Tropical Garden Paradise

Credit: Stuart McCall

It really is “a jungle out there” and no one knows that better than Gerry and FranCeen Herron. When the couple bought their Kelowna property, it looked nothing like it does today. There was “a poorly manicured lawn with a few junipers, and no flowers at all. We knew we wanted something completely different, so about nine years ago we started creating our garden,” recalls FranCeen. Over time, their original desire for “at least a pond and a waterfall” mushroomed into three water areas. Sons Jamie and Jared pitched in with the rock work and construction of walls, waterfalls and ponds.

Neighbours and friends have dubbed Gerry “the Jurassic Gardener,” and it’s easy to see why. “My interest in tropical plants started with big, leafy specimens such as Gunnera manicata,” says Gerry. “ I began reading more about tropicals and ordered every variety I could find.” Searching out the Internet and garden shows, Gerry has added such exotics as lotus, angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia), canna lily cultivars ‘Bengal Tiger’ and ‘Phasion’pbr tropicanna, bougainvillea, mandevillas, tree ferns, princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana) and many cultivars of Colocasia and Alocasia (elephant’s ear). “Also, a seed outlet in Oregon and our local garden centre here in Kelowna both have an excellent selection,” he says. “Sometimes we experiment with a new type of seed or plant and don’t know how large they are going to grow. But ‘more bigger, more better!’”

FranCeen and Gerry’s vision was to “create a garden with a jungle-like atmosphere,” and they have been spectacularly successful. As you wander through their backyard, you feel as if you are deep in the Amazon. Towering overhead is elephant’s ear (Alocasia macrorrhiza). Bursts of sweet fragrance waft from the Plumeria alba and brilliant blossoms abound.

Gerry and FranCeen designed the garden themselves, dreaming up several garden rooms. In Tranquility Island, large tropical plants surround one of the three ponds, while Sultan’s Tent is a casual area for entertaining, with an Arabian theme using rich canopies of tropical vines such as jasmine, bougainvillea and cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens). The Rainforest brims with pots of 3.5-metre-tall (12-ft.) Alocasia and is encircled by a wrought-iron pergola. Thin hoses running along the tops and sides of the structure spew mist on hot days. FranCeen’s favourite retreat for reflection is the Waterfall Garden, and on balmy evenings, she and Gerry dip their toes at The Beach, a sandy spot complete with firepit, pond and a second waterfall. The Secret Garden is a shady retreat where the Herrons and their neighbours get together, and in The Potting Shed, backdrop for the orchid collection in the summer, Gerry germinates seeds and plants cuttings. The lighting here is his design: upside-down terra cotta pots housing lightbulbs dangle over the potting bench.

Challenges in this ever-growing garden are the lack of soil and the arid, desert-like conditions of the Okanagan Valley. To make matters worse, Gerry explains, the garden soil is “filled with rock and gravel because the property backs onto what was once the city’s gravel pit.” Undefeated, Gerry pots most of his plants in a combination of mushroom manure, sand, and Oh, So, Grow – a compost mix distributed by the City of Kelowna.

To bring them through the chilly fall and winter temperatures, Gerry, Jamie and Jared use a dolly to wheel the potted tropicals into the Garden Room, an addition specifically built for this purpose. While a skylight allows for some daylight, a number of 1000-watt lightbulbs provide additional heat and illumination.

So what’s next for this Jurassic Gardener? “Companion planting,” says Gerry. Variegated morning glory has been trained up a brugmansia to camouflage its trunk. Chartreuse sweet potato vines grow up colocasia, while flowering jasmine twists around an alocasia.

Every year the Herrons add new tropicals, however “my challenge,” says Gerry, “is how to triple my ability to overwinter the tropicals. The more my passion grows for these plants, the more room I need to house them.”

Nevertheless, pleasure most certainly outweighs the problems. “Our garden really gives a sense of being in the tropics,” says Gerry. “We don’t even need to leave home now – we have it all right here in our own backyard!”

Lindsay Silcocks is a freelance writer living in the Okanagan Valley.