Creating a Tropical-Looking Garden

Creating a Tropical-Looking Garden

With summer vacations on the horizon, many travelers from temperate climes will head off to destinations around the world and come back inspired by the beautiful foliage and flowers they've seen, wishing they could grow these plants in their own gardens. And while we can't change the limitations of our climate, by using a carefully-selected palette of plants, it's definitely possible to create a backyard that feels like a far-flung destination right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Keep reading four out top tips to help you create a tropical getaway in your own back yard.

1) Focus on oversized and unusual foliage.

As you approach the rainy tropics, you will notice that the size of plants' leaves tends to increase, and we can use this fact to guide our plant choices when emulating the appearance of a lush rain forest in our temperate zone. There are many cold-hardy plants available to gardeners that feature impressively-sized leaves — especially here in Portland, where our winters are relatively mild. Hostas are a prime example, with some cultivars boasting large mounds of leaves in excess of a foot long, but there are even PNW native perennials like Darmera peltata whose palmate leaves are decidedly larger-than-average. Looking towards shrubs, Fatsia japonica is a fantastic example of a plant that is tropical-looking but perfectly hardy, with large, glossy, palmate leaves. Consider filling in around bold foliage plants like these with ferns, which provide wonderful textural contrast and added lushness, especially in the shadier parts of a garden.

Creating a garden that feels like a far-off destination has more to do with choosing plants that don't look like the ones that we often encounter in our everyday lives than copying the exact appearance of plant communities from any one particular place. Intuitively, we have a sense of what the landscape around us looks like, so choosing plants with unusual textures or growth habits that stand out from the expected is a quick way to trick our brains into thinking we're in a new place. Hardy palms and bamboos — especially clumping species that don't run — are go-to plants for this purpose.

To provide a sense of lushness year-round, try to include a good number of broadleaf evergreens like rhododendrons, camellias, Southern magnolia, and David viburnum in your garden, which stand out from the conifers that typically provide winter structure in Pacific Northwest gardens. Because their large, green leaves persist year round, these plants will help to reinforce the illusion that your garden has been lifted from the tropics no matter the time of year.

2) Look for temperate species from otherwise tropical genera, and experiment with "zone busting."

In our Zone 8 gardens, we can grow many tropical-looking plants that other parts of the country cannot, including many tender perennials and "half hardy" or "borderline hardy" plants that can be used to great effect. Tall, architectural focal plants like phormiums can provide an exotic textural — and color — contrast in the garden, and will generally survive our winters, especially with a bit of protection on particularly cold nights. Similarly, we are just within the cold tolerance range for large salvias like 'Black and Bloom' and 'Amistad,' which have a dinstinctly tropical look. (And if they fail to perennialize, these salvias are relatively easy — and inexpensive — to replace.)

Recently, growing interest from gardeners and collectors has brought several exciting new plants to the market in the United States. Plantsmen like Dan Hinkley have introduced cold-hardy Scheffleras and other warm-climate plants that are adapted to life at the higher elevations where they were collected. Apart from their unexpected hardiness, these plants look very much like their tropical cousins that grow further down the mountainside — and in our homes as houseplants — making them excellent additions to a tropical-looking garden.

3) Pick flowers in "hot" colors — reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks.

It may sound a bit crazy, but colors on this end of the spectrum aren't called "warm colors" for nothing, and by choosing more plants from within this palette, you can use color psychology to your advantage. Warm colors are high-energy and high-visibility, making flowers in this color range stand out like brightly-colored parrots amidst a sea of green foliage. And although flower color isn't truly linked to lattitude, blooms in saturated, warm hues appeal to a sense of the exotic, in part by contrast with the cooler pastel hues you might find in a cottage garden.

4) Sell the look with a few key non-hardy plants.

To bring a true taste of the tropics to your garden, why not go for the real thing? You will want to be selective, of course, but a wide variety of tropical and sub-tropical plants are commonly grown as annuals in temperate regions, including cupheas, impatiens, begonias, coleus, and more. When dotted into the landscape in key areas, your temperate plants will feel more tropical by association.

If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse or bright sunroom, you can even go bigger! A large bougainvillea or mandevilla could be grown in a prominently-placed container in the spring and summer, then relocated to the greenhouse when temperatures dip in the fall. Conversely, you could allow a tropical houseplant like a bird of paradise to spend the summers outside, lending an air of the exotic to your yard for a few months before returning to the safety of your heated living room.

Some tropical and sub-tropical plants like colocasias and alocasias perform well even when planted directly in the ground, and can attain a large size in a single season. Although they may overwinter on their own, you can increase your odds by lifting their tubers or corms at the end of the growing season! Simply cut back their foliage in the fall — or let the frost do that for you — then dig them up and store them in a cool, dry place until temperatures warm up again in the spring.

Quick-reference Plant Lists

* = Not always reliably hardy in Zone 8b/would benefit from winter protection
† = Tubers can be lifted in the fall to overwinter indoors, if so desired.

Tropical-Looking Perennials & Vines

Tropical-Looking Shrubs & Bamboos

Tropical-Looking Trees

Tropical Focal Plants for Container Culture

This tropical grouping of plants, 90% are hardy to at least USDA Agricultural Zone 8. In fact, the only plants pictured above that will not overwinter are the bougainvilleas and Abysynnian banana.

Punctuate a temperate planting with key tropicals like this bougainvillea, which provides unusual flowers in hot shades that draw the eye from across the garden.

When it comes to tropical presence in a cold-hardy package, mimosa trees are a double-threat: They provide both ferny foliage and fuzzy pink blooms in the canopy that stand out from everything else. And if that isn't enough, there are even burgundy-leaved cultivars available!

Although not all colocasias will overwinter reliably, they quickly grow to impressive sizes, even in a single season, making them ideal foliage plants for a tropical-looking garden.

The large leaves on this ligularia, hostas, and fern lend a lush, tropical feel to this vignette, which would perform wonderfully in part shade.

At Cornell Farm, we carry a wide variety of tropical and tropical-looking plants that can be grown outdoors. Our best selection can generally be found from late spring through summer, when many of these plants enter their active growing period. Stop in anytime during business hours to be inspired by the beautiful foliage and flowers we have on display. If you have questions about bringing a taste of the tropics to your back yard or need assistance locating any of the plants mentioned in this blog post, our team of plant experts is always happy to help!