Horticulture Magazine

11 Tropical Garden Ideas Suited To The UK

tropical plant wall with ferns and flowers

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.

panoramic view of tropical parkland in Cornwall, UK
Trebah Botanical Gardens, Cornwall

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.

palm trees in Trebah Botanical Gardens, Cornwall
Trebah Botanical Gardens, Cornwall

Choosing the right plants, and combining those plants in the right ways, is key to successfully achieving this effect in your garden.

various tropical trees and palms growing at different heights

In this article, we will share some general design tips for a tropical garden in the UK climate.

1) Layered And Lush Planting

layers of palms and foliage forming a canopy with tropical appearance

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.

ornamental grasses, palms and larger trees growing over an extended landscape

In the UK, the sun is not as intense as in 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.

2) Consider ‘Food Forest’ Planting

Angelica growing in a permaculture garden with dense foliage in the background

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.

tomatoes and calendula growing in a food forest environment

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.

permaculture garden with raised support, growing corn, squash and beans

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.

blackberries growing on a large bush

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.

3) Utilise Hardy Palms & Banana Plants

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.

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:

Trachycarpus fortune ‘Chusan Palm’
Chinese Windmill grown in a Devon garden
Chaemaerops humilis ‘Dwarf Fan Palm’
dwarf fan palm with a wall in the background
Sabal minor – Dwarf Palmetto
many sabal minor plants growing under a forest canopy
Butia capitana – Jelly Palm
jelly palm trees grown in a row
Phoenix canariensis – Canary Island Date Palm
wide spreading Canary Island Date Palm Tree with various trees in the background

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 x paradisiaca growing outwards in a tropical setting
Musa basjoo
exotic looking Japanese banana plant
Musa Iasiocarpa
yellow flowering Musa Iasiocarpa
Musa acuminata
Dense vegetation of banana plants musa acuminata
Ensete ventricosum
red coloured foliage of Ensete ventricosum in a public park

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.

4) Plant Trees For Canopy Cover

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.

an Evergreen Pineapple Guava plant
Pineapple guava

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
branches of loquat with yellow ripening fruit
Pineapple guava – Feijoa sellowiana
pineapple guava trees
Strawberry Tree – Arbutus unedo
Arbutus unedo against a backdrop of different trees
Bull Bay – Magnolia grandiflora
green and yellow foliage of Magnolia grandiflora
Citrus (in containers, brought indoors during the winter months)
citrus trees growing in metal containers

There are also plenty of deciduous trees that can look great in a jungle-like tropical garden, including:

Figs – Ficus carica
Ficus carica tree
Ginkgo – Ginkgo biloba
foliage and trunk of Ginkgo biloba tree
Bean tree – Catalpa bungei
very tall Catalpa bungei tree
Paulownia imperialis
foxglove tree leaves against a blue sky background
Rice-Paper Tree – Tetrapanax papyrifer
Tetrapanax papyrifer evergreen shrub

One final type of plant to consider for the upper tiers of a tropical garden is tree ferns, the most popular type being Dicksonia antarctica (it is usually evergreen, but may be deciduous in colder areas).

5) Favour Plants With Bold, Architectural Foliage

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.

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:

Bamboos
towering bamboo with short ornamental grass on the border of a lawn
Phormiums
light and dark foliage of a phormium plant
Fatsia japonica
broad leaves of fatsia japonica with bamboo in the background
Gunnera
Chilean giant rhubarb in a tropical garden
Mahonias
closeup of yellow flowering mahonia
Eucalyptus
eucalyptus foliage
Many Ornamental Grasses
ornamental grasses
Ricinus communis
Ricinus communis with dark burgundy coloured leaves and bright red catkins
Colocasias
huge colocasia leaves
Cardoon
purple flowering cardoon thistles
Rhubarb
rhubarb foliage with bamboo growing in the background
Hostas
ornamental hosta plants in various shades of green

6) Encourage Bright, Exotic Blooms

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.

Here are some of the amazing blooms that could work well in your tropical garden in the UK:

Daylilies
orange day lilies
Canna lilies
red canna lilies
Eucomis
pink towering eucomis pineapple lilies in flower
Hedychiums
Hedychium densiflorum growing in a herbaceous border
Arisaema
red dangling berries of Arisaema consanguineum hanging from a branch
Jasmine
closeup of white flowering jasmine
Fuchsias
pink and red coloured fuchsia flowers
Choisya
choisya in a tropical garden with palms in the background
Begonias
pink flowering begonia in a garden
Pittosporum
white flowering pittosporum
Erysimum
yellow erysimum flowers with black door of a London property in the background
Persicaria
long upright flowers of Persicaria

7) Don’t Neglect Under-Storey Planting

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.

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
green rubus leaves up close
Pachysandra
white flowers of Pachysandra terminalis in focus
Euphorbia amygdaloides
Wood spurge Purpurea
Mints
overgrown mint in an outdoor garden
(Many!) Ferns
ferns, palms and grasses in an ornamental garden

8) Create Winding Pathways Between Dense Planting

brick path winding between two dense planting borders

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.

9) Consider Adding A Water Feature…

a tropical water feature using a ceramic bowl

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.

10) …Or Some Other Essential Garden Destination

seating in a dense canopy of palms and ferns

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.

11) Keep An Open Mind

path leading through dense foliage in a forest setting

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.

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