Gardenwise: Create Your Own Tropical Paradise

Pictured Above: Purple passionflower is about as tropical looking as it gets. With the proper protection, this beauty can survive a Long Island winter. | Loren Moss Meyer photo

By Susan Tito 

Emily Dickinson, who was more widely known for her gardening prowess than for her verse during her lifetime, said it best: “The heart wants what it wants.” 

Those words ring true for every northern gardener who wanted to grow tropical plants but decided against it because of geographic limitations.

Luckily, we gardeners are an inventive bunch, and where there’s a will, there’s a way when it comes to re-creating the look of the tropics in your own backyard. 

Dennis Schrader, co-owner of Landcraft Environments Ltd., a Mattituck wholesale nursery devoted to tropicals, has long known about the appeal of using heat-loving plants in the landscape.

“Gardening with tropical plants is more common than one would think. They evoke a sense of mystery,” he said. “Many of the plants that gardeners use as annuals, such as begonia, impatiens and coleus, are actually tropical plants, so why not take it a step further and have some fun using a wide selection?”

Above photos courtesy Karen Leibowitz

Scott Drucker, a gardener from Stony Brook, takes this advice to heart. He has transformed his suburban backyard patio into a lush retreat with large containers of tropicals, including banana plants, elephant ears and colorful tropical hibiscus.

He explained his love for these heat-loving plants.

“I like going to the Caribbean and being down in Florida, so growing tropicals during the summertime makes me feel like I’m on an island somewhere besides Long Island,” he said. 

Having a tropical garden can be as simple or involved as you make it, depending on whether you overwinter your plants. In October, Mr. Drucker cuts down his banana plants and uses a hand truck to cart the heavy containers into his garage. He also moves his elephant ears into his basement, where they go dormant. However, he treats his tropical hibiscus as annuals, enjoying them only for the growing season.

Mr. Schrader, co-author of a resourceful book — Hot Plants for Cool Climates: Gardening With Tropical Plants in Temperate Zones (Timber Press, 2000) — uses tropicals in containers and as accents in the landscape. He invites gardeners who want to infuse some flair into their outside spaces to “start off with a few containers and go from there.” 

It’s hard to believe that this picture of heat-loving plants was taken on Long Island. | photo courtesy Landcraft Environments

How best to re-create a tropical look? Go big and bold. 

There are many plants that fit this profile, including the usual species associated with the tropics, such as palms, bananas and elephant ears, all of which have oversized leaves and/or a lush appearance. 

As for boldness, hot weather plants are all about bright colors, either in foliage or blooms. Think dramatic shades of orange, red and yellow. Canna, Ti plant, tropical hibiscus and croton, to name a few, are perfect for setting an exotic mood.

All that vibrant beauty comes at a price, as no true tropical can survive our harsh Long island winters, so you either have to overwinter your plants or start over from scratch the following year, which can be costly. 

There is a third option, however: Emulate the look of the tropics by planting boldly colored perennials that resemble their tropical brethren.

I worked with a client on a tight budget who loved tropical plants but lived in a cozy New Englander-type home typically associated with cottage gardens, a look she didn’t particularly like. My challenge was to scout out tropical-looking plants that returned year after year that blended well with her house’s architecture and existing traditional plantings. 

Although it’s not nearly as flamboyant as its tropical counterpart, ‘Lord Baltimore’ hibiscus is a showstopper that will come back year after year.  | Susan Tito photo

The obvious choice was to start with a perennial hibiscus in a hot color. I settled on ‘Lord Baltimore,’ which features red dinner plate-sized blooms. The plant grows to between 4 and 5 feet tall and has a commanding presence, especially when used as a specimen in a prominent location. 

We installed other tropical-looking plants as well, including Peruvian lily ‘Inca Ice,’ which features apricot and yellow colored blooms with streaks of burgundy; Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ which has tubular, one-sided scarlet flowers and makes an alluring accent; and hardy passionflower, a vine that sports purple, otherworldly-looking frilly flowers, which she grew on a trellis against the house. 

Over time, my client built on her tropical look by planting elephant ears, which she dug up in the fall, and placing large containers of cannas in the front of her house. The end result was an attention-grabbing outdoors space that would appeal to any native Floridian!

So, if you’ve been lukewarm about trying tropicals, I hope the options here turn up the heat on ideas for creating your very own backyard paradise on Long Island. 

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

East End Beacon

The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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