A Touch Of The Tropics

 In Garden Design, News

How many of us go off on holiday and return, longing to have a garden with the lush greenery and foliage of the places that we have visited? With our climate getting warmer, there certainly seems to be an increased interest in trying tropical plants or creating that look using hardy alternatives. The tropical garden at RHS Wisley in late summer showcases a range of bananas, palms, Scheffleras and other bold exotic plants. With warmers temperatures, city gardens make a perfect setting for these more tender plants. If you crave a jungle garden, use a local Garden Designer who has an understanding of the environment and the plants that can create this look.

What is a tropical gardens? It can be defined in different ways by different people. However, the best way to describe tropical or exotic garden is the attempt of recreating a planting scheme that resonates with a warmer climate.


Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Designer: Mattie Childs Contractor: Living Landscapes

A stunning garden created designer Mattie Childs at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show. He has made full use of green lush planting incorporating Loquat, Palms, Bamboo, Fig, Cannas, Rodgersias and Hakonechloa. Just one spark of colour has been introduced throughout the scheme using New Guinea Busy Lizzies. These need shade so Mattie has cleverly created an overhead canopy with taller plants and all the plants he has used can be successfully grown in the UK.

My friend Rob Stacewicz has a passion for unusual plants, which he has grown for over 20 years. Discussing this blog with him, he describes his garden as an exotic-style English garden. Rob has divided his garden into Mediterranean and tropical zones, although very loosely he hastens to add. Rob believes people are drawn to the bold, structural forms of plants grown in warmers climates. He explains that, in theory, any plant that is non-native is an exotic. Exotic gardening is all about picking plants with the most dramatic forms, lushness of foliage, combining textures and colours.

Steve Edney’s garden, “Sweetbriar”, in Ash near Sandwich this tropical scheme uses a dark leaf Dahlia that ties back with the leaves of the Canna. The pink flowering Abutilon sits really well with oranges flowering Dahlia. These hot colours do create a real sense of the tropics. Even the spreading branches of the Mimosa look as if they are languishing in the heat.


Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

In the UK, creating a tropical garden does not mean limiting yourself to tender plants. If you live in a city, coastal areas warmed by the Gulf Stream, or have a walled garden, then you are likely to experience milder winters and less chance of severe frost. Rob says in microclimate areas like this, you can risk growing half-hardy plant species, which increases the palette of plants even further.

Give your garden that lush tropical vibe by growing tall plants that will create a canopy. Encourage the foliage of these tall shrubs and trees to interconnect with each other thereby providing shelter and protection for the more tender underlayer of planting. I often lift up the canopy of tall shrubs and tree by removing the lower branches. This provides me with space to plant underneath.

The tropical garden at Great Dixter all green but relying on texture, form, layers and different shades of green. You may be wondering why they are growing nettles in the foreground. This plant is Boehmeria japonica.


Photo Credit: Dan Cooper


Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

Steve Edney’s garden, “Sweetbriar”, in Ash near Sandwich. Musa basjoo (Banana) cannot fail to provide that tropical vibe in a garden. Here Steve has planted them with big palmate leaves like the Ricinus in this photo and Cannas. In addition, there are the red plumes of the Amaranthus, tall orange daisies of the Tithonia and sparks of pink from the Salvia. Again, hot colours that add to the heat of that tropical look.

There are no rules to creating a tropical garden in the UK. It is about trial, error and experimentation. The way to approach creating your own exotic garden is to first understand your soil, the weather conditions and wind directions in your local area and the aspect of the garden. Clay soil that doesn’t drain well is not going to do your plants any favours. Hardy exotic plants do not like their roots surrounded by cold winter wet. Improve drainage with lots of organic matter and choose robust plants that can cope with heavy soil. The ideal soil type for exotic planting is free draining. Plants can tolerate cold as long as they are kept dryer through the winter. When choosing plants, think about those that originate from other cooler climate zones such as New Zealand, China, Japan or the mountainous regions of Mexico or Southern Africa.

The late Will Giles said that a tropical garden was divided into hard and soft planting. The hard planting being the woody tough species that provide the structure and backbone of the garden. Try palms like clumping Chamaerops humilis, single-trunked Trachycarpus fortunei or the stiff-leaved T.wagnerianus. Cordyline australis and Phormium cultivars are fairly bulletproof. Some exotic-looking trees include the Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), Magnolia grandiflora and Mimosa (Acacia dealbata) which all provide shelter for more delicate plants. Deciduous trees such as Catalpa bignonioides and Paulownia tomentosa grow huge leaves each summer, and Albizia julibrissin produces stunning fern-like foliage.

