How To Grow A Tropical Garden

A tropical garden is all about the feelings that it evokes. They typically are extremely inviting and offer a sense of serenity to whoever looks at them. If you’re missing you’re usually tropical getaway in recent times, why not consider trying to grow your tropical oasis? You don’t necessarily have to live in the tropics to grow and tropical garden. You can replicate the key elements of this style in just about any climate, even if it’s just as an annual garden.

Read on to learn how to go about creating your tropical garden paradise and invite a sense of serenity into your backyard.

Tropical walkway
A lush tropical walkway layered with a dense variety of colorful plants.

What Is A Tropical Garden?

When we speak of the tropics we are talking about the region that lies roughly in the middle of the globe. The tropics lie in between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. This area encompasses large swathes of the earth, including the equator, parts of North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

As the tropics span such a large area of the globe, there are many elements that you can focus on to evoke the easy-going peacefulness that tropical landscapes induce in those of us who aren’t lucky enough to live in them.

As mentioned above, tropical gardens are all about the way they make you feel, so aim to create a landscape that is both lush and inviting, serene and abundant.

Mango coconut canopy
A canopy of mango and palms, with croton as an understory.

How To Plant A Tropical Garden?

So how do you go about planting a tropical garden? Well as always, the first place to begin is with the soil. The tropics are areas that have an abundance of sunshine and rain. This makes them rich and abundant in flora and fauna. When designing your landscape with a tropical theme, keep this in mind. The first thing you want to do is to try and mimic the conditions of the style you’re planting in.

Tropical gardens themselves are often mimicking dense jungles and forests of the areas they’re in. Aim to copy the different levels of a tropical rainforest or jungle for an irresistibly inviting and peaceful look.

Layered tropical forest
A natural layered tropical forest.

However, if you don’t live in a tropical environment this could prove tricky, so what you’ll want to do is mimic as best you can the way being surrounded by a tropical garden makes you feel. This can be done by imitating the dense planting, bold and vivacious colors, and intimations of life that are typical of tropical gardens.

Working with and not against the area that you live in will save you lots of time, energy, frustration, and heartache in the long term. Remember that you can create a tropical garden in cooler climates provided you take the necessary precautions and plant what is suitable for the area that you’re in.

Make sure your garden gets as much sunlight and water as possible. However, if you live in an area with particularly harsh summers some shelter from the intense sun will be appreciated. Tropical gardens are often evocative of the dense jungles that form in the ecologically diverse regions around the tropics. As such, they grow in layers. The highest layer is the canopy layer, with the understory and the ground cover coming below.

Informal tropical garden
A topical garden in a natural style around a house.

How To Layer Your Tropical Garden

Tropical gardens are designed on three layers, with the upper layer of palms and tall trees providing shelter and protection for the layers below. They create favorable microclimates for the middle layer of tall perennials and shrubs. These in turn protect the ground level, which is often the part with the most interesting and variable leaf colors and texture.

Lower levels tend to receive dappled light, and as such produce larger and often more flamboyant foliage. It’s often these lower layers that receive the most attention in design as they are where you’ll plant your annuals (depending on if you live in a temperate climate) As such it is this understory level that you can control, manage and change with the most ease.

The overstory and canopy levels (if relevant) will usually remain the same to give them time to mature and replicate a jungle scenario, where large canopy trees tower over the rest of the jungle.

Strange flower
Tropical flowers on the ground level of the jungle.

Key Features of A Tropical Garden

Tropical gardens are often replete with plants with large and showy foliage, more than flowers, as a rule of thumb. Tropical gardens often aim to replicate the feeling of being in a dense jungle. As such they offer a complete sense of escapism by transporting you into a different place and invite you to embrace and immerse yourself in the natural world for a little while.

Aim for as many different textures, colors, and plant sizes as possible to make a serene garden retreat for yourself. You never want to have an area of soil exposed and aim to fit it as much as your space will allow. As the tropical jungles of the world rarely have any exposed topsoil due to the sheer amount of life and organic matter present, aim to replicate this yourself.

