Gardening With Exotics

Gardening With Exotics

You don’t have to live in the tropics to enjoy exotic gardening. Gardening with exotics is something that can be done just about anywhere and in any climate. Simply grab some containers and begin planting. Containers allow those living in confined spaces or cooler regions to enjoy the same benefits as those having plenty of space or warmer temperatures. Keep reading for more information on creating an exotic garden.

Gardening with Exotics

The exotic garden can be grown strictly indoors or outside on the patio, where plants can be easily lifted and brought indoors once cold temperatures and frost are imminent to wait out the winter. Nearly anything will thrive in a potted environment and containers also help to control invasive plantings that would otherwise take over the garden. Some good choices include:

  • Bananas
  • Palms
  • Ferns
  • Philodendrons
  • Bamboos
  • Bromeliads
  • Hostas
  • Elephant ears

No room for a lush canopy of trees, try using hanging baskets instead, filled with ferns or sweet potato vines. Anything that gives the garden height will be effective. To create a lush, tropical appearance in the exotic garden using pots, simply place all the containers close together in one large grouping. If space still doesn’t permit, that’s ok too. One large container can still provide you with the same tropical-like effect. For example, place the largest specimen in the center, such as a canna, tropical hibiscus, or dwarf palm. Surround this with taller plants like blue flag iris, peacock orchid, or elephant ear. Then fill in with lower growing plants such as impatiens, fuchsias, and a trailing vine. The possibilities are endless.

Additional Plants for Exotic Gardens

In additional to those previously mentioned, there are a number of plants that can be used in an exotic garden.

  • Hibiscus – Tropical hibiscus is a great plant for exotic-looking gardens with huge flowers is a variety of colors.
  • Ornamental grass – Numerous types of ornamental grasses, such as canary-reed grass or papyrus, look right at home in an exotic garden.
  • Bamboo – Bamboo is ideal within a tropical setting, regardless of climate, as some species are hardy enough for cooler regions. Some bamboo varieties like shade, others enjoy sun. Some species of bamboo are suitable for growing in pots, while others require lots of open space.
  • Angel-wing begonia – Angel-wing begonia has extremely large foliage and flowers.
  • Canna – Cannas are great exotic plants with their brilliant foliage and showy blooms. Use them in single-color arrangements throughout the garden or with other plants sharing similar shades.
  • Calla lily – Calla lilies are one of the staples of exotic gardening. These beautiful plants come in many colors and look great as background plantings for smaller tropical vegetation.
  • Peacock orchid – The peacock orchid has sword-like leaves and fragrant white flowers and fit right in with calla lilies.
  • Caladium – Caladiums offer a wonderful array of patterned colors within their tropical-like, arrow-shaped foliage. Plant them in drifts throughout the exotic garden alongside hostas and Jack-in-the-pulpits.
  • Elephant ear – What says exotic better than elephant ears? Although they tolerate shade, these tropical plants thrive in sunny areas with plenty of moisture.
  • Crocosmia – Crocosmia is another great exotic for the garden.
  • Bird of paradise – Bird of paradise is well suited for container growing. In fact, this banana-like tropical is a popular tub plant in many landscapes.

Don’t overlook ornamental trees and shrubs like cabbage palm, bougainvillea, or cape jasmine.

Tips for Creating an Exotic Garden

Where and what to plant will depend on your landscape, but having an attractive variety will provide plenty of visual interest. Although not a requirement, exotic plantings appreciate ample amounts of sunlight.

Consider maintenance, especially for plantings that require more care than others do. In areas with little rainfall, you may need to provide plenty of moisture, especially those housed in pots.

When creating a tropical garden, an ideal grouping will include trees, shrubs, foliage plants and flowers. One of the key features to gardening with exotics is using layers of lush-looking plants. So keep in mind that plants are more often grown for their foliage characteristics than their flowers. Begin with the largest plant or feature, such as a palm tree or a fountain. This not only acts as the garden’s focal point but will also guide you in your plant choices and placement.

Next, add some evergreen shrubs and taller vegetation, such as rhododendron, bamboo and bromeliads. Continue working down in size, adding an array of forms, colors and textures. Remember to bunch them up as well. You want all aspects of your exotic oasis to be filled with interest. For instance, think drama with bold, blue-green hosta alongside dark-colored ferns and ‘Black Magic’ elephant ears. Don’t overlook the striking foliage color offered by fancy-leaved caladiums and coleus plants.

Since tropical environments are filled with vines and trailing plants, consider incorporating some of your own climbing plants, like passionflower or golden trumpet; just be sure to provide them with adequate support, such as a trellis or similar object.

Aside from plantings, garden ornaments and other features can enhance its tropical style. A water feature of some kind, be it a small pond or fountain, will definitely enhance the tropical atmosphere of your exotic garden. And if your space allows, add a meandering path, perhaps even some naturalistic stones and boulders.

With careful planning and garden design and with proper maintenance and plant selection, you can achieve an exotic garden in even the coolest of climates.


Jungleland: The Exotic Garden at Great Dixter

It’s quite a statement on conventional English gardening to tear out a rose garden and replace it with exotics. In Christopher Lloyd’s words, it was done as a way of bypassing rose replant disease but clearly, creating a jungle in East Sussex was going to be much more fun than pruning roses. We take a tour, between bursts of semi-tropical rain:

Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

Above: One of the entries into the Exotic Garden is through an old cow shed, known as the Hovel. The yard next to it was converted by Sir Edwin Lutyens into a rose garden for Christopher Lloyd’s parents, Nathaniel and Daisy Lloyd. The paved paths are still there and—surprisingly—a few roses.

