Tropical oasis created in W.Va.

About a month or so ago, I took a call from a guy named Johnny Carter, wanting me to come see his garden. He insisted that his backyard garden would be interesting enough to feature in my newspaper column.

With some doubts, I promised that we would connect in late August, when my schedule was less hectic and his garden was “at its peak.” Of course, I still had reservations when I left my office for his Chappell Road home in Kanawha City (it’s less than five minutes from my office).

All those doubts went away when I pulled up to his house to be greeted by giant banana trees and all other means of tropical plants. I had arrived at a tropical oasis right here in Charleston.

I know that there are many plants that we grow here that are tropical in nature. Many of our “annual” flowers are basically tropical plants that can’t survive our winters. But zone pushing, as Carter calls it, is his gardening passion.

He has transformed his backyard into a tropical outpost in a short three years, by replacing many of the plants with those that are usually found farther south. Some of these plants, like his banana trees, are hardy during our normal winters with mulching (though he admits last winter was rough).

When I asked Carter why he decided to transform his landscape, he replied that he vacations every year in Florida and wanted a way to re-create that feeling here at home in West Virginia. He shares his gardening endeavors with friends by hosting summer parties at the tiki bar in the garden.

His tropical garden is composed of several different plants, some of which are common garden plants here. One trick Carter uses is to find varieties of these plants that look the most tropical while maintaining some hardiness in our area.

Canna plants are common garden plants in the area and are found in abundance in this tropical oasis. Native to the Southern U.S. and on down to Argentina, this tropical beauty can survive winters here when mulched (or can be dug up and stored). I’ll also note that the tubers of canna plants are edible.

Colocasia plants, which are commonly called elephant ears by home gardeners, are also abundant in Carter’s oasis. He has several different varieties, all with different sizes, shapes and colors.

His Colocasia gigantea ‘Thailand Giant’ is particularly large and striking, though he claims to be disappointed with its smaller size this year. These plants are native to Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and some of them are also used for food for such dishes as taro (South Pacific) and poi (Hawaii).

Several different species of banana add height to his garden. For beginners, Carter suggests a common hardy banana such as Musa basjoo. I’ve seen several of these around the area and know that they will overwinter by simply piling on the mulch.

Other plants, such as some windmill palms, have a harder time making it here in our winter. While he has incorporated them into his landscape, it can be harder to keep them alive, and he’s not yet found the secret to make them thrive. I’m sure with some practice and patience, though, he’ll figure it out.

Still, some plants simply will not survive our winters, so they have to be dug up and brought inside for the winter. Some of them store as bulbs or roots in his basement. Others, like palm trees, can be brought indoors in pots.

If you want to become a “zone pusher” like Carter, just keep a few things in mind:

  •  Mulching will help overwinter plants that are close to our zone. Even if you think it doesn’t need mulch, winters like the one we just had can prove otherwise.
  •  Some plants can be protected using Styrofoam shelters built with recycled materials from things like packing boxes.
  • Plant tender plants in protected microclimates that are sheltered from wind and weather. Carter’s backyard, between a hillside and his house, is a great example of a protected space.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, but don’t be upset when things don’t work out.
  • There are lots of resources online to help. Carter suggests a Facebook group called “Zone Pushers.”

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