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Gardening : Turn Your Yard Into the Tropics : Gardens: Many exotic plants that are more often found in steamy jungles can be grown in our more temperate climate.

December 24, 1989|KATHLEEN SOMMER | Sommer is a Corona del Mar free-lance writer.

You don't have to live in the tropics to enjoy the relaxing environment of a tropical garden. There are plenty of tropical plants that thrive in Southern California, even in hot inland areas. A large variety of exotic plants is not necessary to create a tropical effect.

A simple combination of palms, bird of paradise and ferns, artfully arranged, creates a striking tropical setting.

Plants do not necessarily have to be true tropicals to be included in your private jungle. A traditional tropical landscape can be modified to include some unlikely plants or to suit individual needs.

You may want to re-create some of the ambience of a favorite tropical vacation spot, using plants similar to those you were surrounded by on vacation.

That is exactly what Dr. and Mrs. Donald Steele had in mind when landscaping their new home in Orange County. The Steeles enlisted the help of landscape contractor and designer Dave DeGraffenreid to create a tropical landscape that emulates the feeling of their favorite vacation retreat on a secluded island in the Caribbean.

The Steeles wanted a landscape that requires almost no maintenance, but has flowers in bloom all year round. This challenge was met by forgetting about annual flower color and carefully selecting flowering plants that bloom at successive times of the year.

The design that DeGraffenreid came up with has no lawn. Instead, a large redwood deck was built, with a walkway extending around the side of the house. The unfinished decking is reminiscent of a boat dock in the Caribbean. It is also very practical because the only access to the yard is through the house or a trail of steep steps on the side of a hill--hauling a lawn mower up and down those steps every week would be quite a chore.

The wood deck is complemented with Phoenix roebelenii palms in whiskey barrels. A dry stream bed of lava rock runs along the walkway on the side of the house, following the original drainage grade of the property.

The lava is light and porous, and has a texture similar to that of the coral from the Caribbean island. At the edge of the deck under the shade of a queen palm (arecastrum romanzoffianum) is a hammock tied between two wooden poles, with climbing vines planted at the base of the poles.

The plants DeGraffenreid selected are a combination of traditional tropicals such as palms, banana trees, hibiscus, ferns and bird of paradise, along with some less likely choices such as New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), sea lavender (Limonium perezii), and moraea (Dietes). The entire garden is on a simple automatic sprinkler system, including the whiskey barrels.

Arrangement as well as selection of appropriate plant material are key considerations in designing your own tropical garden. As in an actual tropical jungle, plants should be arranged randomly and informally--stay away from neat rows and even spacing. In the jungle, occasional splashes of brilliant color stand out among lush, green foliage. The bird of paradise, with its bright orange bird-like flowers, is a wonderful plant for creating this effect.

The true tropical forest is arranged in tiers, the tallest of which is a protective canopy of trees that shade sensitive plants below. Depending on the size of your yard, you can use one or many trees to create a canopy. Palms are strongly suggestive of the tropics and are a perfect choice for a tropical landscape tree. Queen palms make a beautiful canopy, and can tolerate temperatures as low as 25 degrees.

In many instances, deciduous trees, which lose their leaves in the fall, provide adequate shade protection since the sun is hottest and most threatening during the summer. Jacaranda and Albizia julibrissin, both flowering deciduous trees, have a natural, umbrella-like form that functions as a lovely blooming canopy.

Below the canopy of trees is the second tier, made up of small trees such as the Phoenix roebelenii palm or Australian tree fern (Sphaeropteris cooperi), as well as medium to large plants such as banana trees, cycads, hibiscus, schefflera and Philodendron selloum.

The lowest level of a tropical forest is represented by ground cover and low-growing plants such as day lilies, Clivia miniata and leatherleaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis). You may want to add climbing vines, waterfalls or pools of water, or very fragrant plants such as plumeria or night-blooming jessamine (Cesturm nocturnum) for an even stronger tropical effect.

When selecting plants for a tropical garden, keep in mind that the primary limiting factor in growing tropicals is temperature. Consider the lowest temperature your area commonly experiences in the winter, and select only plants that will tolerate that temperature.

The "Sunset Western Garden Book" is an excellent reference book for use in choosing plants. "Tropicals" by Gordon Courtright, is an outstanding book that has beautiful color pictures throughout, including many tropical plants that will tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees.

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