cannot grow will be interesting and rewarding.
Some common “indicator plants” can give you a rough idea of what will work best for you. If you see a mature coconut palm in your neighborhood, you can grow just about anything. If you don’t see any palms at all, that will tell you that you are going to have a hard time going tropical. But these are not hard and fast rules, only guidelines. And with enough perseverance, and armed with enough knowledge, your garden can look more tropical than anyone would have ever thought possible.
You will want to pickup several (depending on the size of your garden) high/low thermometers. These will record the highest an lowest temperature where they are placed until you reset them. The lowest and highest temperature you experience, and where in your garden that is, will be crucial information. By setting these thermometers around your yard and taking note of the readings, you will begin to notice a few interesting things – collectively known as microclimates.
The nuances of microclimates in marginal climates can make a big difference. That little low spot just down the street from you may easily experience a 5 degree lower night time temperature compared to just up the slope at your house, several blocks away. And 5 degrees is more than significant – it is huge. Many plants that you can grow will not grow in that low spot. And there can even be meaningful differences in the various microclimates of your front and backyard.
In the Northern Hemisphere, south facing slopes, walls, or rock formations will stay slightly warmer than surrounding areas. A thermometer located under a large canopy tree will register warmer temps than one out in the open. In fact, during a cold night with frost, plants that are under canopy may survive, while those out in the open will perish. Near the ground may be several degrees cooler than five feet higher. So a small plant close to the ground may die, while and same older and taller plant will live. And an area around a lake, pond, or swimming pool may stay a few degrees warmer at night than other areas.
There are many such tips and tricks when it comes to pushing the envelope as to how tropical you can make your garden. A prime location for that special tropical plant you really want to grow may be that part of your yard that gets the first rays or morning sun, thus limiting the number of hours of cool/cold winter temps at night.
And don’t forget, high temps also have to be considered. Don’t expect that delicate fern to enjoy hot an dry direct summer sun. Some midday shade from a few palms will allow it to make it through the heat spells.
As mentioned, this is an ongoing learning experience. By far and away the fastest and most accurate way to gain the information you are seeking is to find another gardener in your neighborhood who is growing things other than what you see in everyone else’s yard. You will find that specialty gardeners enjoy talking to other gardener. And they are a wealth of knowledge about what they have had success with, and where to locate plants that rare or beautiful plant you have been looking for. So look for that house that has foliage that sticks out – that is different – and strike up a conversation, “pick his/her brain.” In no time you will be able to return the favor and share with them what you have found and is growing well for you.