Are you an explorer and a lover of the great outdoors? If you are, then a tropical garden with its associated flora and fauna is likely dreamily filed away in the “Far-flung Holiday Destination” box. This lush and idealistic “Garden of Eden” image, however, isn’t generally thought of as a realistic goal for gardens and backyards back home.
Well, today I’m going to show you how to achieve your very own “Garden of Eden” in your home climate. I shall prove that a tropical garden paradise is actually highly achievable with a little plant knowledge and clever planning, whatever your climate.
Great Dixter: a Perfect Example of Adventurous Gardening
One of the best-known exotic gardens near me is Great Dixter. This was home to the gardener and well-known gardening writer Christopher Lloyd OBE. Great Dixter was designed by Christopher Lloyd, who was renowned for his innovative gardening ideas and love of exotic landscapes.
He died in 2006, unfortunately, but his book Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners is one of his best works and a crucial read for amateurs and enthusiasts alike. This photo of one of the Great Dixter gardens is a perfect example of why layering plants is so important.
Firstly, let’s take a look at the main factors that influence planning and planting a lush, colourful, tropical garden habitat.
How to Make a Plan, and Integrate It into Your Garden
Planning is possibly the most important part of creating a new garden. It allows you to play with ideas and create achievable designs while taking into account what space you have to play with.
Always draw a simple to-scale plan, whether you’re toying with a small area or planning to re-vamp your entire garden.
Design pathways around 2–3 feet wide, and ensure that you have a good idea of your plant choices’ mature sizes. This is especially important for your larger trees and shrubs. Tropical gardens don’t incorporate lawns, so you can free yourself of the weekly mowing chore too!
Once you’re happy with your garden plan, start measuring out your plot. Mark out where your paths, main structural plants and focal points will be. For this process, I use a grid system comprised of meters squared. Take the information from your plan and transfer it onto your plot, using pegs, string lines, and line-marking spray. You can find all of these at good landscaping shops and builders’ merchants.
Check Your Soil Type
Before we can start choosing plants, you need to know what soil type you have on your plot. The best way to do this is to buy a soil pH testing kit from your local garden store. Follow the instructions: it’s a pretty straightforward process, and you can check the results against a litmus paper to show whether you have neutral, acid or alkaline soil.
Take this new information about your soil type and check it against your plant choices. Only choose plants that grow well in your soil type. Alternatively, cultivate those that prefer different soil in containers instead.
You can also grow more tender plants in containers than your winter climate permits. Just bring them indoors over the winter and put them back outside for the summer. This will allow a far wider range of choices for your tropical garden, as long as you don’t mind moving them around.
Towering Tropical Plants and Trees
This is a really important part of creating a tropical “feel” to your garden. When planning a tropical garden, the goal is to create layers of foliage and flowers. This means using tall trees all the way down to the smallest groundcover plants.
Strong architectural plants, such as palms, cycads, yuccas, phormiums and bamboo, all need to earn their space in your garden plan. These need to be intermingled with huge tropical blooms and feathery grasses. Choose a diverse range of colours, textures, shapes, and forms.
I’ve listed some the premium architectural plants below that will be perfectly suited to a tropical garden theme. Frost-hardy specimens have a * beside them, while others are more tender. I’ve incorporated a mixture to enable everyone, even those living in cooler climates, to achieve their own exotic, tropical garden paradise.
