Grow Tropical Plants for a Lush Outdoor Oasis
All you need is a few tropical plants to create a dreamy backyard landscape that feels like your own private slice of paradise.
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Transform your outdoor space into a lush backyard getaway by bringing vibrant blooms, dynamic foliage and unique plant textures into the garden. Many tropical plants are quite low maintenance and winter hardy, thriving in regions as low as Zone 6. Read on for the best tropical plant picks and care tips.
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Busting Outdoor Tropical Plant Myths
Contrary to popular belief, it’s easy to grow tropical plants, even if you live in a colder climate, if you keep them in balance with the rest of your garden, says Marianne Willburn, author of Tropical Plants and How to Love Them, who lives and gardens in northern Virginia.
“Growing one gorgeous red banana plant to create an anchor in a sunny corner is as easy as buying a small plant in May, providing rich soil and watering it, just as you would any temperate plant,” she says, “except this one can gain 10 feet in a season and create a stunning focal point.”
Marianne adds, “There’s nothing written in stone that says you have to keep it over the winter; just have a wonderful summer romance with it instead.”
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Getting Started With Tropical Flowering Plants
Marianne suggests selecting tropical varieties according to your garden’s hardiness zone, focusing on plants that pack a punch.
Canna offers a range of vivid yellow, pink, orange and red flowers that bloom from July to October, and oversized foliage.
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Many tropical plants such as angel’s trumpet, bougainvillea, yucca and jasmine make dramatic statements in the garden. Hardy hibiscus features massive bright blossoms from July to September in Zones 4 to 9, while the low-growing dwarf palmetto palm is pretty, drought tolerant and works well in either sun or shade.
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Try New Tropical Plant Cultivars
Marianne enjoys experimenting with new varieties and old favorites each year. She recommends planting caladium, ginger and begonia, all of which make great indoor houseplants at the end of the season.
“This year, the Snowdrift variegated edible turmeric cultivar really wowed me, as it looked so good against ornamental grasses and late-season allium,” she says. “For canna, it’s got to be Bengal Tiger as it is so versatile and color-pairs so well. And I adore brake ferns because they are so strong, but also delicate-looking and fabulous in containers.”
Marianne also recommends the Moonlight caladium cultivar, which is good at picking up light in shady spaces. “The new caladium cultivars for sun from Proven Winners are pretty impressive,” Marianne says.
Elephant ears, another popular choice, is a tuber-based plant that’s hardy starting in Zone 7. Different varieties can grow to between 3 and 10 feet tall, with huge leaves spanning 2 feet wide and 3 feet long. It’s an ideal corner addition to a tropical-themed garden.
“My all-time favorite elephant ear is the Xanthosoma cultivar Lime Zinger,” Marianne says. “Though it’s definitely got some competition in the new Colocasia cultivar Pharaoh’s Mask.”
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Growing Tropical Plants in Containers
Treat tropical and subtropical varieties as the stars of your summer garden by providing them the right growing conditions.
“Give them rich, moisture-retentive soil and ensure they get enough water during the growing season,” Marianne says. “If you’re concerned about providing this in your beds, containers are the way to go.”
Healthy tropical plants need large containers with large drainage holes so they can perform their best and stick around until the fall frost. They’ll also benefit from soil mixed with compost.
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Protect Tropical Plants Indoors During Winter
Depending on where you live, you can keep tropical plants year after year.
According to Marianne, “A few subtropical plants, such as the hardy banana, are fairly hardy to Zones 5 and 7 and just need a covering of mulch.” Be sure to look into recommendations for your specific plant picks.
Bring certain potted tropical plants or non-hardy bulbs inside during the winter to keep them happy. Plan ahead by growing these plants in containers with casters on the bottom. This will make the indoor move a breeze.
Don’t forget to store canna, dahlia and caladium tubers or rhizomes indoors in a dry, cool spot until spring.
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Attract Pollinators With Tropical Plants
Because many tropical plants have oversized blooms, you’re likely to see larger pollinators visiting. In other words: The more tropicals you plant, the wider variety of pollinators you’ll see.
“One of my favorite things to do is crouch down deep into the border below the blooming canna and observe as the hummingbirds swoop and fight over blooms,” Marianne says. She notes that many of these plants also attract pollinating moths, particularly at dusk, so keep an eye out for these nighttime visitors.
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