Q: I was surprised to see the banana shrub on your list of "10 More Indispensables" . The "Sunset Western Garden...

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Q: I was surprised to see the banana shrub on your list of “10 More Indispensables” [Pacific Northwest Magazine, Sept. 10]. The “Sunset Western Garden Book” lists it for zones 6 (borderline), 9, 14-24. Wouldn’t it be too tender for our climate? Has global warming raised our zone number?

A: The banana shrub (Michelia figo) is an evergreen magnolia look-alike with large leaves and highly fragrant, creamy yellow flowers. This was a pick of tree-expert Arthur Lee Jacobson, who has had a banana shrub growing happily in his Montlake garden since 1986, which would argue for its hardiness here.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a good choice if you live in the Cascade foothills or another of the Puget Sound basin’s colder areas. If you have a warm, sheltered spot in your garden, or live in the city or near water, your garden is probably warm enough to grow a banana shrub.

While zone numbers haven’t officially been revised, many of us who used to consider our gardens to be a zone 5 on the “Sunset” scale (annual lows in the 20s), now consider a zone 6 to more accurately reflect new temperature realities.

But keep in mind that zone numbers are just guidelines. The proof lies in what actually lives and thrives in any given garden, and this depends greatly on microclimates, plant care and soil drainage.

Q: I ran into a woman at Costco and we got into a discussion about lawns. She said they had put in their first “moss lawn,” which is low maintenance (i.e. would not need cutting), and also would stay green in the hot month of August.

I’m curious about moss as a lawn. Any chance you know about this — or could find out?

A: Where lawn is shaded out, moss takes over, suggesting its applicability as green ground cover. In shady conditions, moss will eagerly carpet the ground, and stay green all year. But remember that moss can’t take as much foot traffic as lawn, so needs to be bisected by stepping stones or paths.

To start your moss garden, get rid of all weeds, which compete for water and nutrients. Choose a spot that is shady and moist. Buy a flat of Scotch or Irish moss, or combine the two for a tapestry effect.

You’ll want to separate the moss into smaller chunks to encourage it to spread. Cut it into small strips with a sharp knife, tease apart the edges of the root ball a bit, and plant the clumps around the area you want to cover. Keep it well watered, and the strips will grow together to form a soft, green mat.

An easily whipped-up home brew encourages moss to grow more quickly. Put a heaping handful of moss and a cup or two of stale beer and/or buttermilk into an old blender and liquefy for 30 seconds. Mist your newly planted moss patch once a week or so with this mixture. Be sure to weed regularly. Although you don’t need to mow moss, keeping it weeded is more work than lawn.

Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island has a glorious, primeval-feeling moss garden you might visit for inspiration. Most information out there is on ridding the garden of moss, as if this most serenity-inducing of ground covers is a pest worthy of herbicide action.

Check out what is perhaps the first and only book dedicated to the idea that moss should be encouraged rather than eradicated; “Moss Gardening” by George Schenk (Timber Press, 1998), available in libraries and bookstores.

Valerie Easton also writes about Plant Life in Sunday’s Pacific Northwest Magazine. Write to her at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or e-mail planttalk@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.