Tropical Designs for Every Garden
As the weather warms up every year, many gardeners love to create a tropical feel in their back (or front!) yards — and with good reason, because those oversized leaves, citrusy colors, and exotic flowers instantly evoke a laid-back, vacation vibe. And while tropical plants grow naturally in warmer climates, there are a number of ways nearly any gardener can use them, no matter where they live. Ready to turn your garden into a vacation oasis? Let's go!
Growing Conditions for Tropicals
Many tropical plants thrive in full sun and moist soil, but others prefer shady conditions and soil that drains (rather than holds) water. Tropical plants actually have a fairly wide range of natural growing conditions, from rainforest to beach and everything in between, so be sure you understand each of your plants’ specific needs. (We list the growing conditions needed for each plant under "more info" on their listing.)
Once you know where you're going to grow your tropicals and can select plants that like the same conditions, let your designer brain take over.
Because many tropical plants have bright flowers, jumbo foliage, and lemon-lime shades, you’ll want to choose plants that provide balance to one another in terms of size, colors, and textures. Look for foliage in darker shades (burgundy, maroon, or black), smaller flowers or flower clusters, and daintier leaves.
It’s this combination of contrasts that creates a design that is interesting and alluring rather than overpowering.
Tropical Planting Combos
Want to leave the design to us? That's ok, too! We've put together three fool proof design combos. One for containers, one for cool climate dwellers, and one for warm climate gardeners. Have fun!
Tropical Container Design
Containers are the great equalizer in the garden, because it doesn’t matter where you live, you can container garden. These micro gardens are ideal for those with small spaces, gardeners who have poor soil, and all those who simply love that added punch that a well-designed container provides. For a tropical container, first think about the container itself. Because so many tropical plants have citrus colored leaves and flowers, a great counterbalance is a turquoise or teal-colored pot. Choose a large, tall pot that can handle the height and top heaviness of your plantings, then have fun pulling it all together.
Canna Tropicanna® Black: Place this dark-leaved canna in the center of your large container — it can grow up to 5’ tall and can handle a generously-sized pot. The blooms are a lively tangerine color, creating a vivid contrast.
Daylily Stella Bella: Because the canna foliage is so tall, look for a flowering plant that is shorter in height but stands up to the canna’s boldness, like Daylily Stella Bella. Sunny yellow blooms flower for up to six months, and with a maximum height of 12”, Stella Bella sits nicely around the base of the canna.
Oxalis Purple Shamrock: Every container needs a bit of non-flowering plant material, and purple shamrock fits that bill perfectly. Its purply leaves repeat the dark moodiness of the Canna Tropicanna® Black, while providing contrast to the Stella Bella daylily. And for a plant this small, those triangular leaves make quite the impact!
Annual/Cool Climate Tropical Design
For those in Hardiness Zones 5 and below, you might think tropical gardens aren’t for you. But, happily, you’d be wrong! Carefully choose a combination of in-ground flowering perennials that are root-hardy for your area, and then accessorize with potted tropicals that are easily moved indoors when the weather turns chilly. Remember — potted plants aren’t only for patios! They provide stunning focal points within the garden bed itself when they are have a commanding size and eye-catching color.
Chicago Hardy Fig: While you may not immediately identify a fig tree as tropical, look at those huge leaves! And plump, delicious fruit, all in a cold-hardy tree. It’s a no-brainer. And as its name suggests, this fig tree is hardy to Zone 5 (hello, Chicago!), and in colder climates can easily be brought inside if planted in a large container.
Clematis Nelly Moser: Clematis makes an ideal vertical element in the garden with their fast growth and long vining habit. Add Nelly Moser to the back of your garden (hardy to Zone 3), then sit back and watch the explosion of 9” white and pink blooms! The flower size alone sets a perfect tropical tone behind the fig tree.
- Bee Balm Pink Lace: This low-grower (14-16” tall) packs a tropical wallop with its masses of hot pink, pollinator-attracting blooms. The hue perfectly picks up the pink stripe on the clematis, echoing it without repeating the exact same shade. Plant it in groupings at the front of the bed, near by nonflowering foliage plants like Dianella or variegated liriope.
Warm Climate Tropical Design
Granted, those in warmer climates can use almost any tropical plant to their hearts’ content, with their steamy Zone 8 and above temperatures. While that’s good news for tropical garden lovers, the same design rules apply here — balance those oversized leaves with daintier ones, add some evergreen plant material to soften all of that overzealous color, and add vertical elements to provide some height and interest.
Passion Flower Betty Myles Young: If there is a more tropical-looking vine on the face of the planet, it has not been discovered yet. Passion flower boasts the most incredibly intricate flowers scrambling over tendril-laden vines — add it to a long trellis in the rear of the garden for an unbelievably vivid backdrop.
Colocasia Tea Cup: While colocasia (elephant ears) do well in shady conditions, they can take some dappled sun as well — so when you’re combining it with a sun-loving vine like passion flower, simply tuck it into the dappled shade of a nearby tree. Works like a charm! And this Tea Cup variety? It provides those enormous leaves you crave in a slightly more unusual cupped shape.
- Hardy Gardenia: Oh, those pure white blooms with that heavenly fragrance! This showstopper commands its own attention without competing with the dazzling passion flower vine — which is a great design tip on its own. When one flower is over-the-top with texture, pattern, and color, provide some respite with another flower in a solid (but complementary) shade.
- Katie Elzer-Peters