Above: Dahlias have played a part in the Exotic Garden from the beginning, adding to the late-season color display for which Dixter is known. They also create an unexpected counterpoint to banana trees and other exotics, being old-fashioned favorites, like roses. Dahlias behave differently in this environment: they appear taller, their colors glowing more intensely against the green shapes.

Above: Lessons in texture and shape, with a circle of variegated yucca enclosed in a triangular bed.

Above: Self-seeded Verbena bonariensis is another cottagey plant that has made itself at home in the jungle.

Above: Texture and shape become accentuated in this enclosed space. The wiry starburst of Cyperus papyrus draws you down the flagstone path, even when there are other choices to make.

Above: Like an Amazonian jungle, this enclosure wraps itself around you at 360 degrees. It touches you as you step over and through it sight, scent, and smell are on full alert. Audio is provided by other people in the exotic garden (usually hidden) expressing their delight to themselves or anyone within earshot.

Above: Like the High Garden on the other side of the house, the Exotic Garden is enclosed with formidable walls of yew. From the orchard, leaves of banana and bamboo can be seen escaping from the top of the hedge the only hint that something different is going on inside. An old water bowser is permanently stationed by one of the gaps in the yew walls.

Above: English yew, like the open doors to the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, leading to a different world.

Above: From this entrance, the fluorescent Dahlia ‘Kilburn Glow’ is one of the first things to greet you, accompanied by bamboo, banana, climbing Mina lobata (Spanish Flag), and pale roses.

Above: Great Dixter is worth a visit for the nursery alone it supplies many of the plants shown here. For more information, contact the Great Dixter Nursery.

Above: Dahlia ‘Avoca Amanda’, bent over so that we can see it. The rest of the plant is at least 7 feet tall. Conifers are a theme around Dixter, appreciated as companion plants for their texture.

Above: Step into the jungle. Dixter’s visionary head gardener Fergus Garrett leads study days on exotic gardening in September, as the planting reaches its annual crescendo.


Nick Wilson’s Hardy Exotic Garden in Leeds

Nick Wilson’s jungle garden in Leeds

When we heard about Nick Wilson’s hardy exotic garden via a feature on Gardener’s Question Time a couple of weeks ago we were intrigued, here is someone who has created their dream garden – some would say against the odds – why? because Nick Wilson has created an incredible jungle garden in Leeds!

Now as we all know, Leeds is pretty far north and has a much colder climate than the relatively mild micro-climates of the Cornish gardens that inspired him to grow this garden. Un-deterred, Nick went on to create an amazing tropical paradise out of his standard 85 x 35ft plot and it is positively thriving in the north England climate as can be seen from these glorious lush images taken this summer 2014.

Bamboo and ornamental grasses reflected by mirrors in Nick Wilson’s hardy exotic garden

Protective hedging shields the garden from cold winds at Nick Wilson’s garden in Leeds

How Hardy are Hardy Exotics?
Here at Paramount Plants we’ve been specialising in tropical plants and hardy palms for many years and we’re often asked just how hardy are hardy palms in the UK? We sell our palms right across the country confident that they will withstand temperatures well below freezing, the trick is in the choice of plants. So we were delighted to hear about Nick Wilson’s garden, living proof of how accommodating many of these exotic plants are, when given the best growing conditions and by choosing the right plants.

Tropical garden plants for the UK climate

Designing a Jungle Garden
The clever design of this garden is firstly in the use of evergreen screening to shield and protect the ‘inner’ garden as much as possible, the use of multiple levels with plenty of walkways and paths to explore the various ‘rooms’ within the garden, there is even an overhead walkway and elevated ‘Jungle Lodge’ to access aerial views of the garden.
Choosing the Right Plants.
Nick has planted sumptuous hardy palms, large leafed exotics such as Fatsia Japonica and Tetrapanax with the enormous leaves of the Gunnera Manicata which really add to the jungly feel. The overhead canopy of crown lifted trees are accentuated by the spiky leaves of Cordylines and the gentle rustling of bamboo.

Crown lifted trees at Nick Wilson’s exotic garden in Leeds

Ideal for Hardy Exotic Garden Designs – Slower Growing Black Bamboo, shown here along with Hostas and ferns at the edge of the pond

One of Nick’s favourites is the Chusan palm – Trachycarpus Fortuneii, easy to grow, with large fan shaped leaves atop a tall hairy trunk – almost a case of plant it and forget about it.
Every jungle garden needs to have the serenity of water and here we have two ponds, the lower pond and a raised deck with seating overlooking the upper pond and both are just teaming with beautiful koi carp and how large they have grown in these idyllic surroundings.

Koi carp ponds in Nick Wilson’s garden in Leeds

Hardy Palms surround the koi carp pond

Nick has created a complex garden design with so many wonderful focal points, one of his ploys to create vibrant colour accents in the garden is to strategically plant a small selection of indoor plants in the scheme. These are specifically chosen for their brightly coloured, decorative, foliage and they perform throughout the summer. Once the autumn arrives, these are lifted and taken inside during the colder months and where necessary replenished again next summer – much in the same way other gardeners budget for bedding plants each year.
Creating this heavenly garden has taken Nick over 20 years and alongside the recognition he is receiving from the gardening press, it is now also possible to visit his garden, which is open each year to the public via the National Garden Scheme

We’d like to thank Nick Wilson for his co-operation and for providing such stunning images for this blog.


Please allow 1-2 weeks for your order to be processed we will then ship based on many factors including weather, availability of the plants, and the appropriate planting time for your area. We begin shipping nursery stock at the end of February to the warmest climates first. Sensitive houseplants and potted plants begin shipping in April. Orders are not shipped within a given time frame of receipt but rather based on many factors including proper planting time, weather, and product availability.

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