Cycas revoluta are some of the most prehistoric plants in the world. They have been come very popular in recent years and can be found easily in the UK. I have planted these in my some of my client’s gardens. They are hardy plants and doing really well. These two beautiful specimens seen at Mattie Childs’ garden at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in 2019


Photo Credit: Manoj Malde

Cycas revoluta is a cycad from Japan which seems very tolerant of a range of climates. The tough palm-like fronds can weather all but the most severe winter cold. Broad leafed shrubs such as Fatsia japonica and F.polycarpa, Tetrapanax papyrifera and Schefflera are all fairly shade tolerant, further enhancing that lush, tropical feel in the garden. The soft planting is made up of the more delicate-looking and fleshy species. These are the plants that will help provide the drama. The leaves of tree ferns such as Dicksonia antarctica or Cyathea cooperi may look delicate but are pretty robust.

However, the more shelter you provide, the better they will look. Musa basjoo and Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ with their large paddle-like leaves will most definitely give you a tropical feel. In most areas, banana stems do need to be wrapped up for protection over winter. For that soft underplanting try Canna ‘Durban’ with its striking striped leaves and orange flowers, Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, Lobelia tupa and fistulosa, Kniphofia, Beschorneria yuccoides, Chasmanthe floribunda ‘Saturnus’, Crocosmia ‘Hellfire’, Arisaema, Fritillaria imperialis, Tithonia rotundifolia and Amaranthus. For more frothy greenery in the underplanting, grow Hakonechloa macra and hardy ferns. If you want bursts of colour add Zinnia and Dahlias.

You can make use of fences and walls by planting exotic climbers. Campsis tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’ is one of the most hardy, tropical-looking climbers you could use in the garden. Other climbers that can be used are Trachelospermum jasminoides, Jasminum officinalis, Solanum ‘Glasnevin’, Passiflora and Ipomea. Rob recommends Passiflora ‘Damsel’s Delight’ which he says is a new hybrid, easily found and far superior to Passiflora caerulea.

Photo Credit: Dan Cooper

At Tremenheere in Cornwall they have combine Musa basjoo with an assortment of Palms, Leucadendrons (the burgundy colour plants), Eryngiums and Ferns.

A garden can also be made to look tropical through its colour scheme. A hot spicey colour palette of reds, yellows and oranges with shots of zingy pinks and jewel purples but what will make these colours pop create that lush tropical feel and make these colours stand out is the spectrum of greens. Yes, we often forget that green is in fact a very important colour in the garden.

You may want to add to your scheme by planting some plants in pots that you could take into a porch, conservatory or greenhouse through winter and then bring out in late spring. Try shrubby Brugmansia with huge trumpet flowers. Strelitzia reginae or nicolai from Southern Africa are popularly grown as house plants but they can be stood outside over summer to add to your tropical scheme. Moisture-loving Colocasia and Alocasia with their giant leaves have become very popular recently. They are thirsty plants. Rob tells me the hardiest varieties are C.gaoligongensis and C.’Pink China’. There are some amazing varieties of Aeoniums on offer. A.’Zwartkop’ is a beautiful dark-leaved form but how about trying A.’Mardi Gras’, A.’Medusa’, A.’Voodoo’, A.’Velour’ and A.’Firecraker’ to name just a few of my favourites. Why stop there as you can also grow hardy Sempervivums and Echeveria elegans. Most hardy succulents do best when planted in pure grit.


Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Designers: Andrew Fisher Tomlin & Dan Bowyer

The generous use of these Dicksonia antarctica within this garden created at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show by Andrew Fisher Tomlin and Dan Bowyer, gives this garden a lush tropical feel. I particularly love underplanting with Brunneras, Hostas. Pachysandra and Muehlenbeckia.

There are plants from arid climates that can also lend themselves to the look of an exotic garden. Agave americana, A. ovatifolia and A. bracteosa adapt well to the UK climate so long as they have very free draining soil. Mangaves are bi-generic hybrids of Agave and the related Manfreda, all are excellent as pot plants kept cool and dry over winter. Others to try are South African Aloe striatula and also one of my favourites, the Spiral Aloe, Aloe polyphylla. Yucca gloriosa grows very easily in the UK climate, and Yucca rostrata makes a refined alternative, perfect as a large pot plant. I grow Dasylirion in a container outside throughout winter, but I do wrap it up. Very carefully to avoid the sharp teeth on the leaf margins.

Whichever direction you take, get that jungle beat going in your garden and have fun experimenting with the conditions in your garden.

Many thanks to Rob Stacewicz for his input on this blog

Many thanks to Dan Cooper aka The Frustrated Gardener for


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