The first thing you need to focus on is planting a couple of trees. In a true sub-tropical forest (which Merida is built over) there are 3 layers of growth, the tall trees, mid-level shrubs, and groundcover. The trees will also help cool your house much more than other plants or AC.
One of the best landscaping tips I have for you is to plan in layers and plan around your trees. There are a few mid-level grasses and flowers that will grow in the direct sunlight (like Desert Rose) but most things will benefit from a bit of shade, including you.
Take a trip to your local nursery (vivero) and look around, you will see what they have growing under sunshades and what they have sitting out in the full light. Learning from looking at the vivero is a much better lesson than any other. I steer away from Home Depot or Walmart plants and focus on the native varieties in the vivero, my money is better spent in the local community and less likely to burn to a crisp under the tropical sun. When you talk to locals they will tell you most of the flowers come from trees, that’s because most subtropical regions are hot and dry making it hard for delicate flowers to grow. However, keep reading there are plenty of beautiful options for your garden.
Note: I’ve given you the names I have heard used including the English when I can. It’s always best to go to the vivero armed with images to help the communication process.
Trees: Please don’t plant a palm, they produce very little oxygen and absorb very little CO2 and we have enough of them already. Opt for something more local or more productive like the Chit pictured above.
Macuilis Rosa - This is one of my favorite trees, most of the year it is nondescript but once it comes alive with pink blooms you too will be in love. It is a big tree reaching 10-30 meters.
Flor de Mayo - This is a great tree for the front of the house because it doesn’t grow too big and the roots are unlikely to affect your concrete. While it is also not native CICY (Center for Scientific Investigation in Yucatan) does support the planting of it.
Chit - Better than a palm tree if you want the palm style. This is a native plant and you will be helping protect the species diversity of your new home if you opt for one.
Balche’ - This is a tree of legend and revered by the Mayans. I love it for the purple flowers it produces. If you plant one of these you will be a part of living history.
Buganvilias - this one has thorns but the beautiful paper flowers are known throughout the world. It’s more a viney bush than a tree, but it will grow tall and strong before long. They are great for brightening the corners of your garden and need lots of direct sunlight. However, I would only suggest this plant if you plan to hire a gardener. They will need to be pruned and trained a lot in the first few years of growth. Nevertheless, you will be rewarded will a wall full of flowers before long.
Macuilis Amarillo (lluvia de oro) - this is not a native tree and CICY does not support the planting of it, it is going out of popularity as many locals looks to reforest the Yucatan with native species. However, it does produce a cascade of yellow flowers during the hottest month of the year that can’t be ignored.
Of course, you can grow tropical fruit trees like mangos or mamey, but if you don’t have time or energy to harvest them it can be a messy business. They will tower tall over your house and drop their ripe fruit on everything under them including your roof. Even as an avid gardener, I’d rather buy the fruit of these tall trees from the market and not grow them myself. If your heart is set of fresh homegrown fruit I suggest the following trees as well as any citrus, they will only grow as tall as your house and will be much more manageable.
Guaya - a small round fruit called “Spanish lime” is a fresh treat and easy to grow.
Guanabana - this one takes a little patience and some organic insecticides but the fruit is coveted for ice cream and drinks.
Limon persa - a small sweet lime that grows quickly with little help from the gardener.
Naranja Agria - a local citrus that packs a lot of nutrients and is used for the base of most famous yucatecan dishes.
Mid Level Fillers
Once you have your trees picked it’s time to fill in around the walls.
Venenillo - Mexican Butterfly Weed - - this shrub grows about 1 meter tall and produces beautiful yellow flowers that attract butterflies and other pollinators. It can also survive direct sun making it okay for boarders and backwalls. Make sure to match the leaves with this picture below or you may end up with a similar flower vine that grows 30 meters tall.
Lengua de vaca -Mother in law’s tongue - Another plant that can take the direct sun, but also grows in the shade. This plant is so adaptable you can grow it anywhere, even the bathroom. It’s known to clean the air so you can use it around the garden or inside the house. It grows directly upwards making it good against walls or around tree trunks.
Flor de Desierto - Desert Rose - - My favorite for patios and around pools as it craves hot and sunny places. The flowers are a beautiful pink and if given the right space it will grow more babies over the years to brighten your home.
Crotón - Crontons - There are a variety of these brightly colored shrubs in the Yucatan and they grow best in shady areas.
Flore Pleno - I have a hard time deciding if this is a ground cover or mid-level, it’s usually rather short but can grow in direct sun. It’s one of the only bulb plants I’ve found in the Yucatan and there are many varieties all with white flowers. It’s a grassy type plant that produces flowers multiple times a year and will do great along walkways and walls.
These are best grown in partial shade and work really well in the small rocky path most houses have next to their front doors. True to the name of ground covers, they will all spread rather well. I’ve noted those that I grow in my garden but at the local vivero you can pick any shady ground cover plant that speaks to your style.
Maguey Tricolor- This low green and purple-leafed plant will slowly spread throughout shady rocky soil. The maguey family has many variations including striped yellow plants and some with pink too.
Salvia - Aloe Vera - Another plant that grows well in the rocks, plus is great for your skin if you get a sunburn or bug bites http://nikofthyme.com/why-you-should-grow-an-aloe-vera/
Liston / Mala Madre - Spider Plant - This one is a lot of fun to watch, it grows in full shade and lets off new baby plants by long self rooting arms.
This article is by Nik Jameson who will be doing a biweekly column with us at MID CityBeat on healthy living, gardening and veganism in Yucatan. To check out her blog go to: http://nikofthyme.com/
Landscaping your Tropical Garden in Yucatan
By Nik Jameson
You’ve found the perfect house and furnished it with the perfect style and you are enjoying the warm weather as you get used to your Yucatecan life. However, every time you go outside into your garden you burn under the sun and lament at the rocky yard and the sharp grasses of the Peninsula. Merida is a harsh climate for growing and landscaping but not an impossible one.