The unusually cool spring temperatures made it hard to think seriously about one of the hottest trends in home gardening: using tropicals in our decidedly untropical climate. Consider that we’ve been using tropicals for ages: we call them houseplants and annuals! Plants like coleus, petunia, impatiens, geranium, and million bells (calibrachoa parviflora) are actually tropicals that are year round outdoor plants in warmer southern climates. Why not consider experimenting with the “big boys” this year?
The Right Growing Conditions
When you think about the normal hot and steamy growing conditions for these plants, you can see how they might do well during our traditional summer. The more uncomfortable we get as we swelter in the heat and humidity, the happier they are. With regularly watering, these plants thrive as they add color and pizzazz to your garden. If you put them in a container, don’t forget to use the Coast of Maine Bar Harbor Blend Organic Potting Soil to get your plants off to a good start.
Garden Design Elements
From a garden design standpoint, using larger tropicals can transform your garden as you integrate them either in containers or plant them directly into the ground. The huge, drooping leaves of elephant ears (black or green), and the broad leaves of cannas and banana plants can create a lush feeling similar to what you might have experienced on vacations to the Caribbean or the South Pacific. As those leaves dance and dangle in our summer breezes in sun or shade, those same leaves add color on their own with their solid wine or green coloration, or their stripes of green, yellow, white, and even coral. When backlit by the setting sun, those colorful leaves glow like soft candles, adding mystery and drama as they unfurl all season long. Consider adding cannas as accent plants in your containers, surrounded by petunias and other flowering annuals.
Plants for Sun
For an airy and lighter delicate look, red fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’)
is a stunner as it mixes well with so many other plants. Planted in the ground, it adds drama and contrast with its wine colored stems. The little bunny tails it grows delight all that come near it as they are overcome by an irresistible urge to touch the flower. It will take multiple frosts so plan to have it around right through Thanksgiving.
Tropical hibiscus and mandevilla are regularly sold in garden centers. I consider the cost of about $20 reasonable for months of non-stop flowers. They come in white, yellow, and shades of red and pink. They are a bargain compared to the cost of a full flat of annuals or fresh cut flower bouquets that last a fraction of that time.
Don’t forget about dahlias. I don’t know of any other tropical that adds zing to a late summer garden. They are all about color and spectacle with little or no effort. They come big, small, with green foliage or dramatic dark foliage to make just the right impact. Plus you can cut them for summer bouquets.
Plants for Shade
Red- and green-leafed begonias have been around as bedding and container plants for years. Now it’s time to try some of their showier cousins with leaves that are striped and blotched and irregularly shaped – so showy that many enthusiasts ignore their flowers. The plants do well in low light conditions, making them ideal for shady gardens.
In a semi-shaded spot, try a banana plant in a container underplanted with coleus or surrounded by elephant ears. Use it as a specimen as you would a garden ornament and make a bold statement.
Angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) and night blooming jasmine are two of the most fantastic tropicals you can use. They flower later in the day into the evening. To set seed to reproduce, they need night pollinators so they send out their signal, i.e., fragrance, to draw those night pollinators in. Planted in sunny areas beneath bedroom windows or by seating areas, their intoxicating fragrance will remind you that they are out there. The exuberant flowers on the angel’s trumpet are glorious as they grow to more than 6 inches and rival the light from a full moon.
A few years ago, I tried something called pineapple lily (Eucomis). It produced a serious spike of tiny greenish-white flowers atop broad, strap-like leaves. I was initially attracted to it because it was billed as fragrant, which indeed it was. But that soft fragrance was nothing compared to the vertical interest it added to the garden, especially from a distance at night. The best part is, I put it in the basement (the pot was not frost proof) for the winter and totally ignored it. The following February as the daylight lengthened, it started to put out shoots and once I watered and fed it with Coast of Maine Liquid Salmon Fertilizer for Roses and Flowers and put it back outside, it bloomed and perfumed the garden yet again. How easy is that?
A Cool Plant to Try
Take a look at a plant commonly called “Bed of Nails” (Solanum quitoense).
It’s not for the faint of heart, or gardens with pets or young children. In its native South American climate, this cousin of our tomato plant grows best in part sun. The leaves and stems of the plant are covered in short spikes. For us it’s a foliage plant that adds great interest in a container with other plants. In its native range, it produces an orange fruit.
What To Do With Them in Winter
Don’t worry about over wintering these plants. It’s a “no brainer” to put the plant or the bulbs/tubers in your basement or attached garage for the winter. My banana plant (which I have been wintering over in the basement for several years) puts on six or more feet of growth each summer. This year I plan to put a few of its offsets directly into the ground to experiment a bit with its winter hardiness.
As the tropical trend continues to sizzle, garden centers have been selling bulbs for these plants since March. The plants themselves are also for sale, especially in the houseplant department. For some of the more uncommon varieties, you might have to use your search engine to locate mail order sources.
So go grab a few!
Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide