How to create a brilliant exotic garden in a cool climate

April 2nd, 2017
Posted In: Garden trends & design

You don’t have to live in a tropical climate to have an exotic garden.

Or even just the exotic border. You don’t have to rip your whole garden out and re-plant with banana palms – you can create a mini-jungle atmosphere in a sheltered corner.

1)  An exotic garden can work with your architecture

Exotic gardens in the UK date back to Victorian and Edwardian times when plant hunters scoured the world. They brought exotic plants back to Britain, the United States and Australia.

And Victorians moving around the world ‘for the Empire’ took their architecture and their gardens with them.

Exotic garden planting

This is a small town garden behind a Victorian terraced house. Exotic works perfectly. Open for Faversham Open Gardens June 25th.

So an exotic garden or border can also be described as ‘traditional’, especially if you live in a Victorian or an Edwardian house.

Jungly planting at the Salutation in Sandwich

Exotic shapes and colours at the Salutation in Sandwich. It’s an Edwardian house, built in 1911.

Strong shapes and colours make exotic gardens look contemporary.

A front garden in Whitstable designed by Posy Gentles. Strong shapes and colours make this an exotic contemporary look.

Modern houses and extensions also work well with exotic plantings because the strong sculptural shapes and bright colours contrast well.

2) Pack your exotic garden with plants in layers

I interviewed Australian TV gardening expert Stephen Ryan on how to create an exotic garden in a temperate climate. He has a nursery near Melbourne called Dicksonia Rare Plants.

Stephen also has a YouTube channel, with Matthew Lucas where they talk about plants, called The Horti-culturalists.

Stephen Ryan's exotic garden

Stephen Ryan in his garden. It is all plants, paths and ponds. There are no lawns in the jungle! The big leafed plant on the left is Tetrapanax papyrifer, which is fairly hardy in UK winters.

Melbourne is hotter than the UK in the summer, but has some very cool winters, so many of the plants in Stephen’s own garden would work in the UK or North America.

The garden is called ‘Tugurium’, which is Latin for hovel. He bought the acre of land with compensation money for losing all his possessions in ‘the 1983 fire’. This was a devastating forest fire that swept through this part of Melbourne, taking 300 lives and destroying much property.

Tugurium house and garden

Tugurium – a house and garden created from a bare patch of land. Stephen is proud that ‘nothing ever leaves the propery’. Everything is recycled, composted and waste water is reused.

There was no house or garden – not even any topsoil – when he moved in. He created the garden from scratch. It regularly featured in ‘Gardening Australia’ when Stephen hosted the programme.

Create a jungle ‘canopy’

Everything was created on a tight budget, so he was only able to build a small house. A neighbour commented that it was a shame that such a ‘hovel’ had been built so close to him. So Stephen named the house and garden ‘Tugurium’ as his response.

Stephen’s one acre garden is packed with plants. He actually holds four National collections in the space.

Trees and tall shrubs, many of them hardy in winter, create an upper ‘jungle canopy’. They are underplanted with ferns and smaller plants, just as would occur naturally in the jungle.

Plant trees, ferns and cordylines close to the house for a jungly look

Palm trees, cordylines and ferns are planted close to Stephen’s house, creating a jungly feel. The palm is is Livistona australis, the most southern-growing palm (in the Southern hemisphere, this means the most tolerant of cool winters). People report it growing -quite slowly – if well sheltered in the UK. The Trachycarpus fortunei palm tree is considered more reliable in cool climates.

Go for big borders and lots of layers to get the jungle look. For many people there is a distinction between a ‘tropical’ garden and a ‘jungle’ garden. A jungle garden relies almost wholly on layers of foliage, rather than flowers. Find out more about how to create a jungle garden here.

3) Find the tropical corner of your garden

Stephen says that every garden has its own patches of micro-climate. Experiment to see where less hardy plants do well. It’s often much warmer near the house, for example.

‘Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works,’ he says. ‘The worst that can happen is that a plant dies, which will create something that’s very precious in a garden.’ He pauses. ‘An empty space.’

