Exotic gardens equal drama and atmosphere, so try these tropical garden ideas for an escape from our daily reality to faraway holiday destinations. Although the look hails from warmer climes, it’s easy to adapt it to UK gardens to bring the tropics right into our own back gardens, whatever the weather.
Exotic style relies on evergreens rather than colour combinations, which means it looks lush all year, and plenty of exotic-looking plants are hardy in UK winters. Others, like the banana tree Musa basjoo, are still fine as long as they’re brought inside for the colder months.
You don’t need oodles of space to create a tropical-style garden – this planting is a great solution for smaller urban plots too. By using large architectural plants you can create sheltered private spaces and screen out ugly buildings. And with urban heat islands we can grow tender plants for longer in the season. Keep reading for our favourite ways to give your garden an exotic look, then head to our garden design ideas for more inspiration for your outdoor space.
1. GET INSPIRED BY YOUR FAVOURITE VACATIONS
For exotic inspo, look online at your favourite destinations, or get ideas from holiday photos. You don’t have to start from scratch – you can transform your existing garden by taking up the lawn, putting in a path, and planting around that. Include a patio or decking so you’ve got a secluded place to sit. Be sure to add a pretty shade sail or a parasol. Soft pastel paint shades will give a warm and tropical feel.
2. MAKE A STATEMENT WITH ARCHITECTURAL FORMS
Look at form and foliage – exotic style is about impactful, contrasting evergreens. Texture is important too – contrast the glossy green leaves with more delicate, lacy ones. Plant dense undergrowth with low-maintenance grasses and evergreen ferns in large clumps, repeating them round the garden. Polystichum setiferum (soft shield fern) has a ‘Jurassic’ presence, with its huge evergreen leaves.
3. INJECT SOME COLOUR WITH BOLD FLORALS
For colour, have a few bold hits from tender exotics like cannas dotted around in summer, peeping through the green background. Most exotic and tropical plants are pretty low-maintenance – you’ll need to water them while they establish and tidy them now and then, but they’re certainly far less work than herbaceous borders or lawns.
4. BRIGHTEN UP SHADY SPOTS
Shady garden? No worries – shade is no bar to the exotic look. In fact, shade-loving plants like fatsia and dicksonia, that provide exactly the jungle-like ambience you’re after, positively thrive in shade; bamboos too. Trachycarpus (the windmill palm), cordyline (Torbay palm) and Musa basjoo (banana) also tolerate partial shade. Most ferns are happy in shade, as are many grasses, such as hakonechloa, a Japanese grass with bright green arching leaves and rusty winter colour. Liriope is a grass-like evergreen perennial which loves shade, with added interest from purple flowers in September.
5. POT UP SOME HOT CONTAINERS
Containers are ideal for tender plants like citrus (eg, lemon) that live outside in summer, and come back indoors for winter. This means you can go for exotic style even if you only have a patio. Make a feature of your container displays in summer, grouping your pots prominently on the patio or deck. Remember to bring them inside before the first frosts in late autumn!
6. ADD YOUR HOUSEPLANTS TO THE MIX
Most houseplants enjoy a summer holiday on the patio, with warmer night-time temperatures. They’ll benefit from the fresh air and extra light and will look healthier after their mini-break. Cacti and succulents are fine in hot spots, and are best fed with specialist cactus feed. But other plants need placing out of full sun, which can scorch their leaves. And some, like aspidistra, prefer full shade. Display your houseplants together in groups and enjoy them up close outdoors. Water and feed as normal, and remember to bring them inside when night temperatures start dropping.
7. CHOOSE PLANTS FOR DRAMA
Give your patio a tropical island look with a spectacular canna. The leaves alone are large, colourful and impressive, but they are matched by equally dramatic blooms, which come in a bold selection featuring pink, red, yellow or orange. They'll flower from June to September and reach heights of over a metre. Pair them in a bed with dahlias for a showstopping display.
8. USE TROPICAL-STYLE ACCESSORIES
Tropical gardens are mostly about the plants and creating a jungle atmosphere. For structures, use bold materials to match the planting style, rough timbers for decking or pergolas, slate or bark chippings for paths, bamboo for fences. In city gardens, paint fences with black or dark grey exterior wood paint so the greens of your planting really pop.
9. PUT IN A WATER FEATURE
A waterfall is great if you’ve got a big garden, but don't go chasing them if you don't have the space. There are plenty of water features available in varying styles and sizes. Solar-powered ones are easy to install. The gentle sounds of trickling water will add to the oasis vibe and are a must-have addition in an tropical-themed garden.
10. CREATE A DESERT ISLAND VIBE
Create an enclosed seating area with plants all around you to give your space an exotic feel. Throw in plenty of bright accessories to add vibrant pops of colour, then make some fresh summer cocktails and bingo! You’re living the tropical dream in your very own backyard oasis.