A touch of the tropics

Date
Published in
Prima (UK)
Written by
Kim Wilde

The Victorians loved large, leafy plants with a lush tropical feel. Now they're back in fashion, so here's how to grow your own piece of exotic heaven...

Tropical-looking plants are enjoying a revival. Exotic plants - both hardy and half-hardy - create a jungle effect, where foliage plays the most important role. Choose plants with an interesting shape, colour and texture, such as fatsia, yuccas and Trachycarpus fortunei.

Perfect planting

Site a tropical garden in a sheltered, south-facing position. The soil needs to be free-draining and rich in humus, so dig in grit and well-rotted manure. Moisture is important, too, so apply mulch generously after planting and watering.
Inner-city and coastal areas tend to have little frost, so you could grow more tender plants. Windswept conditions benefit from a shelter belt of trees or shrubs.

Hardy shrubs

Trachycarpus fortunei (Chusan palm) is frost hardy and needs ful sun and a sheltered position. Its large, fan-shaped leaves give a truly jungle-like effect. Use it as a focal point in a tropical planting scheme, or in a container. Bamboos can also be grown in a container and are a must for that lush, cool look, as well as making a lovely rustling sound in the breeze. Taller ones such as Phyllostachys bambusoides and P. vivax can be used for screening, but don't place them in a windy position, or they'll be stripped of vital moisture.
Phormiums have sword-shaped, evergreen leaves, which make a bold statement, especially when placed among more rounded and broad-leaved foliage. P. tenax, the hardiest of the species, has grey-green leaves and produces red-purple flower spikes up to 4m high. P. cookianum, growing up to 1.5m high, is suited to smaller gardens.
Cordyline australis can take several degrees of frost, but wrap the leaves of young plants with raffia to protect the crown. Use horticultural fleece or sacking to wrap the plant when it's cold.
Yuccas - evergreen shrubs with exotic-looking flower stems - rise in mid to late summer. Y. gloriosa has spiny leaves, so take care if kids are in the garden. Y. gloriosa 'Variegata' has leaves with yellow stripes.
Other suitable plants include aucuba, fatsia and euphorbia.

Fabulous flowers

Dahlias flower long and late, from midsummer to the first autumn frosts. The tuberous roots must be dug up and stored every autumn in boxes of peat substitue or sand, with the crowns exposed. D. 'Bishop of LLandaff' has become well known for its striking red foliage and flowers. They need well-drained, rich soil and full sun to achieve their potential.
Cannas have flamboyant flowers on huge leaves. C. speciosa 'Striata' is grown mainly for its foliage, which has green and yellow veins. Its orange flower isn't unlike that of gladioli and appears in midsummer, lasting until the first frosts.
Kniphofias have spikes of flowers in red, orange and yellow, earning their common name, red-0hot poker. They can also be found in shades of green. Many of the species are unreliably hardy, so should be sited in a warm spot and mulched in winter with the cut-down remains of the plant. K. caulescens is the only tryly hardy Kniphofia, with long, grey leaves and coral red flowers in midsummer.
Crocosmias have yellow, orange or red flowers and sword-like foliage, and vary in height from 45cm to 1.2m. They grown quickly, forming hardge clumps. C. 'Lucifer' is 1.1m high and an eye-catching flame red. For an invasive ground ccover, use C x crocosmiiflora (montbretia), which has become naturalised in mild and wet regions in Britain. Plant them in sun or part shade in moist, well-drained soil.
Verbena bonariensis has rigid, branching stems, up to 1.5m, with clusters of mauve flowers. They'll seed themselves, providing a tall screen to view other plants through. They thrive in hot, dry positions in well-drained soil and can be protected with a winter mulch.

Colourful climbers

Campsis radicans is a stunning deciduous climber with funnel-shaped, orange flowers from summer to autumn. It's hardy, planted in a sheltered, sunny spot, and can reach 10m.
These woody climbers cling by aerial roots. Good for growing against a wall.
Clematis armandii, an evergreen climber with leathery leaves, has white, vanilla-scented flowers in early spring, and can get rather large.
Solanum crispum (Chilean potato tree) is a fast-growing plant with dark green leaves and fragrant lilac to violet flowers in summer. This semi-evergreen vine is hardy in mild areas and needs a warm, sheltered site. S. crispum 'Glasnevin', with its deep blue flowers, is very special.

Garden notebook

A word about weeds
Weeding is a necessary chore, but sometimes it can be hard to differentiate between weeds and hidden flowers or shrub seedlings. If you're not sure what a shoot is, leave it until you can identify it. Here are four common weeds, and how to deal with them...

Bindweed: The pretty trumpet flowers on this pesky weed mask its fast-growing nature.
What to do? Make sure that all the root is dug out - even the slightest piece left in the soil will reroot. Once removed, burn the root to destroy it.

Dandelion: The crown of leaves near the ground shoot up to form flowers. These turn into fluffy seed heads, dispense seed, then begin the cycle again.
What to do? Dig out the fleshy root, before it sets seed. A spray of glyphosate will kill it in one action.

Daisy: Pretty they might be, but they're hard to get rid of once they take hold.
What to do? If only a few appear, you can weed them by hand, using a fork to loosen roots. Good lawn care is the best way to stay on top of daisies, keeping grass well-fed and watered, and not mown too short.

Ground elder: This has distinctive, divided leaves, with spear-shaped leaflets, and bears white flowers in summer. It spreads quickly through the soil, and pieces of root are easily broken to form new plants.
What to do? Dig out as much of the root as you can - it might take a few tries. Mow regularly, and apply glyphosate as soon as ground elder appears.

Tip

Avoid getting glyphosate on the foliage of other plants. This is a systemic agent which penetrates the plant, below ground, to kill it.

Prima solution

Q: I have hedging all around my garden, but it looks really drab. Is there anything besides topiary that I can do to add extra interest?
A: You can easily create a stunning garden display by planting climbers with bright flowers next to a hedge - they'll eventually grow up and over it. For a succession of colourful flowers throughout the year, choose three types of clematis, which flower early, mid and late in the season. Try early C macropetala 'Blue Bird', mid-season C 'Guernsey Cream', and late-flowering crimson-coloured C 'Star of India'.

What's in bloom
  • Gazania Chonsonette Series: A pretty perennial that bears a mix of orange to pink flowers.
  • Cosmos atrosanguineus: Bears velvet flowers in reddy-brown, with a chocolate aroma.
  • Penstemon 'Stapleford Gem'. Its height (2ft) and large leaves make this ideal for borders. Flowers graduate from pale purple to pale lilac.
Things to do in August
  • Prune rambling roses after flowering;
  • Trim hedges;
  • Weed borders regularly;
  • Watch out for pests and diseases;
  • Start planting out daffodil bulbs (finish the job by the end of September);
  • Water lawns regularly;
  • Ask friends to keep an eye on house plants while you're away;
  • Harvest early apples and pears.