wikiHow to Make a Tropical Style Garden

Tropical gardens have long been seen as a romantic and exotic place and in many parts of the world can add value to a home both in enjoyment but also in creative and property value.

Tropical style gardens fortunately aren't always high maintenance and they can be very low care if you plan the garden in advance, as if you cannot grow them outside, they can easily be grown indoors or in a greenhouse.

If you've been on holiday to Southeast Asia, Northern Australia, the Caribbean, Pacific island nations, Central America or Equatorial Africa and wanted to recreate some of the tropical plants outside of a tropical or subtropical zone, there's a way to achieve something similar where you can enjoy your memories and experiences, or enjoy the beauty and tranquility of these gardens.


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    Find out your local climate. Many hot climates, even dry and arid climates can grow tropical varieties, but you need to choose the right type as some are too thirsty to waste water on if you're in a drought-prone area. Generally speaking, tropicals prefer hot (preferably 30C / 86F) and a humid climate, that for optimal growth is fairly consistent throughout the year. But they can thrive in any warm climate but less than ideal conditions will result in smaller or slower growth and fewer flowers. Some tropical and subtropical plants also survive in places with mild frosts and there are many tropical looking specimens species that can survive in order to create a tropical feeling. If you have severe frosts, or long but mild winters and short warm seasons, then growing them indoors is the recommended way to go. Ideally, hardy tropicals like full sun, delicate tropicals such as ferns, orchids etc prefer filtered light, but can be more fussy about ambient temperature. A good solution is to plant delicates in pots and then the pot planted in the ground and concealed with mulch. Then when the cool season arrives, the whole pot can be lifted up and transferred indoors or to a more tolerant area.
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    Find out your soil type and build your soil up to suit. Tropical plants like good rich soils that drain easily. Sand and heavy clay can be improved with compost, heavy mulch layers (approx 15cm or 6 inches thick) and other soil improvers. Tropical gardens can look excellent or straggly, so the soil is a major starting ground to ensure your garden will thrive. Ironically, a lot of rainforest natives survive on very weak soils with a shallow root layer, but this is often because the soil has been depleted by the larger species taking a lot of the nutrients. Ideally any soil used for tropicals and most subtropicals prefer free draining, many rainforest species do not like "wet feet" or their root zone saturated for a long period as it is the prime environment for growing mould and fungus pathogens to the plants. Some species prefer coarse mulch-like soil, such as orchids and bromeliads, but most will do well in any free draining soil, preferably with some organic matter. Many species in rainforest environments therefore rely on insect and microbial activity to break down leaf and other waste, as well as animal droppings. This is also why rainforests struggle to regenerate after clearing and erosion. As in dry areas, the amount of available water is low, or evaporates quickly. Thus, apply a nitrogen rich organic based fertiliser and then mulch heavily (a layer approx 15cm/6" or half a foot thick) and water well. After 2 or 3 weeks with adequate watering (the mulch layer will reduce evaporation, but will benefit with extra heavy watering once a week), the fertiliser will start to break down into the soil improving microbial and soil ecology and it is ready for planting. It is recommended to apply fresh mulch annually, or until the plants are big enough to create their own mulch layer.
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    Plan your garden layout, as well as functionality and practicality. A nice grassed area is common in resort gardens, but in desert zones can be impossible to keep alive, or be an ethical headache using limited water resources on grass. Alternative options would be to shade the area and apply a red/ochre gravel area to put a chair and and table set on, or install artificial grass as the quality of artificial turf is vastly better since its early days. Ideally you should reflect on your ambitions - is the garden simply for aesthetic enjoyment, or for relaxation, for children and family pets to play in or for style reasons? Hunt around in books and online pictures, which online is a vast and rich resource of stunning examples that you can copy, or use as inspiration using local or similar plants that will cope in your climate.
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    For hot, dry climates, ensure there is some established shade cover first. This is best achieved by planting drought-proof trees such as Australian native frangipani, tipuana, jacaranda, poinciana, carob, desert palms (such as date or canary island date palms - many of the best ones originate from North Africa or desert regions of the Americas; these can have thorns or spines though, so choose appropriately), and so forth. Ensure you choose wisely however as some of the plants most tolerant of your conditions tend to be invasive species your home state or province has banned or would prefer you to avoid. Local government, as well as plant nurseries can often recommend suitable plants for you in your style. Get the shade established before buying other plants as they typically won't live very well without protection, or will grow poorly for the first few years as harsh sun can bleach or scorch them.
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    Once the shade cover is established, consider some understory species. These tend to be the stars of the show. Some desert tropical plants suitable for use as shrubs are: cycads, agave, flax, cacti and succulents, frangipani, yucca, kangaroo paws and cabbage palms. Some cordyline, hibiscus, fern, orchid and bromeliad species are very drought proof as well. Strelitzia species, especially var. nicolai (which can grow quite large and tall) is quite drought tolerant. Vinca species can be a good low growing border that rivals the tropical impatiens. Hanging gardens can work very well in a desert climate, providing they are adequate located with filled with moisture retaining materials like water gel crystals or organic matter. It is best to locate these out of full sun and winds which may dry them out.