Puya chilensis can be hardy in some cool climate zones

Puya chilensis in Stephen’s garden. This will just about survive outside all year in warmer parts of the UK, but you might want to keep it in a pot and bring it in in winter. Too spiky for fleece! But just experiment – you may have a magically sheltered spot. Puya chilensis is called the ‘sheep eating plant’ as it traps sheep in its sharp spikes. They die and decay and the plant feeds off the decay. Maybe not a plant for those with small dogs, though Stephen has two who have survived fine.

4) Choose plants with big leaves and/or strong shapes

Stephen recommends mahonia as a good shrub for an exotic look. Forget about its suburban reputation. Combine it with bamboos, ferns and other jungly-look plants.

Mahonia is a popular shrub with a jungly look

Mahonia and bamboo get jungly together in Stephen’s garden.

Fatsia is a good exotic garden plant

Fatsia, seen here against Stephen’s house, is another much maligned shrub which will give a tropical look in a temperate climate.

Cordylines, tree ferns combine for an exotic look

The totally tropical look in a friend’s garden in Australia: cordylines, tree ferns, rhododendrons and conifers create upper and middle layers. All except the tree fern are hardy in most parts of Britain, and tree ferns do fine in the right spot and with the right care.

Cordylines for sale in Faversham market

Cordylines for sale in Faversham market, Kent. The green varieties are hardier than the red.

5) Combine lush planting with bright colours

Dahlias originally came from Mexico, but are now considered quite ‘traditional’ in English gardens. Take them back to their colourful roots by using them to create exotic garden beds.

Many people are put off dahlias because they are tender and you are usually advised to dig them up and store them in winter. However, not everyone has to do this. See Don’t dig up your dahlias in winter – here’s what to do instead.

Add colour to an exotic garden with dahlias

Dahlia ‘Mel’s Orange Marmalade’ in the exotic garden at the Salutation in Kent, along with cordylines, Musa banana palms and ricinus.

And cannas will also look good in the exotic garden. Like dahlias, they are reasonably hardy in most parts of Britain, provided you protect their roots/rhizomes with a thick layer of mulch in autumn. For tips on choosing and growing cannas, see Everything You Need to Know About Cannas or my What You Need to Know About Cannas video interview with Stephen.

Canna 'Stephen Ryan'

Canna ‘Stephen Ryan’ at his nursery near Melbourne.

Canna 'Cleopatra' is good for the exotic garden

Canna ‘Cleopatra’ at Stephen Ryan’s nursery.

Begonias and fuschias are also flowers we take for granted. They,too, can look remarkably exotic in bright colours and the right context.

6) Keep frost-tender exotics in pots

Some exotic plants won’t survive a Northern hemisphere winter, but will do well in pots outside in the summer. You can bring the pots in to an unheated but frost-free greenhouse or conservatory, or protect them with fleece in a sheltered spot.

Aeoniums for tropical style

Aeoniums have a wonderfully tropical feel. Stephen grows them in his garden. If you live somewhere mild, you can try this. Or keep them in pots and protect them in the winter.

Cymbidium loweniana

Cymbidium orchids will also probably be happy to live on your terrace during the summer. In winter, they need to be protected from frost, but cool (8-10 degrees C) and in a light place.

Euphorbia characias

And you can add ponds in pots too – a pot pond with planting in Stephen’s garden. The plant to the right is euphorbia characias – many of the euphorbias have a jungly look to them. This is a Mediterranean plant

7) Contrast leaf shapes

Vary your leaf shapes, contrasting big sculptural leaves with tall slim plants like bamboo, advises Stephen. Bamboo grows well in the UK – sometimes too well. Make sure you don’t buy the spreading type as it will take over your garden. It can be a nightmare to get out again.

Th exotic garden at the Salutation in Sandwich.

Big sculptural shapes contrast with the slim stems of bamboo in the exotic garden at The Salutation.

