tropical garden

Creating a tropical garden

Of all known garden styles, a tropical garden best connects you to the drama and serenity of Mother Nature, and allows you to revel in all the exotic colours and forms the botanical world has to offer.

The key features of a tropical garden are interwoven layers of lush plants, and bold foliage and bright colour accents in exaggerated sizes. Elements of this relaxed garden style can be incorporated into any size garden and you don’t even have to live in the tropics at all – any temperate climate will do. So if you already have the following in your garden, you’re ready to get started:

  • Shady areas
  • A palm or two
  • Flowering shrubs and vines
  • A pool or pond.

And if we start identifying the design principles of a perfect tropical garden further, the following points come to mind:

Dramatic accent plants

Plants with bright or contrasting foliage colours and exotic foliage forms are the sensual additions to the undergrowth of a tropical garden. They can include fiery crotons, tough coprosmas, brightly striped flaxes, Alocasia hybrids, gaudy caladiums (elephant’s ears), the green drama of huge Philodendron selloum and P. ‘Xanadu’ leaves and the gaily striped rainbow tree (Dracaena marginata ‘Tricolour’).

Focal points

As tropical gardens are designed with long, curved, relaxed planting beds cutting into a lush lawn, there will be eye-catching spots to fill with strong and very architectural accent plants. These can include those with sharp, sword-like leaves such as cordylines, cycads (indigenous species) or Cycas thouarsii and Cycas revoluta, which are of exotic origin but are easy to grow. Don’t forget about the eye-catching soft succulence of Agave attenuata.

The mystery of shade

The backbone of a tropical garden is high, slender, evergreen shade trees with lacy dark green leaves and attractive bark. They provide the jungle-like atmosphere and dappled shade for other tropical plants beneath them. Plants with an exotic look and large leaves (like palms, tree ferns and Natal wild bananas) add to the tropical look. You can also include special specimen trees or large shrubs with spectacular flowers like coral trees, frangipanis, tibouchinas and hibiscus.

Note: It should be kept in mind that the shade from the ‘backbone’ should never be allowed to grow too deep. Low branches should be regularly pruned away to allow in more light for other plants.

Background undergrowth

The stalwarts in the background of your tropical beds are solanums, plumbagoes, star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), starry wild jasmine (Jasminum multipartitum) and white or forest gardenia (Gardenia thunbergia), pistol bush (Duvernoia adhatodoides) and forest bell bush (Mackaya bella) – all of these fair well in dappled shade and are mostly indigenous and pretty tough!

READ MORE: Learn more about plants that do well in the shade.

Colourful foreground

When working with strong patches of ‘colour-blocking’ in the foreground, use perennials and annuals in shades of bright yellow, luminescent orange, shocking pink, post-box red, and deep purple. Plants like cannas, clivias, Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’, bromeliads, sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), hostas, coleus, hen-and-chickens (Chlorophytum) and impatiens are good choices.

Deeper shade and moist spots

Where there is darker shade and a moist atmosphere, you can use dainty ferns like the pretty maidenhair (Adiantum capillusveneris) or the hardy Knysna fern (Rumohra adiantiformis). The hardy holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is equally suitable with its glossy, green, leathery leaves.

Playfulness and highlights

Highlights and playfulness can be added in the form of hanging baskets filled with bright foliage and flowering plants. You can also use the branches and main stems of trees and palms as places to grow epiphytes like orchids, bromeliads and staghorn ferns (Platycerium).

READ MORE: Learn about different Plectranthus varieties to plant in your garden

More ideas for your tropical oasis

Plants alone do not make a garden – you can add the following elements to complete the picture.


A peaceful pond, softly gurgling fountain in a pot, or a running stream is at home in a tropical garden. In a large garden, first prize would be a natural-looking pond filled with a selection of water plants like cyperus, irises, water lilies and reeds. Owners of smaller tropical paradises need not feel left out at all, as garden centres are stocked with a wide selection of portable water features that will not take up a huge amount of space and are easy to assemble. They can be placed in a focal spot and finished of with swathes of colourful ornamental grasses like Carex hachijoensis ‘Evergold’ or Japanese rush (Acorus gramineus) and smooth river pebbles.


Use natural materials like railway sleepers, wooden rings, wooden decks, river pebbles, gravel and rough-hewn steppingstones to create a network of pathways through the garden and densely planted beds. If you have access to lovely old tree stumps or characterful rocks, add them too and plant lush groundcovers like ajugas, bergenias and creeping foxgloves (Asystasia) around and amongst them.

Temptation requires preparation

Before planting, dig in copious amounts of compost and bonemeal. A proper irrigation system, which can be a combination of seeping hoses and mist sprayers, is recommended for a tropical garden, as the plants require regular watering to become established. Some plants already mentioned, such as ferns, will benefit from humidity around them, and constantly moist, but not sopping wet, soil. Also use a mulch of compost, leaf mould or bark nuggets to keep the soil moist for longer between waterings, and to combat pesky weeds.

Top tip

Too many beds with lots of curves and awkward corners cause lots of maintenance, especially if they are cut into a lawn. To lay out planting beds with relaxed curves, use your hosepipe that has been warmed by the sun. Move the hosepipe around until you are satisfied with the bed’s shape and then dust a line of cake flour all along the hosepipe. Once done, remove the pipe and study your white markers for a day or two to see if you would like to make any changes before you start digging out the beds. You can do this with:

  • A leafy canopy – high and green
  • Large, dramatic leaves
  • Accent plants with strong architectural forms
  • Spots of bright colour
  • Calming water
  • Natural pathways
  • Dense groundcovers and lush ferns
  • A comfortable place to sit and enjoy it all.
The Gardener