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    In a windy climate, either hot and dry or temperate, install hedges, or other walls and screens to reduce the impact of strong wind. You could use living screens such as bamboo, lillipilli, hedging bougainvillea or hibiscus which will add to the garden. Plants that can be wind damaged such as banana species are best avoided as even with protection they will never grow well or look optimal. It is still important to ensure there is some air movement, as plants need air movement to grow hardwood (a common problem in greenhouses that the branches are structurally weaker and more prone to damage), as well as air movement is vital to reduce mildew, mould and pest infestations. Some epiphyte species, such as bromeliads, require air circulation to keep their ecologies healthy.
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    Engage strategies for a colder climate. Thick, dense plantings will protect species from chilling winds and frosts, much like penguins form dense groups to protect themselves from the cold. Many palms also stand light frosts and tree ferns and bamboo are another good choice. Smaller understory options that are cold hardy with mild frosts are some of the ginger family, canna lilies, arum lilies, ferns, cordyline australis varieties and several palm species will also tolerate light frosts. Larger hibiscus varieties will easily survive light frost and are useful screens. Mulch heavily, as thick mulch layers will reduce the likelihood of frost reaching the roots which will kill the plants. You can also wrap foam, bubblewrap or other plastic padding around delicate or sentimentally precious species to protect them overnight if you cannot move them. In areas with heavy or prolonged frosts, a conservatory or hot-house is the only way to go for tropical plants, as few species will tolerate the cold for too long.For cold climates, go for leaf colour and texture, as most tropical plants require heat and humidity to flower so you might not get this added advantage. Hydrangea, magnolia and camellia can blend in very well; however, if you add dolomite lime to the soil for hydrangeas you can get them to flower in pink which will create a warmer feel.
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    Look at incorporating living sculpture in your garden, or using sculptural plants to make an impact. In the nineteenth century Victorian period gardens, "stumperies" were popular additions to cold regions and they're again making a revival. A stumpery is an assembly of tree stumps or logs installed in a dense mass in which ferns, orchids, bromeliads including tillandsia and other epiphytes can be planted for colour and sculptural pleasure. Bromeliads are an amazing species for this application. They can grow in beds, in pots, or mounted in trees and wall panels if it does not freeze. The species offers a riot of colours, shapes, patterns and sizes. Other species or ideas are to make bougainvillea hedges or topiary, which can flower incessantly and better with regular trimming. Hibiscus is another species with large, glamorous flowers that hedge well. Many palm species are excellent examples such as the strong silver Bismark palm or the smaller silver saw palmetto varieties. Some palms sport red, orange and purple coloured new growth which while stunning can be more difficult in most climates outside of the tropics, but palms also have striking stems that may be single or clumping, coloured such as lipstick palm (very cold sensitive) or golden cane, which is pretty hardy. Some small bush palms are attractive such as ladies fingers palm (rhapis palm) which can be variegated.
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    Invest in brightly coloured banners and flags, sculptures (such as Buddha images, Polynesian, Balinese or other types of statuary) and water features. Rock features are desirable but you can also buy fibreglass artificial boulders which are low cost, lightweight and easy to install. If you already have existing and large but uninteresting rocks, you can scrub them clean and when dry, coat lightly with glue and then cover them with red, brown, ochre or charcoal coloured sands that would make a good contrast. When the glue dries the rock looks like one that you would see in a tropical environment. Candles, lanterns and torches are also good to add character and that jungle feel.
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    Regular maintenance after the installation would be to ensure mulch levels are kept up and refreshed with new mulch (which can be done annually), as well as removing old palm fronds, flower heads and occasional pruning to ensure the new growth is prominent. It is ideal to keep garden border edged or clean lines maintained to create a formal holiday-resort feel. Tropical plants that can be pruned should not be done just before, or during winter as this may prove fatal. It is best done when there is a long period of warm weather coming for the plants to grow back. Palms should not be pruned at all, just dead fronds removed so it is often best to find species that will drop fronds naturally - species like the cocos palm from Argentina will not drop fronds until a long period so can look untidy. Moss on pathways should be cleaned off regularly as it can be slippery, while cleanly marked pathways make the garden appear more attractive. If you have a lawn area, if you cut old leaves and fronds, such as palm and fern, as well as old canna, ginger prunings (etc) and place them on the lawn you can cut them with a lawn mower while cutting the grass at the same time. With the grass catcher on, this collection is good to add to compost bins, or to bury under mulch to enrich the soil for the next season. Ensure there is no seed heads from plants you don't wish to regrow in the mulch.


  • Avoid mixing themes––English cottage garden and tropical style doesn't always blend harmoniously.
  • Look at pictures of resort gardens, sometimes you might know a local plant that is similar (such as a tall grass type plant) and use that instead.
  • Do the groundwork first before spending any money; it may be too difficult or expensive to do in your area, in which case a native garden is better.

Things You'll Need

  • Tropical plants suitable for your zone
  • Gardening equipment
  • Appropriate fertilisers

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