Julie Martens Forney

Dress your yard with south-of-the-border style by embracing a tropical garden design in planting areas. Tropical gardens boast colorful plants with exotic blooms and flamboyant foliage that transform any outdoor space into an equatorial oasis. Tropical garden designs sizzle with lavish growth as the temperature soars. Discover some ideas for tending your own tropical paradise.

Tropical garden designs can hold their own in any region and really make a splash in colder regions where winter brings snow. In these areas, a summer garden filled with jungle-like plants creates a showstopping impact with the lush growth it achieves in a short growing season. In warmer regions, a tropical garden design can hold its own most of the year.

When summer heat sends you scurrying indoors for air conditioning, tropical gardens stage outstanding growth. Tropical plants thrive in heat and humidity, so it’s best to site a tropical garden where warmth multiplies. In regions with a short growing season, a full-sun setting surrounded by heat-retaining surfaces, like concrete, walls or buildings, helps tropical garden designs achieve their full potential. In warmer areas, heat plus direct sun can burn plantings. Research the right conditions for tropical plants in your region.

Most tropical plants crave moisture, and the more you give them, the bigger they’ll grow. Create a tropical garden design near a water source, so you won’t have to drag a hose to the garden during dry periods. Tropical plants typically require soil that’s rich in organic matter. Be sure to work adequate organic matter, such as soil conditioner, finished compost, or composted manure, into soil prior to planting. Soil that’s high in organic matter won’t need watered as frequently, which will save you a little hose time during peak growth.


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In coldest zones, grow your tropical plants in containers that you haul indoors before winter cold arrives. Larger containers permit tropical beauties to reach more of their potential, but can be tricky to relocate for winter. Map your plan of action for winter storage before tucking a favorite tropical into a pot you won’t be able to move.

Water is critical for tropicals in containers. During peak summer heat, be sure to check soil daily for dryness, and water as needed. Some tropicals need so much water that it’s best to slip pots into deep saucers or tubs that you can top off as needed. Be sure to treat any standing water with Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis granules to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

The sound of trickling water is a classic attribute of tropical settings, so plan to include a water feature in your tropical garden design. Choose a simple wall or free-standing fountain, or invest a water garden that can host potted tropicals like Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), elephant ears (Colocasia spp.), bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae) or canna lilies (Canna spp.).

Accessorize your tropical garden design by including touches that ooze calypso charm. Consider blazing tiki torches, potted orchids, and twinkling lights. A hammock or rope swing provides island-style seating, or choose weather-resistant wicker for an equatorial ambience. For more substantial furniture, select teak or shorea pieces. Both offer weather-resistance and durability, although shorea delivers these traits at a more affordable price. Include cushions outfitted with sunny tropical fabrics.

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