When Judy Montoure and Dorian Sanchez moved into their Tumwater, Washington, home in 1997, they had no idea that they were beginning a horticultural adventure that was to become a passion. Back then, in Judy’s words, she “didn’t know an annual from a perennial.” The three-quarter acre lot had the standard suburban lawn in front and back. It also had some mature Douglas-firs, Western redcedars, and a couple of flowering trees in the front yard. Across the back of the lot, the property had an overgrown hedge of English laurel. The landscape was disheveled, but they liked the house.
The initial joy with their new purchase was short-lived when they discovered that part of the house was settling. Large trees buried beneath the foundation had begun to decay, causing uneven support. To remedy the problem, they had to replace the buried wood with mineral soil and make substantial foundation repairs. Heavy equipment turned their front yard into an expanse of bare dirt and mud.
Once the home repairs were complete, the couple turned their attention to their destroyed landscape. Armed with an artistic eye, Judy wanted something different than the usual suburban yard, but she had little idea how to proceed. Fortunately, garden designer Julia Graham, a friend of Judy’s, volunteered to help. Together, they designed a water feature near the front entrance and created island rockeries where the front lawn had been. The beautiful and decidedly Northwest-styled front landscape was largely complete by 2003.
Developing the front landscape gave Judy the experience and confidence to redesign the back yard on her own. By then, gardening had become her passion. She had never been to the tropics, but she wanted a tropical look for the backyard. This is an ambitious goal for even an experienced gardener in chilly Tumwater, Washington (USDA Zone 8). Judy pulled off her vision with considerable flair.
The backyard renovation began with Dorian pruning the overgrown hedge into a nine-foot-high green wall. Although not tropical, English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) has broad, shiny, dark green leaves that separate the garden from the decidedly non-tropical conifers beyond. With lots of help from friends and family, rocks were placed, trellises built, soil moved, and planting began. The plantings within the back garden include tropicals and sub-tropicals along with other plants whose broad, colorful, and/or shiny leaves lend a tropical feel. The garden emphasizes foliage—but flowers, mainly in warm colors, add bright accents.
A windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) anchors one end of the garden and provides structure in Judy’s tropical paradise. The palm is planted in the ground and has survived numerous winters (including single digits at least once) without damage. Two and a half feet tall when planted, it has grown to more than 20 feet tall. Light pruning to remove old fronds is the only maintenance that is required.
Large clumps of Japanese bananas (Musa basjoo) provide tropical focal points. This hardiest of bananas is planted in the ground and has reliably returned every year with only a winter mulch to protect the roots. A clumping habit has increased the plant’s prominence over time. Dinosaur food (Gunnera manicata) displays enormous spiny leaves and cone-like flower heads. The Gunnera is cut back each fall and covered with its own huge leaves inverted over the crown. It has grown well this way for several years.
Abyssinian red bananas (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’) are decidedly not hardy in Tumwater, but Judy has overwintered this dramatic tropical tree for several years. In early fall, before the first frost, all the leaves are cut off and the plant is removed from its decorative summer container. Most of the soil is removed from the roots before storing the tree an empty plastic garbage can in Judy’s dry, frost-free garage. The following spring, when all danger of frost is past and the weather is warming (around Memorial Day in Tumwater) the tree is repotted, watered, fertilized, and placed in a sunny spot to produce its stunning beauty for the summer. “The tree is at its beautiful best at the end of summer,” says Judy, “and it really kills me to cut off the leaves and put it away, but it must be protected from frost. Removing the soil and storing it dry protects it from soil fungus, so a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do!”
Canna hybrids also figure prominently as container plants in the landscape. Canna ‘Australia’, with its burgundy foliage and brilliant red flowers, is a favorite. Winter care for the subtropical cannas consists of cutting back, unpotting, and storing the plants in containers of potting soil; they are far less demanding than the red banana. In spring, the cannas are replanted in decorative containers and placed back out in the garden where their lush, colorful foliage and flowers are brilliant tropical accents. Elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) with lush gray-green tropical foliage are planted liberally in the garden. Foliage is cut back in the fall and the bulbs are dug and stored in containers of soil like the cannas. Canna and Colocasia require frost-free winter storage, but the plants grow quickly when replanted in spring.
A few plants are simply grown as annuals and replaced every year. Blue pots of red geraniums (Pelargonium ×hortorum) and ‘Profusion Orange’ zinnias are liberally placed throughout the garden. Kangaroo apple (Solanum aviculare) grows rapidly to six feet in the ground to provide brilliant blue flowers and profuse foliage. Another fast-growing foliage plant is castor bean (Ricinus communis). Judy plants a variety with burgundy-tinted foliage.
To add to the tropical feel without the extra care that truly tropical plants require, Judy relies on hardy plants with large, colorful leaves. One such notable tree is a golden catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes ‘Aurea’) with broad, heart-shaped golden leaves that contrast spectacularly against the English laurel background. The catalpa is coppiced (cut back) each winter to keep it in proper scale with the rest of the garden. Smoke bushes Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ and C. × ‘Grace’ contribute profuse, burgundy-tinted foliage, and annual pruning keeps the plants’ growth dense. Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) sports lush, shiny green foliage on a multi-stemmed hardy shrub. Hostas, ferns, and large swathes of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) carpet the ground beneath the large fragrant white flowers of ‘Casablanca’ lilies.
Colorful accessories contribute to the tropical feel of the garden but are used with tasteful restraint to allow the plants to dominate. A garden table with an orange umbrella and chair pads brightens a corner. Small bamboo spouts in container fountains add the soothing sound of running water. And a large, metallic gold philodendron leaf accents a dark brown wall above a sitting area.
Judy and Dorian’s garden has been featured on the annual Garden Conservancy Open Days Program in the Olympia area since 2008. More than 100 enthusiastic visitors came the first year and attendance has increased each summer since. The garden is organically maintained and has been designated a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Not bad achievements, considering how it all started.