Growbag Blog

Trending now: a tropical garden make-over


Whether it’s our warming planet or the welcome introduction of new cultures to our society, interest in creating a ‘tropical’ or hot weather garden is definitely ‘in’.  As you would expect I’m way ahead of my sisters here, having spent 10 years on a project in Madeira, so let me share some tips….

First, create the right microclimate. Tall boundary plants will enclose your space, trap the humidity and set the backdrop. You could invest in some Trachycarpus fortunei palms but they are pricey so why not try large pots of the magnificently structural tree dahlia Dahlia imperialis. Growing to over eight foot in a season, this species dahlia rarely flowers in the UK but it’s vertical stems and sultry foliage are just the ticket for a jungle atmosphere and the tubers can simply be dug up and stored overwinter.

Dahlia imperialis – creates instant atmosphere

Cannas and banana plants are the go to choices for a tropical feel but I also love the Mexican Amicia zygomeris, which will grow to over two metres in a season and produce yellow and purple pea-like flowers in late summer. It’s said to be hardy down to -10 but I prefer to lift it and start it into growth under glass.

Add some intrigue with Amicia

You want to feel secluded in your tropical bower so pile in the late summer tender perennial climbers such as this Tropaeolum tuberosum:

Tropaeolum tuberosum var. lineamaculatum or, in Caroline’s vocabulary, a sort of climbing nasturtium

It needn’t be this gaudy. I included the picture above mainly to keep E and C focused on the topic (Elaine will have disengaged at merest mention of overwintering anything fussy and Caroline has an infantile obsession with nasturtiums…) but actually I think it would classier to restrict the colour palette of your tropical space. In the new tropical garden at Wisley, they have used a beautiful white passion flower to great effect,

Passiflora ‘Snow Queen’ even the buds look exotic.

and I loved the subtle colours of the small fruits on this aralia, rarely seen in gardens but fitting in beautifully with the muted colour scheme around it.

Aralia cordata- a connoisseur’s choice for a tropical garden

So now I am reluctantly handing you over to my two sisters now, for their take on tropical plants but please don’t let them put you off….


All very splendid plants I’m sure, Laura, but to be honest, although I love a tropical paradise if I’m on a foreign holiday, I would never want to try and recreate that at home. It sounds a bit desperate, like ordering ouzo and olives in your average suburban British pub on a rainy November evening with the crazed notion that you could relive your Shirley Valentine moment (I suspect that Caroline has done exactly that at least once).

But if we are talking about plants that have that glossy leafy feel about them, here are some that are perfectly hardy and would fit into any garden setting, tropical or not.

Arums (Zantedeschia) look wonderfully elegant almost anywhere, I think.

Arums to add real elegance and poise

Less refined but certainly exotic would be the fancy lilies you can get nowadays, such as the extraordinary spider lily a friend bought at a garden fete last week. Actually, lilies of all kinds would bring the kind of drama you are seeking in your jungle oasis.

Spider lily – definitely looks equatorial

The big glaucous toothed leaves of Melianthus (which smell incongruously EXACTLY like peanut butter) are immensely impressive, and are tougher than many of these tropical beauties – bananas, tree-ferns, and even Laura’s giant dahlia-things. You know me, I can’t be doing with all that mollycoddling and faffing around. I just chop the whole lot down at the beginning of spring after the worst of the frosts, though I do acknowledge that they may not be this hardy everywhere in the UK.

Melianthus major has the kind of leaves you’re after for your tropical garden…

Rodgersias also produce wonderfully dramatic leaves in a dampish spot, as will of course hostas.

Rodgersia podophylla – just as good as any tender foliage plant

A  Catalpa grows into a lovely big-leaved tree  and the familiar woodland male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas) can provide a lushness to an underplanting, whether it’s among bamboos, cordylines and ginger lilies, or alongside the hedgerow of a rural cottage garden.

Simple native plants like the male fern can add form and drama.


Well for people whose cultural bubbles are  bounded by Wimbledon; royal weddings and nativity plays, my sisters have done quite well with their exotic plant choices.

But Laura has (probably acidentally) hit on an important point. Most of the great tropical gardens you read about are either bijoux town gardens or at least occupy a very enclosed space. If you don’t want to spend two weeks transferring your tender plants into a greenhouse every autumn – as does Norfolk tropical plant guru Will Giles,  owner of the garden in our feature picture (by Charlotte Weychan) –  it would be best to keep your hot plant project defined and fairly modest.

Size, too, is important. You need to totally fill the space at every level and L & E have missed out some useful mid-sized candidates (which are also prepared to fake ‘tropical’ here on the frigid shores of Scotland’s Firth of Forth).

Phormiums are so thoroughly de-sensitised from their New Zealand heritage that they withstand any sort of beating and still look big and sexy, ditto Agapanthus (but replace NZ with South Africa). Less robust I’d include Euphorbia mellifera and Fatsia (castor oil plant).

Phormiums take a terrible beating but still have an ‘Out of Africa’ look about them.

While our prospects of a passionate fling in a Greek taverna may now be fading (certainly of another one anyway), steamy looking plants can still evoke that same atmosphere here at home, especially after dark with the aid of 100 or so fairy lights

Tropical gardens can, of course, just be a foil for summertime drinkipooos.

Think about creating ‘pop-up’ water features (basically a bowl of water with a little device to make it gurgle) in your jungle.

And you positively have to have a ‘drinking den’ to match the vibe. Luckily home-made tiki huts are more cool, the more rickety they are. You can get away with a few orange boxes nailed to some pallets as far as I can see, (but make sure you get a good fixing for the tequila and rum optics).

Now…choose a balmy evening, bluetooth your reggae album to outdoor speakers and slip into a silk wrap. Leave that earnest horticultural stuff to my sisters and have a little fun in your garden.

NB Talking of ‘after dark’ you’ll absolutely love Louise’s Great Plant this Month – a velvety beauty that’s surely far too dependable to be this exotic-looking!

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

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