By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
If your dream is to create a lush, jungle-like garden filled with exotic, shade-loving tropical plants, don’t give up on the idea. Want to learn about creating a tropical shade garden? Read on.
When looking for tropical shade garden ideas, first consider your climate and growing zone. For example, if you live in an Arizona desert, you can still create the feeling of a tropical shade garden. However, you’ll need to do it without a lot of plants having high water demands. Or, if you live in a northern climate, a tropical shade garden should consist of cold-tolerant plants with a tropical appearance.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with color, as tropical jungles aren’t exactly sedate. Although you can plant blooming annuals and perennials, the best tropical shade garden plants tend to have big, bold, brightly colored or variegated leaves that will stand out in a shady garden.
Jungles are dense, so plan accordingly. While some plants may be prone to disease without air circulation, creating a tropical shade garden means planting like a jungle – a lot of plants in a small space.
Garden accents, including planting containers, are easy ways to create accents of bright color. Other tropical shade garden ideas that create an essence of the tropics include rattan furniture, woven mats, stone carvings or tiki torches.
Here are some popular tropical shade garden plants to choose from:
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Geeta sent in these photos of a tropical garden.
I have been trying to create a garden with a tropical feel to it for the last four years after we moved in to this place. The soil was a thin layer with stones underneath, so planting was difficult. I had to buy some garden soil to layer on top, but it still wasn’t enough for deeper-rooting plants. There were budget constraints, and I was excited and in a hurry, so I started planting in whatever condition the soil was. Another issue with the place was the presence of tall trees all around, which meant that the trees would lean over from the neighbors’ yard too, so sunlight was at a premium. I planted hibiscus, alamanda, plumeria—all flowering plants—but they hardly bloomed. Then I planted some shade-loving plants such as dracaena, arelia, and Tradescantia (Tradescantia zebrina), all of which are growing well. Some turtle vine (Callisia repens) has grown as a ground cover. The Tradescantia has also grown wild. Then there is the coleus, which has become quite an attention grabber. A scattering of curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii), four coconut trees, a mango tree, a small corner landscape, and a few other plants form my garden. It’s beginning to shape up, and I am loving the way it’s developed, though there is a lot more to do.
Shade-loving tropical plants fill this garden. Even if you don’t live somewhere where these plants can grow outside all year, they can be grown as annuals and then brought inside as houseplants for the winter.
A beautiful sago palm (Cycas revoluta, Zones 9–10). Not a true palm, this plant is actually a cycad, an ancient group of primitive plants.
Spectacular palm fronds provide a backdrop for the garden but also cast too much shade for some flowering plants.
The tree on the right looks like a papaya, which has beautiful and interesting leaves in addition to its delicious fruit.
A shady nook is planted with shade-loving plants in containers.
Here are a few guidelines to use when you are picking out your plants.
The great thing about shade plants is that so many of them have vibrant leaf colors.
Which means you can have color in your garden all season, even if none of your plants are blooming.
And I will definitely try to take advantage of this in my shade garden design.
Varying the leaf textures is another way to add interest to your shade garden.
The contrast between delicate fern leaves and monster-sized Hosta leaves makes this small shady garden bed look like a tropical oasis…even though it’s actually growing on Mackinac Island (in Northern Michigan).
Of course, you’ll also want to include some flowering plants that add pops of color to your shade garden.
Picking a color scheme will help to create a cohesive, unified look (get help with that HERE).
Try to include plants that bloom at different times so you can have blooms all season long.
One of the keys to creating a garden that looks serene (and not like a jumbled mess) is to repeat the same plants multiple times throughout your garden beds.
Try alternating two different kinds of plants all along the edge of the bed. Or include a mass planting of just one variety.
The picture above uses both of these techniques to create a simple but effective shady border garden in front of the house.
I’m a big fan of good garden design, and architectural plants can go a long way towards curing any design flaws your garden is suffering from. Why? Because one of the major mistakes most gardeners make is lack of focus in the garden. When your beds start to look flat, or too busy, or not connected…chances are you really need some good focal points. It’s just like decorating a room. You need a major piece of art, or a fireplace, or a magnificent window view, or a conversational piece of furniture to really make a design sing. Same goes with garden design. Architectural plants, or structural plants are a great way to add one, or more focal points to your yard or garden.