Tropical parts of the world are characterized by their abundance of sunshine and rainfall, which provide the right conditions for plant life to flourish. As rainfall is so plentiful and sunshine is year-round, the growing season is far longer than what is common in the temperate world. So gardens appear lush, more vibrant, and mature more quickly than in colder climates.

A trick often employed by garden designers to add more color and texture is to plant in an odd number (3,5,7,9 etc) Positioning plants with contrasting foliage next to each other provides interest and an added sense of wonder to the garden year-round.

Contrasting colorful foliage
Contrasting colors of cordyline and heliconia.

You can employ this same idea to colors as well, by planting plants with leaves in lime green, orange, pink, red, and yellow next to each other. What you plant in either of the three layers will depend on your particular climatic conditions. Layering also provides microclimates for the plants below.

How To Maintain A Tropical Garden?

If you live in a tropical country, then the continuous growing season means plants often grow much quicker than in temperate zones. As such, tropical gardens in the tropics will often require regular maintenance in terms of pruning. Be sure to keep on top of watering and regular mulching to keep your garden looking lush.

Cordyline understory
Cordyline growing in the shade of taller canopy trees.

Shelter

Tropical forests are multilayered. Many of the tropical plants whose beauty we value have large and soft leaves that are often quite delicate and can be easily damaged by strong winds. Natural jungle environments have many levels of canopies to protect the soft, more delicate layers from the harsh elements.

With this in mind, if you want to create a jungle environment it’s often best to choose a sheltered environment. What this shelter is provided by will depend on your specific circumstances. If you find that your site is affected by strong winds then consider planting a hedge as a windbreak, or building a higher fence.

Walkway
Layered tropical colors.

Shelter is equally important in colder climates. Tropical plants can easily perish when the temperatures drop, so providing shelter can help give them the best chance of survival. It’s equally important in areas prone to severely hot and dry spells. Extreme heat can scorch plants and dry them up. Drought can also kill off moisture-loving tropicals.

Heavily mulching also helps to keep in moisture in areas prone to drought and high temperatures. Mulching also helps keep the root zones of plants warm in areas prone to low temperatures, frost, or snow.

Be sure to work with your environment and make the necessary amendments to best replicate a tropical environment as is possible for you. Doing so will help set you up for success, save you time, and ultimately help to get you to enjoy your tropical garden oasis sooner rather than later.

Soil

Tropical gardeners rarely need to rely on the traditional dig and plant method which temperate gardeners are used to. Instead, they often just have to layer the soil with compost, leaf mulch, or garden clippings.

In a true tropical rainforest, soils can be very shallow and nutrient-poor. However, a true jungle environment means that nutrients can be recycled quickly. Tropical plants are hungry for nutrients and require high levels of fertility to flourish.

Insects, plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria all work together to make sure that, even though the soil is shallow, that the nutrients are retained. However, this type of ecosystem is very difficult to replicate in a garden, as it would take quite some time. Instead, it’s best to provide tropical plants with rich and free-draining soil.

Sunset in the tropics
Sunset in the tropics.

Aim for deep soil with well-rotted organic matter. To retain nutrients and soil life, mulch with whatever organic material is available. If you don’t have much available to you, consider bringing in wood chips.

What to plant?

What you can plant, naturally, will depend on what your climate can support. Aim for colorful, dense layers of planting. To achieve a true tropical theme, you want the implication of an abundance of water and the biodiversity that goes along with this.

Palms

There are few types of trees as quintessentially tropical as palms. There is such a vast array of different palms to choose from, it can be quite daunting. If you live in a tropical environment then there’s nothing that spells tropical like a coconut palm (Cocos nucifera.) However, for most of us, this won’t be an option. Below are some popular palm species for you to plant in your tropical landscape.

