Create your own tropical paradise in the back garden
Do you dream of your own tropical paradise in your back garden? It could be easier than you think; if you live in an area of the UK which enjoys a relatively mild winter then it will be easier to create your holiday haven. Ideally you need a sunny, sheltered, frost-free site, but, even if you live in a cold area, with a bit of clever planting you can alter the micro-climate of your garden. A typical tropical garden doesn’t have the interest all the year round as you would strive to achieve in a typical English garden; it peaks in a mass of vegetation in summer with an overwhelming abundance of foliage. There is interest only for about 6 months of the year as many of the tender plants will need to go into storage for the winter.
You ideally need a mixture of hardy and tender plants; unless you are lucky enough to live in a sheltered area. You also need a frost-free greenhouse or shed to house the tender plants through winter. If you are incorporating house plants they will need to be brought indoors for the winter. Some tropical plants can be left in the ground and the crown protected with a thick layer of mulch. Use a range of hardier tropical trees to create a windbreak and a micro-climate in which to grow the tender specimens; the trees will also create a feeling of enclosure and seclusion.
Try and include some structural elements into the design, such as a pool, a log cabin, a stream with a rustic bridge, raised wooden walkways or some statuary. Paths made out of hard landscaping materials would look out of place in a jungle setting so it would be more in keeping using bark or timber, taking care to keep the wood free from slippery algae.
A simple shack can be made from rough timber and bamboo poles with brushwood screening on the roof. Don’t forget a seating area with rustic timber or colonial style rattan furniture, even though a lot of indigenous tribes have plastic chairs! There is a huge choice of all-weather rattan furniture which is light, requires practically no maintenance and can be left out all winter.
Don't forget the lighting which enables you to use the garden in the evening. If you have a particularly special tree put an up-lighter under it, light the path, put subtle lighting underneath ferns to emphasise their fronds and light the seating area. If you don't want to go to the expense of installing mains lighting just hang lanterns in amongst the foliage. Remember the citronella candles to deter the bugs!
Many of the tender plants can be grown in pots and sunk into the ground, this has the benefit of being able to change the design if you make a mistake with the planting. If plants are being planted into the ground enrich it with organic matter and a nitrogen based fertiliser such as pelleted chicken manure, as most of the tropical plants like an organic rich, well-draining soil. The chicken manure is low in minerals and essential trace elements so may have to be combined with other fertilisers.
Choose your plants so that you have a range of heights: trees being the tallest then come down to the shrubs, herbaceous layer then ground-cover with some climbing plants to tie the different layers together. Generally there wouldn’t be a lawn but water lends an air of tranquillity. The tender tropical plants are fast growing and will therefore need a lot of food and water, so enriching the soil to hold on to the moisture is essential as is making sure they will be easy to water. Most of these plants won’t reach the same size as they will in their native habitat but they will still take an enormous amount of water.
It needs a sheltered sunny site and is hardy down to about -10C if it is in a fairly dry soil. It is a medium sized tree growing to a height of 6 – 7m (20 – 23’). It produces small flowers in the form of yellow, fluffy balls.
These vary in height from 30cm – 20m (1 – 70’) and need moist, well-drained soil out of strong winds. Be careful when buying as some species spread by runners and will soon colonise a garden, strangling any plants in their path. Once they have taken over they are very difficult to remove; but there are plenty of non-spreading species from which to choose.
Callistemon citrinus ‘Splendens’ (Bottlebrush)
This needs full sun in a south or westerly position with a moist, well-drained soil. It can reach a height of 8m (26’), but will need some protection if there is a hard frost.
This plant can grow slowly to a height of 10m (33’) and eventually have multiple trunks. Only the green version is fully hardy, with the red and variegated varieties needing a bit of protection if there is a harsh frost. They often produce clusters of creamy white flowers in late spring which have a sweet fragrance. ‘Torbay Dazzler’, a variegated variety and the purple /red ‘Redstar’ both reach a height of 5m (16.5’) but are not hardy.
Dicksonia antarctica (Tasmanian Tree Fern)
This can reach heights of 15m (50’) in its native habitat, the south and central tropics, but will be unlikely to reach this height in your garden. It produces large fronds of 2 – 4m (7 – 13’) and likes a position in dappled shade under other trees.
