Tropical gardens are lush, green and exotic – and it is possible to create a tropical jungle effect, even right here in the UK.
You might imagine that in our far chillier climate, a tropical garden would be an impossibility for British gardeners. But there are a surprising number of plants for a tropical effect that can survive perfectly well (sometimes with winter protection) in many UK gardens.
Some are genuine tropical plants, from tropical climates, while others grow in cooler climates similar to our own, but look exotic enough to contribute to that tropical jungle look.
Choosing the right plants, and combining those plants in the right ways, is key to successfully achieving this effect in your garden.
In this article, we will share some general design tips for a tropical garden in the UK climate. Then go on to look at some specific tropical garden ideas in a little more depth.
Design Tips for a Tropical Garden in the UK
- Layer plants – in a tropical jungle, layers of dense planting spread from the canopy to the ground cover layer. Dense, lush, diverse planting can definitely help you to get the look you are going for. In the UK, sun is not as intense as the tropics, of course. But careful management of the canopy and pruning away lower branches strategically can help you create a range of different eco-zones in layered planting, with some areas of deeper shade and some sunny spots in between.
- Hardy palms and banana plants can work in many UK gardens, and help to give that instant tropical look. They often take a little work to keep them safe over the winter months, but they can survive happily in many UK gardens.
- Other unusual (especially evergreen) trees can also be interesting options to consider. Both evergreens and deciduous trees can also provide a range of edible yields, which is an interesting thing to consider.
- But many other plants with bold, large leaves and architectural foliage and form should also be included – even those which grow in other climate zones can blend into the overall garden design and give an impressive tropical look, even in our temperate climate.
- Bright, exotic looking blooms are also a must. They break up the foliage in a jungle-like garden with splashes of colour – adding a sense of warmth even on the cloudiest of days.
- Don’t forget the ground layer! To really achieve a tropical jungle look in your garden, you need to think about what will spread and grow over the soil below your trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and flowers. Fill in all the gaps to create microclimates and to get the right look.
- Have pathways which wind between the dense planting, so you can walk through your tropical garden on a journey of discovery. Creating that jungle feel, even in a small garden, means getting the sense that something wonderful awaits, just round the corner. Obscuring the edges of the space, and making it feel like an environment you can get lost in, can make a small garden feel much bigger than it really is.
- Consider adding some water – a pond, stream, or small waterfall feature really can add to that tropical feel. An eco-friendly solution is to use water directed from a rainwater harvesting system, and to use solar-powered pumps.
- Whether it is a water feature, or a seating area, for example, remember to create a destination to draw you and your visitors through your jungle scheme to the other end of your tropical garden – to make sure you make the most of the space.
Layered and Lush Planting
The layers in a tropical garden are like the layers in a food-producing forest garden. And in fact, it is worthwhile remembering that a tropical feel garden could easily also be a ‘food forest’.
A food forest or forest garden is a way of growing food that allows you to work in harmony with the natural world. The goal in a food forest is to mimic the structure of a natural woodland or forest, but to include plants which are beneficial to us, or to the ecosystem as a whole.
All forest gardens can provide a bounty of food, and many other resources, in diverse and wildlife-friendly, largely perennial planting schemes. A tropical-feel food forest could also be a place to forage for edibles.
Not all plants will have edible yields, of course, but you can include many plants which do.
Unfortunately, in the UK, many of the edible plants grown in real tropical climate forest gardens – those actually in a tropical climate – will not thrive over our winters.
But that is not to say that you cannot grow plenty of fruit trees, berry bushes, and other edible plants which will give a wonderfully tropical or jungle-like feel.
Hardy Palms and Banana Plants
Hardy palms, without a doubt, are the shortcut plants for achieving a tropical garden. Fortunately, there are a number of palms that can be grown in many UK gardens.
For example, you can consider:
- Chusan Palm – Trachycarpus fortunei
- Dwarf fan palm – Chaemaerops humilis
- Dwarf palmetto – Sabal minor
- Jelly Palm – Butia capitana
- Canary island date palm – Phoenix canariensis
These can all grow successfully in warm and sheltered UK gardens, in moist yet well-draining soil, though will usually require some winter protection.
Banana plants are also fantastic shortcuts to achieving that tropical garden look. While some can occasionally be coaxed into providing edible fruit, banana plants are usually grown for ornamental appeal in gardens.
Some options to consider for your tropical garden include:
- Musa x paradisiaca
- Musa basjoo
- Musa Iasciocarpa
- Musa acuminata
- Ensete ventricosum
Since hardy palms and bananas are on the edge of what we can grow in the United Kingdom, these can lend an exotic feel.
But it will be easier to create a tropical garden feel if you mix a few of these palms and bananas in with other plants which can grow more comfortably in our climate.
Trees for Canopy Cover
In a tropical garden design for the UK, I like to mix hardy palms and banana plants with evergreen trees which fill in canopy cover through the garden, and which lend themselves to a jungle-like look. Evergreen trees to consider include:
- Loquat – Eriobotrya japonica
- Pineapple guava – Feijoa selloana
- Strawberry Tree – Arbutus unedo
- Bull Bay – Magnolia grandiflora
- Citrus (in containers, brought indoors during the winter months)
There are also plenty of deciduous trees that can look great in a jungle-like tropical garden, including:
- Figs – Ficus carica
- Ginkgo – Ginkgo biloba
- Bean tree – Catalpa bungei
- Paulownia imperialis
- Rice-Paper Tree – Tetrapanax papyrifer
One final type of plant to consider for the upper tiers of a tropical garden is tree ferns. Tree ferns that you might consider include:
- Dicksonia antarctica (Evergreen, but may be deciduous in colder areas).
Plants With Bold, Architectural Foliage
Once you have decided upon the trees and other tall plants for your tropical garden, the key to creating the right look is choosing plenty of other plants with large leaves, or bold, architectural foliage. Some of our top suggestions for plants of this type are:
- Fatsia japonica
- Many ornamental grasses
- Ricinus communis
- Tree cabbage
- Elephant garlic
Bright, Exotic Blooms
Bright flowers will really bring a tropical garden alive. Here are some of the amazing blooms that could work well in your tropical garden in the UK:
- Day lilies
- Canna lilies
Under-storey Planting and Ground Cover
Finally, remember to think about ground cover plants, to fill gaps and spread out below, among and around the other planting. Some great options for ground cover in a tropical garden include:
- Ground-growing raspberries – e.g. Rubus Tricolor
- Euphorbia amygdaloides
- Many ferns
Of course, the plants mentioned on this list are just some of the many interesting options to consider.
The great thing about tropical, jungle style gardens is that you can pack in so many diverse plants, and create a really lush and abundant feel.
If you plan your planting well, you may not only be able to enjoy this style of garden, but also to harvest food from your food forest.
A permaculture garden designer, sustainability consultant and freelance writer, Elizabeth works as an advocate for positive change. She aims to inspire others to reconnect with nature and live in a more eco-friendly way. She also tries to practice what she preaches as she tends her own forest garden, polyculture beds and polytunnel. See her personal website here.