 Alexandra Palm

A native of Queensland, Australia, it’s also known as King Palm. It has lush-looking foliage and has large creamy flowers and red fruit in the summer.

Bangalow Palm

The Bangalow palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) is another Australian native. That can grow over 20m tall. It has shallow roots which make it a good option for planting near pools, ponds, or water features. They are fast-growing and mauve flowers and fruits appear throughout the summer and autumn. The flowers are an attractive red color, and the violet fruits are popular with birds.

Palm
Palm growing in a densely planted tropical garden. 

Cascade Palm

The cascade palm (Chamaedorea cataractarum) is native to the jungles of Central America. It’s a shade-loving palm, so would do best in a very sheltered spot or in the understory of your canopy, where they receive partial or filtered sunlight.

Majesty Palm

A Madagascan native, the Majesty Palm (Ravenea rivularis) loves water and humidity. It has symmetrical bright green leaves and a slightly swollen base. As they are water-loving, they can

easily be planted near ponds or water features, provided their roots aren’t constantly submerged. They’re very versatile palms that are even shade-tolerant.

Royal palm
Royal palm in front of a church.

Royal Palm

A native to Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean and surrounding area, it grows in low altitude tropical areas with lots of water close to the sea. The trunk has a robust, marble-like sheen and regal look to it. The crown is filled with dark green leaves. They can grow quickly in favorable conditions and can be quite dramatic specimens when large.

Triangle Palm

Another Madagascan-native, the triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi) is so-called because it’s blue/grey/green feathery leaves grow in a rank of three crowns. In other words, this palm gets its name from the three distinct points from where the fronds emerge.

It’s an easily grown species in well-drained soil and can even tolerate rare dips to -1celsius. It also tolerates poor soil and partial shade. It’s resistant to heat, drought, and wind

Bottle palm
A bottle palm in a pot close by to the sea.

Bottle Palm

Another unusual show-stopping palm, native to Mauritius. They have a thick swollen trunk reminiscent of a bottle which is where they get their name from. The botanical name of the bottle palm is Hyophorbe lagenicaulis. The second part, lagenicaulis, can be broken into two Greek words, ‘lagen,’ meaning flask, and ‘caulis,’ meaning stem.

As the palm ages, the swollen trunk becomes less pronounced as it elongates. They are moderate growers and are drought and salt tolerant and hardy down to 0 celsius

Jelly Palm/ Pindo Palm

The jelly palm, also known as the pindo palm is the most cold-hardy of the feather-leafed palms and can withstand temperatures down to -10 celsius. It’s native to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The flowers that appear in summer are creamy yellow, have a sweet, fruity aroma, and are up to 3 feet (90cm) long. They are followed by clusters of sweet, pineapple-flavored, orange/yellow edible fruits.

The jelly palm is a good choice for gardeners in temperate climates due to its cold hardiness. They can also withstand drought, heat, and salt.

Protecting Palms From Cold and Frost

Fortunately, of the around 2,500 palm species, many are tolerant of colder climates, with some even tolerating the occasional snowfall. Whilst most frequently associated with tropical climates, there are palms native to subtropical and temperate regions as well.

The key to keeping palms alive in freezing conditions is also taking into account the relative humidity. Many palms can survive temperatures well below freezing if they are kept completely dry. If you live in an area that suffers from frosts, then you may need to cover your palms when they are young and getting established.

Tropical foliage
Contrasting foliage. 

Foliage

To add that tropical essence to your garden, be sure to plant in vibrant and exotic-looking foliage plants. These will introduce color, texture, bold accents, and a dramatic touch here and there.

Croton

Crotons, (Codiaeum variegatum) known as garden crotons, fire crotons, or variegated crotons     have a cult-like following, and for the right reasons too. They come in a dizzying array of almost limitless colors and leaf shapes. They prefer warm and humid environments, dappled light, and plenty of water.