One of the hardiest in the UK is Eucalyptus gunnii (Cider Gum) which has lovely blue/grey foliage. This is a fairly fast growing tree potentially reaching a height of 25m (82’) but it can easily be kept in check by pruning.
A deciduous shrub which can be evergreen if it is a mild winter, but will need a little protection if the winter is particularly harsh. It really needs to be planted in a sheltered position which receives full sun. It produces a bell shaped flower and will reach a height of 2m (6’). Colours range from the darkest red to yellow.
Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet)
This plant needs to be grown in a pot as it needs to be taken inside in winter; when in the garden it needs a sheltered position in full sun. It can reach a height of 1.8 – 3m (6 – 10’) so really needs a large pot as it needs a huge amount of food and water to perform to its full extent. All parts are toxic so maybe not the best plant if there are children. It can be a hallucinogenic; natives in South America have been known to sleep beneath the flowers in order to have good dreams! Many of them are heavily scented; one of the best for scent is arborea ‘Knightii’ a double white with huge trumpets about 30cm (12”) long. They are available in pink, white, yellow and an orange/red.
Citrus (lemons, limes, calamondians)
These need to be grown in pots as they have to be brought inside to a frost-free environment over winter. Outside they need a sunny, sheltered position. Planted in the ground in their native environment they would reach a height of 5m (16’) but are unlikely to achieve this height in a pot.
This variety in hardy in the UK and comes in a range of colours; pinks, blue and white. Each flower usually only lasts a day but as the plant flowers profusely you won’t notice as it is quickly replaced. There are tropical varieties available in a range of more intense colours; oranges, reds, yellow and bright pink. They are usually sold in the houseplant department of garden centres. These will have to be brought inside into a warm environment before the first frosts.
Trachycarpus fortune (Chusan Palm)
The Chusan is the hardiest of all the palms with large fan-shaped fronds. It can be fairly quick growing if it is given plenty of food and water, eventually reaching a height of 7.5m (25’).
This species is hardy in the UK and will slowly attain a height of 4m (13’) and will eventually form a trunk. It puts up huge plumes of creamy white flowers. Beware of planting it near a path as the leaves have quite sharp spikes on the tips and can poke the unwary in the eye.
Yucca guatemalensis (Elephant Yucca)
This huge Yucca is unfortunately not hardy in the UK so will need taking into a frost-free environment or wrapping in winter. It can eventually produce multiple trunks and reach a height of 15m (50’). It produces huge clusters of creamy white flowers which are rich in vitamin C and in the tropics are eaten raw in salads.
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
This hardy plant soon makes a large clump and is happy in the shade, and as it likes moist soil would be even happier besides the pond. It has large silver-veined leaves and small blue flowers, growing to a height of 45cm (18”).
Canna indica (Indian Shot)
These have large architectural leaves, often with colourful variegation, and flowers in a range of reds, oranges, yellows and pinks. They are tender and need somewhere frost-free in winter. They can achieve a height of 180cm (6’) and really give a feeling of lush tropical foliage. They need a position out of the wind or you could find that their leaves become shredded.
Capsicum (Chillies and peppers)
Why not bring a little of the vegetable garden into the jungle and incorporate some chillies and peppers. There is a huge range to choose from just make sure they have plenty of food and water and are in a sunny position.
Ensete or Musa (Banana)
These are tender plants so will need to be lifted, or grown in pots, and moved to a frost-free environment in winter. They produce huge architectural leaves and can reach a height of 4m (13’). They need a sunny position. Musa ‘Basjoo’ can be grown outside in a frost-free, sheltered position. Musa acuminate ‘Zebrina’ has the most gorgeous huge red striped leaves.
Gunnera manicata (Chilean Rhubarb)
This is a hardy plant which dies back in winter and produces the most enormous leaves, soon reaching a height of 2.5m (8.25’). It loves damp soil so a position besides water would be ideal.
These are similar to the Canna.
These have lovely architectural leaves in a range of colours and variegation. As they love the shade they are wonderful growing under the trees and shrubs. The only downside to them is that they are Michelin starred restaurants for slugs.
