Tropical garden ideas provide an easy way to give your garden an exotic look by blending hot, clashing colors with dramatic architectural foliage. Gardens can start to look ragged by the end of July as many perennials begin to fade. A simple way to inject life into your garden borders is to go tropical.
Buying garden-ready plants will give your garden an exotic vibe for the rest of summer. It’s an easy way to boost color and give your outdoor garden ideas another peak of interest that will last until the first frosts.
Tropical garden ideas – introduce the best plants and features
At this time of year most gardens are looking a little tired after their high-summer peak, but not those containing dramatic foliage plants, spiky specimens and vibrant flowering beauties from warmer climes. Mediterranean garden ideas really only start to get going in late summer and tend to hit their stride in mid-fall, long after plants associated with traditional displays have thrown in the towel.
These days, a tropical garden is a popular choice but it wasn’t always this way. Until the late 1980s few people grew exotics; that all changed with the publication of Exotic Gardening in Cool Climates, a book by London-based garden designer Myles Challis. It sparked an interest in tropical plants and led many to give their outdoor spaces a jungle makeover.
1. Source tropical plants
For an exotic look, don’t feel restricted in your plant choice. Simply look for plants that have characteristics of the tropics. It’s all about using dramatic, architectural foliage and showy flowers in hot, clashing colors. Some of the best tropical plants include; canna, phormium tenax, musa basjoo, black bamboo and tree fern.
2. Add vibrancy and height to garden borders
When it comes to garden border ideas, aim for a mix of heights with tall, towering plants like bamboo and bananas providing a protective canopy for lower growing plants such as ferns and hostas. Dense planting will help create the feeling of a jungle. Planting flowers such as cannas, crocosmia and dahlias will give your border vibrancy. Dahlias will put on a dazzling display well into fall.
3. Take care of your tropical garden in the winter
Many of the exotic style plants will need some protection over winter, but tender plants such as cannas, bananas and ginger lily should survive in milder areas if you mulch over the rhizomes or crown of the plant over winter. In colder regions, it’s best to lift the tubers and rhizomes.
4. Choose hardy tropical plants
The alternative is to choose hardier plants that have a tropical look, such as fatsia japonica. Next year, you can build on your border by planting bulbs such as eucomis or crocosmia and sowing seeds of annual plants such as ricinus communis.
5. Create a hypnotic water feature
One of the best things you can do to help wildlife is to build a small garden pond or water feature, providing drinking water for birds and small animals, and a breeding ground and habitat for insects and amphibians. Site it somewhere sunny or in partial shade, and aim for one that’s at least 90cm deep on the centre for creates to shelter over the winter, with shallow sides to allow easy access for frogs and newts.
Keep the water healthy with a mix of submerged oxygenator plants to encourage as much wildlife as possible.
6. Think about positioning
Tropical plants are best grouped together and placed in a sheltered spot out of strong winds, which may cause large leaves to shred. This is a particular problem with banana plants. Grouping them together will also create a microclimate, increasing humidity levels. Many of these plants prefer indirect light so leaves and flowers do not scorch.
7. Plant a tropical container garden
Tropical plants are native to regions surrounding the Equator, and have growing requirements specific to their location. Many of them need warm, humid conditions, but they will grow in the US and UK with the correct care. Setting tropical plants in an attractive container garden allows you to display them outdoors in the summer. When choosing plants for a mixed container display, be sure they all have the same watering and compost requirements. This will ensure that the whole display thrives.
If your budget can only stretch to a couple of tropical plants, group them with hot looking colorful native and Mediterranean plants to maintain the look. Pelargonium roses and agapanthus all work well. So grab an empty container and get scouting the garden centre – you’ll soon be enjoying a taste of the tropics in your own backyard.
8. Invest in a picture-perfect pergola
If you want to go to town in a tropical garden, create somewhere to sit and soak up the atmosphere. A pergola dripping with vines, raised decking enclosed with rope balustrades or a patio edged with rendered walls makes the perfect platform for arranging furniture.
‘Cantilevering a pergola over an outdoor kitchen looks lovely – and with supports only on one side – allows for freer movement around and underneath it,’ says Kate Gould. This creates more space for a variety of patio furniture ideas under your pergola.
9. Plant vertically in a tropical garden
Use walls, fences and other upright surfaces to support a vertical garden of vibrant climbers that possess an exotic air, such as trumpet vines (campsis), passion flowers and star jasmine (trachelospermum).
Underplant taller specimens with spiky yuccas, fascicularia and puya, along with perennials such as acanthus, farfugium and silver spear (astelia chathamica), which forms 4ft (1.2m) tall clumps of sword-like, metallic leaves. Inject color with pineapple lilies, red-hot pokers and dahlias.
10. Create a tropical garden in a small space
You don’t need a huge garden to create an impactful tropical look – big leaves have greater impact in neat courtyard gardens. Cordyline and ferns are fine in containers. Passiflora – passion flower – will romp about with its roots growing in very little space.
How can I make my garden look tropical?
Create a tropical garden with hardy palms, cordylines, bamboos and evergreen trees and shrubs with big leaves, such as loquat and euphorbia mellifera. Enhance the display with other leafy plants, like hardy bananas, melianthus major and the foxglove tree, whose leaves can measure up to 3ft (90cm) across when branches are chopped back hard.
Of course, it’s not just about plants. No tropical garden would be complete without a water feature. A pond, rill, wall-mounted water spout or similar type of feature will add sound, movement and character to the space.
What grows in a tropical garden?
Create a bold look in your back garden with exotic evergreens that provide low-effort drama and bold interest all year round. Here are some the best plants for a tropical garden.
With the classic exotic loo, the chusan palm is hardy in US winter, even in show. It provides height, drama and shade. It’s slow-growing but reacher 15m eventually.
This is like a large fern on a stem, with huge lacy leaves. Grow it in shade. It’s semi-evergreen but will need protection from frost.
They ramp up the tropical vibe in your space, with colorful foliage and flowers in hot reds and oranges. With strong vertical accents, they’ll flower all summer, but need winter protection.
Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space.
Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.
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