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Valley tropical garden defies Zone 5 rules

Michael and Jennifer Gilbert, of Spokane Valley, have been named winners of the Inland Empire Gardeners Garden of the Month for August. (Pat Munts)
Michael and Jennifer Gilbert, of Spokane Valley, have been named winners of the Inland Empire Gardeners Garden of the Month for August. (Pat Munts)

From a block away I knew my visit to Jennifer and Michael Gilbert’s garden was going to be a treat. After all, when ornamental grasses and huge leaves tower above a 6-foot fence, you know this isn’t going to be your average Spokane Valley garden.

Michael met me in the driveway with a shy grin that said he was a gardener who loved his garden and, thanks to the Inland Empire Gardeners, was proud to be showing it off as the August Garden of the Month winner.

Michael and his wife Jennifer have been in their house behind Broadway Elementary for seven years. “We started with just lawn and what the previous owner called flower beds along the chain-link fence,” said Jennifer.

They combined Michael’s lifelong passion for growing plants and Jennifer’s sense of color and design as a mural artist to create a tropical paradise that mixes unusual, lush foliage plants with seemingly ordinary perennials and evergreens. The front yard is graced with a gorgeous weeping spruce surrounded by huge bunches of green and white striped zebra grass. Under a shade tree are beds of colorful hosta that thrive in the shade. Along the driveway and down the street are 10-foot-tall clumps of Ravenna or plume grass, slightly smaller clumps of giant Chinese silver grass and a huge cluster of arundo grass that looks more like sugar cane.

We moved into the back yard and for a minute I thought I was at a tropical resort far from Spokane. Hardy bananas, palms, bamboo and a huge Empress of China tree mix happily with peonies, large leaved petisites and dozens of late summer perennials like rudeckia and black-eyed Susans. “We do a lot of zone denial here,” said Michael. Bananas and palms are definitely not hardy in our Zone 5 climate and the Gilberts’ garden is not in a warm spot, but the plants are doing fine. Michael used to move the bananas into the basement every fall, but as the plants grew that got to be a real chore. So he is experimenting with wintering them in the ground covered with 2-inch-thick Styrofoam boxes filled with pine needles and heated with a light bulb. The banana did fine in last winter’s cold. “It’s amazing what passion will do for a garden,” said Jennifer.

The Gilberts round out their backyard with a small vegetable garden, a raspberry patch and a collection of espaliered apple trees. “The dogs get most of the apples as chew toys,” said Jennifer. A small but cozy deck hung with small decorative lights gives them a place to relax and enjoy the view of the garden.

Michael finds most of his unusual plants at local nurseries and occasionally through his work as a landscaper. “I like finding stuff that nobody knows about here and trying it,” he said. “I bring them home and Jennifer uses her talent as an artist to help lay out the color schemes so everything looks cool.” It certainly does.

Master Gardener Pat Muntscan be reached by email at pat@inlandnw