There are many plants that have strong structural presence in the garden, from palms to cactuses, sedums to tropicals. I’m going to encourage you to look into those types of plants if you live in a zone that can support them, because their exotic nature make them prime focal loin candidates. But I’m going to stick to perennials here because I think they have a broader range over a lot more garden zones, and because that’s where my experience lies. Here are a few of my favorites, and how to grow them!
Yucca – Famous English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll used Yucca as a mainstay in her beautiful cottage style gardens for architecture. Hardy down to zone 4, these evergreen spiky wonders are a great structural plant any time of yea,r but they have a secret… when in flower, they give a spectacular show! Stalks of flowers 6 feet high are common, and last for weeks in June. Leaves can be green, red, or variegated, and all they want out of life is well drained soil and lots of sun. Drought resistant too!
New Zealand Flax – Another beloved strappy leaved plant that is actually related to grasses, New Zealand Flax is grown as a perennial in mild climates, and an annual in colder ones. Red or green leaves can reach up to 10 feet in those mild climates, they are much smaller in areas that frost as they only grow one season. Make a great container plant in colder climates. Photo by ‘Grows on You‘.
Rodgersia – A large, tropical looking plant that comes back year after year down to zone 5. Three to six feet high and wide, they love shade to part sun, lots of moisture and protection from wind and afternoon sun. This makes a dramatic statement in any bed! Photo by ‘Fine Gardening‘.
Ornamental Grasses – There are more ornament al grasses than I can cover in this post, but you can learn more at our post on, well… ornamental grasses! They all make a statement in the garden, I have numerous varieties and at least one in every bed. Calamagrostis “Karl Foerster” is my fav upright variety, though there are several new ones that deserve attention. Any Miscanthus also makes a statement, especially the variegated ones. There is an ornamental grass for almost every zone and situation. Photo by ‘Country Gardener‘.
Giant Elephant Ear – Talk about architectural plants! This is a tuber that grows large, tropical looking leaves and stands up to eight feet tall, and is a wonderful addition to any shade or part shade garden. Only hardy down to zone 7, you can lift the tubers for winter if it isn’t hardy in your area. Loves water, fertilizer and shade in the afternoon in hot areas. Photo below from Houzz.
These elephant ears are from ‘Longfield Gardens‘, and are paired gorgeously with some richly colored caladiums. Perfect tropical look! Longfield has one of the best selections of elephant ear varieties… we love the upright forms!
Sea Holly/Eryngium – Sea Holly is a striking plant just made for that hot, sun baked spot. Needing full sun, very drought tolerant, and thriving on neglect, these plants are perfect for xeriscaping. Blue, unusual blooms in midsummer. These plants can grow 6-8 feet tall in some varieties, but they tend to not grow very wide, so plant several 2-3 feet apart for a good show. Hardy down to zone 2, they do not transplant well so make sure you put them where you want them!
Globe Thistle/Echinops – Another spiky looking blue plant, grown almost exactly like sea holly… Lovely blue balls of flowers mid to late summer. Dry well! One of the shorter plants on my list at only 3 feet, they are hardy to zone 3. Mass these for the best effect…and it is some effect to see a bed of this electric blue color and amazing texture! Goes well with yarrow…
Joe Pye Weed – A native to the prairie state, this large perennial grows 6-8 feet high and wide. Blooming in late summer with broad, plate like flowers that resemble sedums, in a dusty purple. A dwarf form is available. Make sure you buy a named variety, like “Gateway” in order to get large flowers and a stronger plant. Prefers sun, moist soil, and looks best if cut down to the ground in early spring. Photo by ‘ISU Extension‘.
Finally, we have horsetail. Horsetail reed is a grass that dates back to a prehistoric age. A water loving plant that can actually grow in swampy soil, this plant loves sun but will tolerate some shade. Evergreen in mild climates. Great used in a modern or contemporary garden for it’s structure and texture. One of our very favorite architectural plants to use. Fast growing to 3-4 feet, it spreads underground and will spread indefinitely if not contained. Because of this, a great container plant.
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Outfit your outdoor spaces with a touch of the tropics, and you can savor resort-style living in your own backyard.
Elephant ear plants and various types of palms create a lush, tropical landscape at this beach resort.
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.
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.