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Garden Daze


My tropical roots run deep. Though I've lived and gardened in the Colorado Rockies for almost a decade, 6,700 feet above and thousands of miles from any ocean, my botanical passions are fired by dark red clay, bamboo forests, scarlet flamboyant trees, bougainvilleas and gardenias. A fossilized leaf from an extinct palm tree, unearthed during excavations at the Denver International Airport, reveals that the Denver Basin was a tropical rainforest 48 million to 68 million years ago. That helps to explain my intuition that oceans covered my garden a long time ago. But it doesn't ease the longing I feel sometimes for my homeland.

In 1950 my parents moved from New England to San Juan, Puerto Rico. By the time we left the island in 1965 we had lived in four different houses with very different sorts of yards. The backyard of our first house merged with a beach on a pristine bay with white sand beaches and palm trees. My earliest memories are suffused with sounds of rustling palm fronds, the feel of warm sea breezes, hot, gritty sand between my toes and the smell of fried fish. Apparently my mother knew a thing or two about gardening in sand. Recently, reading one of her letters to her mother in Connecticut from this time she said, "We went out today to get a truckload of good dirt for the garden so we could plant the hibiscus in good soil."

Our second home was inland, far away from ocean breezes, where I remember the lush shade of tall trees, a central open courtyard with colorful crotons, exotic foliage plants with huge succulent leaves, poinsetta shrubs covered with red flowers at Christmas and a plastic swimming pool always filled with kids and dogs. When we moved to the suburbs two years later , sidewalks, mowed lawns and ficus trees sheared into lollipops lined the streets in neatly edged beds.

Our last house in Puerto Rico was one of the first houses built in a new subdivision called Garden Hills on a street euphimistically called Green Hill Road, a hill that used to be green before the bamboo forest was removed to make room for the houses. For several years our backyard led to the remnants of this forest, towering sticks of clacking bamboo forming a dense canopy above dark, moist shade and bare soil. When our street filled up with houses in both directions up and down the hill, fires burned, then bulldozers cleared and stripped all that remained of this olive-green leafy shade. The snakes, and the mongeese imported to get rid of the snakes, both disappeared. Waiting for the morning school bus, I'd stare at frogs squashed by cars during the night, their insides spilling out, eyes bulging. After school I'd toss their dried flat pancake bodies at my brothers. In the rainy season, streets flooded, forming rivers of reddish-brown water rushing by, carrying uprooted plants, cardboard and plastic debris. Despite my mother's warnings of waterborn infections, I couldn't resist walking barefoot through the brick-colored squishy clay making the most of this fleeting playground .

Tropical heat, rain and clay sprouted greenery everywhere, seemingly overnight, on our small suburban lot. My father and mother planted avocado, banana, orange and lemon trees, a bougainvillea shrub that eventually engulfed the winding staircase up to the front door, and a gardenia shrub with white jasmine-scented flowers. A rubber tree, planted as a sapling next to the patio, within eight years towered over the patio and the house, its bulging tree roots making it hard to play marbles on the bare soil where nothing grew under the dense shade. The tree in the front yard, reina del jardin (queen of the garden) bloomed royal purple flowers and formed a crotch in the center where I would sit, wrap my arms around the trunk, close my eyes, and feel my body sway with the tree in the wind.

Now that I garden in a mountain desert, I nurture my tropical roots and assuage my nostalgia by cramming all manner of bold, brassy heat and sun-worshipping plants into an area called the Sun Garden. Annuals that take off when the heat kicks in and bloom 'til frost include Mina lobata vine, Scarlet Splendor zinnias, Lemon Gem marigolds, gazanias, Gloriosa daisies, and sunflowers. Perennials with bright colors in the red/yellow/orange spectrum all go in this garden -- scarlet Maltese cross, some choice heliopsis cultivars with bright yellow flowers, heleniums (sneezeweeds) and a specacular goldenrod, blooming now for its first time, called Fireworks. For fragrance at mid-day I plant lots of holy basil, an annual basil grown not for the kitchen, but for the luscious smell of cloves in the garden. For fragrance in the evening, flowering tobacco, nicotiana Fragrant Cloud, and a night-scented phlox from South Africa, Zaluziansya, that opens its teeny white flowers at dusk, smelling of honey and vanilla.

In these waning days of summer the light softens, shadows lengthen, days shorten and I'm soaking up every bit of heat and sunshine in the garden while I can. When my instinctual brain cues me to fly southward to warmer climes, I mix up a "dark and stormy night," my favorite summer drink of rum, gingerale, a twist of lime and sprig of mint, and sip slowly, watching the hummingbirds tank up on sugar water for their long journey to Mexico.

-- Laura Spear is owner of ForestEdge Gardens, a private garden in the Black Forest. You may e-mail her at

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