Get The Tropical Look

Choose the perfect plants to create a lush landscape in any climate

Get The Tropical Look

This densely planted garden bed shows how this look can be the ideal solution for small spaces. Garden Design: Phil Withers

A tropical garden full of plants with vibrant blooms and oversized foliage, and an atmosphere of exotic living, isn’t just for warm-climate gardens. 

With a few tricks and a bit of planning, you can create your own tropical look and feel in all but the coldest zones around the country. 

When it comes to getting the effect in cooler regions, the key components are design techniques, plant selection and decorative touches. Once you bring these three elements together, the look will fall into place.

Design techniques 

A tropical style is not dramatically different from other garden designs, it is just all about the density of planting.

A typical garden is planted in layers or bands. The plants are given space to spread and the height layers are clearly delineated. 

In a tropical landscape, the plants appear to jostle for space. And while height layers exist, there tends to be no transition between them, with taller plants thrusting forth from the background. 

The aim is to create a closely packed wall of lush foliage, which may  look natural and unplanned but is actually very carefully thought out. 

The two most important planting layers are the backdrop and the upper canopy, which gives shade and shelter, providing a microclimate for lower-growing plants. 

A significant part of the illusion, the backdrop may be planted flush against a fence or wall, as its job is to obscure what lies behind, giving the impression that the garden extends much deeper than it does.   

Plant selection 

True tropical plants are mostly about the leaves rather than the flowers. 

Many have glossy, and often quite large, leaves with patterns on them or foliage that has distinctly different colours on the top and underside. 

When you’re looking for plants for your faux-tropical garden, you need to find ones suitable for your region that meet certain criteria. 

Any plants you choose will, in most cases, require a moderate to high level of shade tolerance. 

You’ll need plants that can fill the four main planting zones of canopy or shade, backdrop, tall and medium fillers and lower growers, including groundcovers. 

When selecting plants, remember that there is also a difference between cold tolerant and frost hardy. 

Many plants can tolerate cooler conditions if you protect them from frost with your upper canopy plants. 

TIP Native tree ferns work well as an upper canopy plant to shelter more sensitive species.

tropical plants in garden, handyman magazine
When you’re looking for plants for your faux-tropical garden, you need to find ones suitable for your region that meet certain criteria

Flowering fillers 

With their amazing forms, patterns and colours, foliage plants are essential to the tropical-garden look, but that doesn’t exclude flowers from the design. Here are four plants to include as medium fillers.

Plume flowers 

Justicia carnea

GROW to 1.5 x 1.5m, but prune to keep bushy. 

BLOOM almost all year round.

plume flowers, handyman magazine,  
Plume flowers bloom almost all year round

Canna lilies 

Canna X generalis cvrs

GROW up to 2m tall, depending on the variety. 

BLOOM from November to April. 

canna lillies, handyman magazine,
Canna lilies bloom from November to April 
 

Blue gingers 

Dichorisandra thyrsiflora

GROW up to 2m tall and 1m wide. 

BLOOM from spring through to autumn.

blue gingers, handyman magazine,
Blue gingers bloom from spring through to autumn

Camellias 

Camellia sasanqua, japonica and reticulata

GROW from 500mm tall, depending on the variety.  

BLOOM all winter. 

camellias red, handyman magazine,
Camellias bloom all winter

Pick the right plant 

Canopy plants 

bananas, handyman magazine,
Bananas 

tall clumping bamboos, handyman magazine,
Tall clumping bamboos 

bugalow palms, handyman magazine ,
Bangalow palms. Image: Getty Images 

tree ferns, handyman magazine,
Tree ferns. Image: Thinkstock 

Backdrop plants 

murrayas, handyman magazine,
Murrayas 

tall gingers, handyman magazine,
Tall gingers 

lilly pillies, handyman magazine,
Lilly pillies 

dwarf clumping bamboos, handyman magazine,
Dwarf clumping bamboos 

Medium fillers 

new zealand flax, handyman magazine,
New Zealand flax 

cordyline, handyman magazine
Cordyline. Image: Thinkstock 

cycad varieties, handyman magazine,
Cyad varieties 

gold dust, handyman magazine,
Gold dust 

Lower growers 

clivias, handyman magazine,
Clivias 

variegated liriopes, handyman magazine,
Variegated liriopes 

bromeliads, handyman magazine,
Bromeliads 

native ferns, handyman magazine,
Native ferns 

Creating microclimates 

Establishing areas that provide shelter and extra warmth is a major objective in this style of garden, as microclimates let you grow a broader range of plants. 

You can create protected areas by adding a selection of canopy plants to the design or choosing a spot that is already well sheltered by a tree. 

Plant screening such as clumping bamboo to protect the area from prevailing winds. 

Another technique is to plant up hardscaped or walled areas. 

The walls and paving will act as heat sinks and capture warmth during the day, then radiate it after dark, keeping night-time temperatures higher. 

tree canopy handyman magazine,
Establishing areas that provide shelter and extra warmth should be a major objective as microclimates let you grow a broader range of plants
 

Decorative touches 

The final flourishes that can turn your tropical-look space from just a leafy garden to a luxury retreat come down to colour and texture. 

Landscape materials in earthy hues give the feel of an authentic Balinese resort, but adding splashes of vibrant colour, as are seen in tropical flowers and birds, will bring your new space to exotic life.

bath in garden handyman magazine,
Sumptuous and modern, this tropical garden shows that the accessories don’t always have to be rustic and earthy

buddha in tropical garden, handyman magazine,
Well chosen decorative garden sculptures can enhance your space 

Vote It Up: 
Get The Tropical Look

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