How To Plan A Tropical Garden
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Create your very own lush landscape in the backyard whatever the climate
Words and Pictures: Cheryl Maddocks
Holidays and gardens have a lot in common, as they’re both about relaxation and pleasure.
And if you associate the tropics with wonderful vacations, you may want to keep the holiday spirit alive by creating your own permanent tropical retreat at home.
You need a rich mix of foliage textures and colours for a peaceful exotic garden mood.
Think large vibrant foliage, flamboyant flowers and eye-catching architectural statement plants.
This garden style isn’t exclusive to the tropics, as it’s also ideal for gardens that are frost-free and can provide shelter for plants from the hot afternoon sun.
Group plants with different leaf shapes together to bring out the best in both and use variegated foliage to break up green compositions.
Caring for your garden
Give your tropical plants a little TLC to keep them looking their best.
DIG copious amounts of well-rotted manure or compost into the soil. Organic matter will hold moisture in the soil to keep your large-leafed plants healthy.
FEED generously with compost or cow manure in the spring and summer.
MULCH around the plants with composted leaves, lucerne hay or pea straw to keep roots cool and retain moisture, topping up as needed.
WATER regularly using a hose or install a drip-watering system.
Group plants with different leaf shapes together to bring out the best in both and use variegated foliage to break up green compositions
Plant in layers
Tropical gardens are densely planted, which gives them their lush look.
They’re designed on three levels, starting with an upper canopy of taller trees and palms that create a warm microclimate and provide shade and protection for lower plants.
The middle layer is made up of shrubs and tall perennials, then at soil level, low growers give a mix of leaf textures and colours.
While the foliage colour is important, the structure, texture, shape and composition are also key considerations.
There is a huge variation in foliage shape, colour and texture, and while mainly green, it can also be colourful.
You can use any trees in the upper canopy and intersperse them with palms, tall tree ferns and tall shrubs.
TOP PICKS Golden cane palm (Dypsis lutescens), kentia palm (Howea forsteriana), majestic palm (Ravenea rivularis), Alexandra palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae), giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai), Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum), frangipani, lilly pilly, ivory curl tree (Buckinghamia celsissima) and brugmansia.
Brugmansia boasts masses of spectacular flowers in summer
Choose plants 1-2m high with luxuriant foliage in different shades and shapes, and featuring stunning flowers.
TOP PICKS Clustered parlour palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii), lady palm (Rhapis excelsa), canna lily, zebra plant (Calathea zebrina), elephant’s
ear (Alocasia and Colocasia), flag ginger (Costus), shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet), blue ginger (Dichorisandra thyrsiflora), heliconia, strelitzia, gardenia, cane begonia, cordyline, yucca, Fijian fire plant (Acalypha) and Brazilian plume (Justicia carnea).
Colourful canna lilies and cordylines make great accent plants in the middle layer
When it comes to the lower layer, dense planting adds to the rich feeling of a tropical-style garden.
TOP PICKS Bromeliad, bird’s nest fern, Philodendron ‘Xanadu’, cycad, clivia, lily turf, acalypha, aglaonema, caladium, coleus, croton, maranta, calathea and impatiens.
Croton is an eye-catching choice for the low layer
Enhance the look by attaching bromeliads, Spanish moss, epiphytic orchids and staghorn or elkhorn ferns to trees
Add a pond
Water is an important part of the tropical look, so add a pond. And if you include a fountain, you’ll also benefit from the soothing sound of running water.
But if space is limited, plant a water bowl. The plants need to be positioned at the correct height in the water. Lotus plants and waterlilies should go deep in the water while others do best with the rim of the pot just above water level.
You can gain the correct height for the pots by standing them on bricks or an empty upturned pot in the base of the water container.
If a pond isn’t an option, create an imitation stream bed with pebbles and rocks, softening the edges with overhanging plants
Did you know?
Stone and terracotta plant pots add to the tropical ambience, especially when they have aged. You can speed up the ageing process by painting them with a solution of diluted yoghurt.
Plant up the pots with colourful dwarf bougainvillea, New Guinea impatiens or tropical rhododendrons (Vireya Group)
Lay terracotta urns among plants and add statues to complete the look
Pave the way
When it comes to creating a tropical feel, any pathways you build should have a natural appearance.
Stone pavers combined with gravel or interplanted with miniature mondo grass, or railway sleepers used with pebbles or bark mulch look great.
A slightly raised path made from timber decking boards always works well in this kind of lush setting.
If you already have unappealing concrete floors or pathways in the backyard, you can also lay boards on top to conceal them from view.
Furniture to fit
Cane, timber, stone and concrete furniture all suit a tropical-themed garden, so team cane Asian-style furniture with lots of cushions.
Add a day bed to provide a place where you can relax and enjoy your luscious new garden.
Timber benches, chairs and tables can be left unpainted if you want a simple look or brightly coloured for a more exotic appearance.
If you have any unsightly walls or fences you want to conceal, bamboo screens are ideal for this purpose.
Planting in cool climes
You can still create a tropical-style garden in a cool frost-free or temperate area. The plants you select may not be tropical in origin, but as long as they have the look, they’ll work.
Upper canopy Suitable palms for this layer include Bangalow palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis) and Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei).
Lilly pilly, Magnolia ‘St Mary’, Michelia albaand clumping bamboo are good for screening, while tall tree ferns and Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum) provide height and shade.
Middle layer Use flax, cordyline, Beschorneria yuccoides, yucca, Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’, strelitzia, cane begonia, Fatsia japonica, ginger lily (Hedychium) and ornamental grasses.
Low growers Go for plectranthus, cast iron plant, impatiens, ferns, lamium, helleborus, arum lily, clivia, day lily, bromeliad and hosta.
GROW TIP Choose plants with large, colourful leaves that shout a tropical hello and they’ll fit into the scheme.