For the UK gardener, developing a tropical garden can seem an Olympic-sized challenge. But, tropical plants can be surprisingly hardy. Plus, you can grow many of them in pots that you can bring inside during the colder winter months. Here’s how to create your own tropical paradise.
Position and preparation
A sheltered spot that is sunny and frost-free will give you a head start. But don’t be put off if that doesn’t describe your outdoor space. You can create the type of jungle conditions that tropical plants love by fashioning a protective upper canopy out of tropical-style trees, and also by preparing your soil in advance.It needs to be well drained and enriched with organic matter. Mulch if you can. It will recreate those forest-floor conditions where dying organic matter enhances the quality of the soil, improves drainage, prevents your plants from drying out too quickly and helps protect them from the cold.
Choose natural materials for the structural elements of your garden rather than hard landscaping that would look out of place in a tropical setting. Recreate wooden walkways through the lush vegetation with bark or timber paths that lead to a simple wooden gazebo or arbour in the style of a tropical shack.
Display pots of exotic plants on decking and conjure up the drama of dark tropical nights with lighting. An uplighter can emphasise a special tree or the fronds of a fern, while spotlights shining through the foliage will create spectacular shadows. Hang lanterns in your seating area and complete the picture with rattan, or rattan-style garden furniture that has the added advantage of being easy to maintain.
Dense planting is key, so select plants that will give you a range of heights, from tall trees right down to ground-hugging plants. Once you have decided on your framework, varied foliage and exotic flowers will add a carnival feel. But make sure you plant tropical specimens in spring so their roots have time to get established before winter sets in.
Add depth with a mix of leaf shapes and colours. Half-hardy musa basjoo, or Japanese banana, with its long paddle-shaped leaves, contrasts well with broad Gunnera manicata (Chilean rhubarb) or the dark palmate leaves and creamy white flowers of Fatsia japonica. Shade-loving ferns and hostas make excellent ground cover while grasses, such as Carex comans, add variety, texture and an almost ghost-like quality as they sway in the wind.
Use bright flowers to add vibrancy and lift the green hues of your tropical garden. But don’t feel you have to stick to tropical varieties here – a mix of flowers that wouldn’t normally grow together can look really effective. Try exotic cannas alongside more familiar dahlias and lobelia. Showy agapanthus, crocosmia, jasmine, honeysuckle and hibiscus.
Summer is when your garden will be at its best. But tropical plants can be very thirsty so invest in a decent hose to stop daily watering becoming too much of a chore. In winter, bring tender plants in pots inside or investigate wrapping them in horticultural fleece or using straw to protect them from freezing temperatures. A greenhouse, if you have space, will protect your more delicate specimens.