California Dreaming: A Tropical Garden In North Carolina

In San Diego transplant Tom Mello’s garden in Cary, tropical landscaping transports you to the West coast.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Bert VanderVeen

“When you’re an obsessed gardener like I can be, you take things with you when you move,” says Tom Mello. “There are plants that I have been collecting for years, some of them have been with me for 20 years. I’ve moved four or five times in there.”

Mello and his family lived in San Diego, California before relocating to Cary in 2017. When they crossed the country, the plants came, too. But since movers can’t transport plants across state lines, Mello and his brother rented a U-Haul—”Not a huge one,” he says—to transport his most precious specimens. On the truck: an aloe tree, plumeria, a dwarf Mexican lime tree, bougainvillea, Popcorn cassia, some unusual agaves and cacti and “lots of other cool stuff,” he says.

Here, they were looking for a neighborhood with sidewalks and a front porch culture. They found it in Preston Village. “It has the same close-knit feeling as what we grew up with,” he says. This home didn’t have much in the way of landscaping—”the standard, two holly trees and a crepe myrtle,” Mello says—but that was just fine with him. Mello found cold-hardy palm trees from Walker’s Palms and Exotic Plants in South Mills to serve as the centerpiece for the front yard, then filled out the rest of the beds with his tropical plants. Mello also terraced the side yard, added a vegetable garden and built an arbor to connect the front yard to the back. Throughout the yard, he incorporated his California transplants, including banana trees, elephant ears, cannas and plumeria.

Not all of Mello’s California plants are suited to North Carolina’s climate though. “I have to really closely monitor when the first freeze is going to happen,” he says, in which case he utilizes his garage. When he hopes the last freeze has passed, he’ll bring them back out. Some of his plants, including the elephant ears, cannas and banana plants, weather fine thanks to generous mulching. “Anything that’s really special, like a plumeria I’ve had for years, is in a pot so I can take close care of it.”

Mello credits his grandmother for sparking his interest in gardening. She lived in Rhode Island, but, incongruously, had a mimosa tree in her front yard. “They’re ubiquitous here in the South, but they don’t usually survive up North. Somehow she got it to live,” he says. “Whenever I see those pink powder puffs, or smell that fragrance, I’m instantly transported to my grandmother’s front yard in the 1970s.” Like his grandmother, and his mother as well, Mello finds joy in planning, maintaining and carefully adding to his tropical yard. “Gardening to me is like meditation, it’s a very relaxing thing to do.”