Plants with Strong Structural Value
- Chamaerops humilis* – Dwarf Fan Palm * to -12
- Chamaerops humilis “Argentea” *– similar to above with silver-blue leaves
- Trachycarpus fortunei *
- Livinstona australis
- Brahea armata* – Mexican Blue Palm * to – 8
- Butia capitate* – Jelly Palm * to -7
- Washingtonia robusta – Mexican Fan Palm
- Phoenix canariensis – Canary Island Date Palm
- Phoenix roebelenii – Miniature Date Palm
- Fargesia “Asian Wonder”* – Clumping Umbrella Bamboo
- Fargesia nitida *– Clumping Bamboo
- Fargesia nitida “Black Pearl”* – Black stemmed non-invasive Bamboo
- Fargesia rufa *– Compact clumping Umbrella Bamboo
- Fargesia murielae* – Yellow-caned Umbrella Bamboo
- Acer palmatum varieties tend to grow well in all soils but need a sheltered position
- Acer palmatum “Bloodgood”*
- Acer palmatum dissectum “Seiryu”*
- Acer palmatum “Beni-otake”*
- Acer palmatum “Little Princess”*
- Acer palmatum “Taylor”*
- Musa basjoo *– Hardy Banana Plant
- Musa ensete ventricosum maurelli – Red Abyssinian Banana
- Equisetum arvense – Horsetail Grass
- Cortaderia selloana* – Pampas Grass
- Miscanthus senensis “Zebrina” *
- Pennisetum purpureum – Elephant Grass
- Pennisetum orientale
- Pennisetum alopecuroides
- Calamafrostis x acutifolia “Karl Forester” *
- Phormium tenax “Apricot Queen”* – New Zealand Flax
- Phormium tenax “Cream Delight”*
- Phormium tenax “Evening Glow”*
- Phormium tenax “Jester”*
- Yucca gloriosa – Spanish Dagger Plant
- Yucca aloifolia “Purpurea – Purple Spanish Dagger Plant
- Fatsia japonica – Japanese Aralia *
- Fatsia japonica “Spiders Web”
- Fatsia polycarpa “Green Fingers”
- Tetrapanax papyrifer rex– Rice Paper Tree* to -5
- Dicksonia antartica – Australian Tree Fern
- Dryopteris filix-mas – The Male Fern*
- Osmunda regalis – Royal Fern*
- Matteuccia struthiopteris – Shuttlecock Fern*
- Ricinus communis – Castor Oil Plant*
Once you’ve made a selection of suitable structural plants, think about where to plant them. Your goal is to create the most dramatic impact in your garden. Some will be large, tree-like specimens and others smaller, colorful plants. Look at how they complement each other and how different foliage works together. And remember, we need to create areas of shade, shelter, and light to achieve a well-balanced space.
Once satisfied with your structural choices, draw these onto your scaled Garden Plan.
Even if you have a small yard, you can give the illusion of greater space by allowing your planting to take you on a journey around the garden. Do this by changing levels in the garden and planning pathways that weave around your main structural plants.
One of the most important principles of design is to create a flow that invites you to explore the garden, whilst keeping the mystery of what is to come. Think about mass and void, both of which are necessary when planning and planting.
You ideally want your garden to unravel, without seeing it all at once. It should be a pleasure that you cannot resist to explore.
Remember to allow for your pathways to be between 2–3 feet in width.
Tropical Garden Focal Points
Do you plan to include a water feature, a peaceful contemplation area, a rocky area, garden sculpture, or a stunning specimen plant? Excellent. These are all focal points that need their own space to be seen. Spread these out in your garden if you have more than one so they can then reveal themselves on the journey around your own tropical “Eden” one by one.
Flowering Trees and Shrubs
Once the strong structural planting is taken care of, it’s time to look at smaller floriferous trees and shrubs. These should include a collection of different of leaf structures, with some large, and some ornamental blooms to soften your structure. Remember to use the layered planting method, and choose shrubs of different heights, shapes, and sizes.
I’ve compiled a list of tropical floral shrubs and small trees to get you started, but add your own favorites too. Remember to check your plant choices against your soil type.
Famed for their beautiful tropical blooms the Hibiscus genus is a real winner. Here are couple of my favorite bold floriferous varieties:
- Hibiscus rosa-sinensis “Palm Springs”
- Hibiscus syriacus “Blue Bird”
- Hibiscus syriacus “Woodbridge” *
- Hibiscus “Lord Baltimore” *
This beautiful tree is native to Columbia, Panama and Venezuela. It has waxy, lobed, deep green leaves and produces spectacular 5-petalled blooms in pure white, pink, peach, and yellow.
A beautiful shrub/small tree in the Dogbane family. You may spot it on your tropical holidays. It has deep green, waxy foliage and clusters white, pink, salmon or red flowers from May through till October.
This genus of flowering plants is in the ginger family Zingibaceae, and a treat for all. Commonly known as the ginger lily, it’s sweetly scented with exotic foliage and fragrant, tall flower spikes. Take a look at some of the varieties available.
I’ve included fennel because it has a nice balanced frame with umbels of pretty flower-heads. These work well with almost any other foliage or flowering plants.
