Creating A Tropical Garden For Wisconsin

Creating A Tropical Garden For Wisconsin

Part of Ep. 1203 From Distant Shores Pledge Special

From inside the Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Gardens in Madison, Jeff Epping explains how to create a hardy tropical garden in Wisconsin backyards.

Premiere date: Jul 21, 2004

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Ryan:
Wisconsin is lucky to receive the gifts from all over the country and all over the world. One of the most beautiful gifts from afar is the Thai Pavilion in Olbrich Gardens in Madison. I'm standing with the Director of Horticulture, Jeff Epping. Jeff, thanks for joining us today.

Jeff Epping:
Thanks for coming.

Ryan:
And thanks for putting this up! This is just fabulous! How did Olbrich end up with such an exotic pavilion?

Epping:
Well, it was really a gift from the government of Thailand and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. And really, it's in appreciation for all the graduates since about 1917 about 700-plus graduates, who are leaders now in Thailand civic and business leaders. So, in appreciation this is what they've done for the University and really, for all of us in the Midwest to enjoy.

Ryan:
But, it has created some special challenges in trying to create a tropical garden to go with it.

Epping:
The last place you expect to find a tropical garden is in Madison, Wisconsin. But, we're having a lot of fun with it because it's a unique challenge.

Ryan:
Yeah!

Epping:
And what we're trying to do is, really, create a feel, not use all tropicals out here because, you know.

Ryan:
They're hard work!

Epping:
It's not environmentally conscious, in one way over-wintering things all these seasons. We're using temperate plants that look tropical.

Ryan:
And your mixing them. I see the bananas, and I see the cannas and they're beautiful, but they all have to go in.

Epping:
That's right. Some things, like the beans are annuals so they're easy to do. But you don't want to go too much with that. And so, some trees that we're using, Catalpa.

Ryan:
Really?

Epping:
Royal Princess Tree or Paulownia huge leaves, humongous leaves that give you that real tropical feel. And so, plants like that we just want to cut to the ground every spring, let them flesh back up, and treat them that way.

Ryan:
So, you're almost treating them as an annual. You're wanting that first year's growth.

Epping:
That's right. That's the idea.

Ryan:
And you get the big leaves because you cut them. If we were doing this at home every spring would go and hack it down.

Epping:
Exactly, we don't want 60 or 70-foot trees here. We want to create an effect, so that works well.

Ryan:
It almost looks as though the Royal Paulownia is going to go 60 or 70 feet. I have never seen that before. It's enormous.

Epping:
It's amazing.

Ryan:
How much growth is that?

Epping:
They were 12 to 18-inch bare root seedlings last season. So, this is their second full growing season and they're pushing 18 feet. So, even if we only use them as an annual they may get six or seven feet in one season. So, if they're not particularly hardy for people farther north, use them as an annual. They're cheap and fast growing.

Ryan:
Six feet in a year. That's like half the grasses we do, too. The Tulip Tree, you said also had really exotic foliage for this garden.

Epping:
The Tulip Tree is a native tree not far out of our range but again, not completely hardy so we'll cut that to the ground. It has a very glossy unique foliage texture and quality to it, very tropical looking.

Ryan:
Now, when I think of tropical gardens, I think palm trees. And you said you had a rather strange tree that you were experimenting with.

Epping:
Our Kentucky Coffee Tree "palm trees," yeah. We took some tall saplings and trained them so all the foliage is just out at the tips of them. If you've ever seen a Kentucky Coffee Tree it has a very large leaf three feet long at maturity. And so, that is going to be our palm tree look alike. Because in the tropical climate, palms are all over the place. And, again, maybe we'll put a few out you know, tropical types. But really, we don't want to depend on those for the long haul.

Ryan:
I'll be curious to see how that one works.

Epping:
Me, too.

Ryan:
Another plant you've got around here that I don't think of as tropical is Sumac.

Epping:
Sumac, if you look at it closely it does have a very tropical look, just sort of exotic. And we have a couple different cultivars. One in particular is a golden cultivar called "Tiger Eyes" which I thinks fits appropriately in a Thai garden. And it's just new on the market. It'll hit the market for the general public next spring. A neat plant, very bright golden foliage. Golden color in foliage in Thai gardens is very prominent.

Ryan:
Then it's perfect. What about bamboo?

Epping:
We haven't done a lot with bamboo because most of them are not hardy. So, we're experimenting. But, ornamental grasses, which are hardy for us fit that bill quite well. So, Arundo donax is huge, 12 or 15 feet tall. It goes back to the ground every winter but fleshes that much in a single season.

Ryan:
And incredibly exotic looking.

Epping:
It is, it's very neat. Then, another Miscanthus, Giant Miscanthus Miscanthus floridulus is 12 to 15 feet tall as well. So, they fill-in that niche quite well.

Ryan:
And easy to grow, so they're fun, too.

Epping:
Definitely.

Ryan:
What about some perennials?

Epping:
A couple perennials that I like that have a tropical look Wild Senna, a native prairie plant, Cassia hebecarpa.

Ryan:
I've got it in my prairie. It looks very normal there. It works here, too.

Epping:
Yeah, it fits in real well beautiful exotic yellow, pea-like flowers. It dies to the ground every winter. We cut it down. It fleshes up five or six feet tall and looks beautiful. And then, another perennial for shade is Ligularia "Desdemona." It has burgundy foliage and aster-like flower which is in bloom right now.

Ryan:
So, there's really lots of choices for Wisconsin gardeners to have a "tropical" garden if they want to.

Epping:
There's many, many choices. Those are just a few.

Ryan:
Great, Thanks Jeff.

Epping:
Thank you.

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