Crotons are commonly grown as houseplants. The only drawback of these plants is that they are very picky when it comes to temperature. They’ll start shedding their leaves if it gets too cold. They are also a good plant to grow in a container and then bring outside when the temperature has warmed up. If you do so, be careful to introduce the plant slowly back outdoors, to avoid shock.

Cordyline

Cordyline is a genus of 15 monocotyledonous plants native to southeast Asia and parts of the Pacific isles. They are grown for their colorful foliage and are found in many different shades. All varieties have spear-shaped leathery leaves.

They look particularly appealing grown under taller shrubs or trees with contrasting colors. This not only will expand the color palette of the garden but also add to the different layers.

Monstera Deliciosa And Philodendron

Monstera and philodendron are popular house plants due to the interest their large foliage provides. Plant monstera or philodendron in shaded areas under the canopy of larger trees, as they prefer dappled light. They also appreciate something to climb up.

Yellow heliconia
A yellow Helicona flower.

Flowering Plants

Frangipani

Plumeria (AKA frangipani) is a quintessential tropical plant, most of which are deciduous trees or small shrubs native to central America but are common around tropical and subtropical areas globally. They are prized for their delicately scented flowers that remain intact long after they’ve fallen, making them a symbol of immortality in Hindu culture. For this reason, you’ll often find them planted near temples.

The flowers appear at the end of branches in clusters and have a unique scent that varies depending on the specific variety. They can be successfully grown in containers, just make sure to use a free-draining, good quality potting mix. You could also plant them in containers in temperate zones and bring them inside when temperatures drop.

Heliconia flower
Heliconia flower.

Heliconia

Heliconias are another tropical mainstay. Most of the 194 known species are native to Tropical America. They are also related to bananas, gingers, birds of paradise, and cannas. Astonishingly, all the breath-taking forms of heliconia, of which there are many, have been created naturally as humans haven’t yet been able to hand pollinate them.

Heliconias are tropical through and through, with few species surviving temperatures below 10C. If you’re lucky enough to be able to grow any of these plants, then do! Their flowers seem out of another world, come in many different forms, and last a long time when cut.

Flowering Ginger

Ginger comes mostly from the Zingiberaceae family and are mostly tropical flowering perennials originating from Southern and Southeastern Asia. the most well-known genus is Zingibar, which includes Zingibar officinalis, also known as true ginger, which is the common ginger spice used in cooking and for medicinal purposes.

Flowering gingers come in a whole host of almost unbelievable varieties; from alien-like pine cones to flowers that would look at home in cartoons. Gingers emerge from rhizomes, which are the knobbly roots you’re used to seeing in the grocery store. The leaves are usually oblong, lance-shaped, glossy, or deep green.

 Hibiscus

Hibiscus immediately adds a tropical flair to your garden. Fortunately, they’re easy to grow in containers too, provided you allow them at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. Their popularity has lead to thousands of different cultivars; from giant flowered varieties to more delicate blooms; and in almost every color imaginable.

Hibiscus
Hibiscus. 

To Sum Up

Tropical gardens are inspired by the sheer abundance of life throughout the tropical areas of the world. They take their core design principles from jungles and rainforests of the tropics, where sunshine, rain, and immense biodiversity are abundant. You don’t have to live in a tropical area to grow a tropical garden. By following the design of tropical rainforests and adapting to what grows in your area, you can easily evoke the spirit of the tropics in your backyard.

Tropical forests are layered, and for a true tropical rainforest look, aim to replicate this yourself in your design. The overstory is what provides shade and microclimates for the story below. This story can consist of towering trees, and whatever palm variety is suited to your area if any.

The middle story is filled with tall shrubs and perennials, whilst the lower story offers the biggest variety of interest in terms of texture, colors, and leaf size. If you follow these design principles, you’ll be able to recreate a tropical garden wherever you live.

How to grow a tropical garden 1

How to grow a tropical garden 2

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