By now, you have a good plan of your main structural plantings, selected flowering shrubs and trees, and added these to your Garden Plan. Now, you’ll note that some areas will be open, and some will be more sheltered or enclosed.
These sheltered areas will create their very own micro-climates, similar to a tropical forest environment. They’ll be most suitable for placing your frost-tender plant choices, as well as Acers, bananas etc.
Exquisite Flowering Herbaceous Plants for a Tropical Garden Retreat
I’ve included some stunning flowering plants, all with bold blooms and a diverse collection of foliage. Feel free to add to this collection with your own favorites, taking into account flower structure, color, and form.
Most listed here are herbaceous perennials that will die down in the winter and return the following spring. Few are annuals, which generally last just one season and should be replaced the following year.
These are especially good used as “fillers”, until your main plants have grown to their full size. Consequently, this allows you to vary your plant choices over consecutive years, while ascertaining which plant groups work best together.
For greater visual impact, always plant in blocks using either 3, 5, or 7 of one plant. Choose warm, bold hues such as reds, yellows, and oranges. Display these colors juxtaposed against blocks of deep green foliage and intermittent white blooms for striking effect. Likewise, purple works well too.
Crocosmia “Lucifer” and Crocosmia “Columbus”
Polyanthus tuberosa “Super Gold” and “The Pearl”
Capri23auto / Pixabay
Iris domestica “Leopard Lily”, Iris confusa – “Bamboo Iris” and Iris x hollandica “Red Ember”
A huge variety of cacti-flowering dahlias are available to add a touch of the exotic to your garden. Take a look at “Bora Bora”, “My Love” and “Wittemans Best”. These spectacular plants have fresh foliage and big blooms.
Amaranthus – “Love Lies Bleeding”. Take a look at both the green and red varieties: both are simply stunning annuals.
Flamboyant tender perennials with bold foliage and showy flowers. All are fabulous, but my favourites are Canna pretoria “Bengal Tiger Canna Lily”, Canna cannova “Bronze Orange”, “Tropicana Black” and “Yellow King Humbert”.
Strelitzia nicolai – “Giant White Bird of Paradise”
Zephranthes robusta – “Pink Rain Lily”
Neomarica gracilis – “Walking Iris”
Spathoglottis plicata – “Purple Ground Orchid”
Beschorneria yuccoides – “Mexican Lily”
Kniphofia – “Red Hot Poker”
Check out Kniphofia rooperi, Kniphofia hirsuta and Kniphofia “Bees’ Sunset”
Huge range available, check out the bold and beautiful “Crimson Pirate”, “All American Chief” and “Midsummer Nightingale”. All are superb.
Trillium grandiflorum “Birthroots”
Three beauties include Ligularia x palmatiloba , “Britt Marie Crawford” and Ligulaira reniformis
Hylotelephium “Blue Pearl”
Wonderful lush foliage plants with central flower spikes. Try to choose the larger and brighter leaved varieties for maximum impact. Great for ground cover and underplanting.
Brunnera macrophylla “Jack Frost” and Brunnera macrophylla“Alexanders Great”
All of the plants in this selection work well aesthetically in a tropical garden, but be sure to plant them in their preferred soil type. Check their preferences before adding them to your plan. Use the smaller, shade-loving perennials and bulbs for under-planting your larger specimen trees and shrubs.
Once you’ve made your final selection, then add these to your planting plan.
You should now have a complete tropical garden planting plan. When you’re happy with your choices, transfer your design onto your plot of land.
I always keep my plants in their pots until I’m really happy with their positioning and relationship with neighboring specimens. Play around until you have your desired garden. Then and only then, you can start planting. I have listed a few worthwhile planting tips below…
TOP PLANTING TIPS
- Incorporate lots of organic matter in to your planting soil
- Dig a large enough hole, deep enough for the top of your plant to be level with the soil line
- When planting, refill the excess hole with soil using spaced fingers—don’t cram it in
- When planting large plants, always stake into position until the roots have taken hold
- Leave enough growing space in between your plants
- There is no rush, take your time to do it properly and you will be rewarded with healthier plants
- Water your plants in well
- Stand back and be proud of what you have created
Tropical Gardens are an idealistic, soothing piece of paradise. With clever planning and adventurous planting, I hope to have shown you that anything is possible—even your own piece of paradise.
Happy Gardening All!