8) Visit exotic gardens near you

Christopher Lloyd re-started the trend towards exotic gardens and borders in 1993. He he ripped out his mother’s rose garden at Great Dixter and replaced it with the ‘exotic garden’. It’s planted with cannas, dahlias, verbena bonariensis and the relatively hardy banana palm Musa basjoo.

Exotic garden at Great Dixter

The exotic garden at Great Dixter – the plants tower over your head. I love the way the light streams in, as this was a particularly sunny day.

Henstead Garden in Suffolk is also an ‘exotic garden’, named as Garden of the Year by Alan Titchmarsh in 2015.

The Salutation in Sandwich is now closed. Its former head gardener, Steven Edney, has an unusual tropical garden in the Kent countryside (open for the NGS).

His neighbour, Philip Oostenbrink shows how the exotic look can really work in small gardens. Philip is also the author of a very good book on this style called The Jungle Garden. He talks about it, and the principles of how to create today’s jungle garden look here.

And the RHS has several exotic garden areas, such as those at RHS Rosemoor in Devon.

Lastly, pay a visit to a good exotic plant nursery. My favourite is Architectural Plants, which describes itself as the’ home of the tropical and jungly in both big and small plants.’

I find Architectural Plants an inspiring nursery to visit. Plants and arrangements are beautifully presented.

7) Read the best books on exotic gardens

Before he died, Christopher Lloyd started his last book, Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners. It was finished by his friends, and is considered one of the best books on exotic gardens you’ll find.

Note: these are affiliate links to Amazon, which means you can click through to buy. If you do, I may get a small fee but it won’t affect the price you pay.

And Will Giles’ book Exotic Plants for Temperate Climes is rated highly. It’s a useful directory of plants that will survive in your garden but will add an exotic touch.

If you’re interested in growing exotic fruit and vegetables, A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono won the Guild of Food Writers’ Book of the Year in 2011.

And, although it looks as if it may be only available second-hand or on Kindle, Architectural Plants by Christine Shaw is worth getting your hands on.

And you can find more of Stephen Ryan’s gardening advice in this post on clever ways to improve your garden.

To find out more about wonderfully tropical cannas, see Everything You Need to Know About Growing Cannas.

8) Rock the exotic garden inside your home

Phalaenopsis orchids, bromeliads, cacti, air plants…

Airplants are exotic indoor plants from Aldo Airplants

Bromeliad ‘air plants’ that don’t need to be planted in water. Aldo Airplants hanging on a rail at the RHS Spring Plant and Orchid show.

Phalaenopsis 'Surf Song'

Phalaenopsis orchid ‘Surf Song’ at the RHS Spring Plant and Orchid show.

Cacti from Ottershaw Cacti

Cacti from Ottershaw Cacti at the RHS Spring Plant & Orchid show.

The ‘jungle’ look is very popular for indoor plants – strong, structural shapes and bright colours look good in modern interiors. And for tips on styling your home to get that jungle look inside, see How to Decorate with Indoor Plants – latest trends.

Let me know of any good exotic gardens, nurseries or books near you, and I’ll add them to the list.

And do join us every Sunday morning – subscribe by email for free weekly gardening tips, ideas and inspiration. Thank you!

Pin this post to remember exotic garden ideas:

How to create a brilliant exotic garden or border


4 comments on "How to create a brilliant exotic garden in a cool climate"

  1. Need help please. I have tree fern which is about 12″high It looks like it can be split lengthwise. Has anyone else done this. With successful results.

    1. I don’t think that will work, but I may be wrong. I haven’t heard of anyone trying it. Some ferns, but not Dicksonias, can be cut off from their trunk and will regrow.

  2. Hi Alexandra, I enjoyed the post. Strangely enough I have only this week written my own post on the subject of exotic planting following a visit to Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset. I can certainly recommend them to you and your readers both for the gardens and also the plant sales area which had a wide range of the plants seen in the gardens.

    1. If we’re both writing about exotic gardens, then it must be a coming trend! Paul’s post on Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens is here:

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