There are a huge selection of ferns which will provide a lot of ground cover and add to the lushness of the garden and will love the cool shady conditions underneath the flora. Gunnera magellanca
This is a mini version of manicata but only growing to a height of 15cm (6”). It is excellent ground cover spreading quickly, but does need damp soil. If it is a hard winter it may not be evergreen.
Houttuynia cordata ‘Chameleon’
This is a vigorous ground cover plant which can be a thug and is best planted in an aquatic basket to contain the roots. The leaves are brightly coloured and bring a lovely sense of colour to the pond margins.
New Guinea hybrids
These are available as summer bedding plants and come in a range of colours. They look great planted in groups for a splash of colour and don’t mind dappled shade.
Soleirolia soleirolii (Baby’s Tears, Mind-your-oun-business)
This is a very fast, low growing plant with tiny leaves which quickly colonises a cool, moist, shady position and forms a large mat. It dies down in the frosts but does grow back.
This is a woody climber which can become a monster in a tropical climate, reaching a height of 25m (80’), but is only likely to reach a fraction of that in the UK. It is usually treat as a house or conservatory plant but can be put outside in summer and brought into a warm environment over winter. It can be cut to form a bush and comes in a range of colours: red, white, pink, magenta, yellow and orange.
Cobaea scandens (Cup-and-Saucer Vine, Cathedral Bells)
This is an annual which can be grown from seed and will scramble through the shrubs and trees. In the wild it will reach a height of 20m (65’) but is only likely to reach a height of 3 – 8m (10 – 26’) in the garden.
Ipomea (Morning Glory)
This annual can be grown from seed and will happily scramble through the trees and shrubs. It needs a sunny, sheltered site and is available in a range of colours: blue, white, dark purple.
Mina lobate/Ipomea lobate (Spanish flag)
This annual climber looks truly tropical with its red/orange/yellow flowers which start red and end up pale lemon. It reaches a height of 120 – 180cm (4 - 6’).
Passiflora (Passion Flower)
These vary in hardiness from caerulea which is the most hardy, but will still need some protection in the harshest winters, to alata which is not hardy at all but has a lovely dark red scented flower. They need a sheltered site in full sun or semi-shade. They can reach a height of 10m (32’) so would benefit from being against a wall or strong fence.
Solanum crispum (Chilean Potato Tree)
This belongs to the family which includes potato, tomato and deadly nightshade. It can reach a height of 8m (26’). It needs a sheltered south or westerly facing position but may need protection in a harsh winter. In a mild winter it may retain its leaves. ‘Glasnevin’ has purple/blue flowers with a slight scent. Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’ is slightly less hardy and definitely needs a sheltered position in full sun and only reaches a height of about 4m (13’).
Thunbergia alata (Black-Eyed Susan)
Another annual climber which is happy scrambling through the trees and shrubs. It is yellow or orange with a black eye and reaches a height of 4m (13’).
Trachelospermum jasminoides (Star Jasmine)
The attraction of this climber is the small white highly fragrant flowers. This evergreen climber needs support, either over an arch or against a wall as it is quite strong and can reach a height of 9m (28’). It is only marginally hardy so needs a sheltered site in full sun or dappled shade; it may need protection in a harsh winter.
Water and water margins
Ideal for boggy pond margins.
Ideal for boggy pond margins.
This is a tender perennial which likes a sheltered position in full sun. It will reach a height of 2.5 – 4m (8 – 13’) and loves the boggy edges of the pond.
Nymphaea (Water Lilies)
They range in size from dwarf species which grow from 30 -60cm (12 – 24”) to large specimens of 1.5 – 2.4m (5 – 8’). They need still water and full sun, and range from hardy to tender. They are available in a range of colours.
Zantedeschia aethiopica (Calla Lily)
Despite the name this is neither a calla or a lily and likes wet, boggy conditions so is ideal for pond margins or besides a stream. It is hardy provided its roots don’t freeze, if there is a danger of this just apply a thick mulch in autumn. Once it forms a large clump it is a spectacular sight of large white funnels and large, lush leaves. It can reach a height of 150cm (5’).
For more information on how to improve your outdoor living space just click the link to read the blog: 'How do I improve the fertility of the soil without using chemicals?', 'What climbers can I plant against a north or east facing wall?' and 'How to plant up a dry shady area of the garden'.