Using hardy plants to create an exotic garden

Gardening expert Maxine Farmer explains ways in which you can create your garden into an exotic paradise with hardy plants.
exotic garden plants

This summer is set to see more people spending time in their backyards or gardens than ever before. 

First, a hotter-than-average summer is predicted and so far is that is holding true. Second, recent years have necessitated a rise in the ‘staycation’, because thanks to the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, Brits are choosing to holiday not just in the UK, but to stay right at home. Plus, many of us want to replicate the ‘exotic’ look that we’ve experienced abroad, especially as it encourages that holiday atmosphere.

Fortunately, it is not too late to inject some exotic glamour into your garden this year and to start planning ahead for next summer. It is not necessary to spend a fortune on tender specimens that will not survive the first frosts. The trick is to create the illusion of a tropical garden, using a few key hardy plants against a background chorus of more familiar stalwarts.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by ‘exotic’. Most people I speak to are referring to the lush, ‘jungly’ look, with lots of dark, shiny foliage, big leaves and vibrantly hued flowers. So, let’s focus on creating that image.

Clematis - exotic garden plants
Evergreen clematis brings greenery and atmosphere and should be one of your essential hardy plants.

Hardy plants for structure

When I designed my first ‘tropical’ garden a few years ago, I realised that creating a dense backdrop of greenery, with height, layers and overhanging shade, is essential to creating the right atmosphere. In my own garden, the ‘tropical’ area has a fence completely obliterated by a thick blanket of evergreen honeysuckle (lonicera japonica) and evergreen clematis (clematis armandii). 

Go for plants that are large, handsome and architectural as opposed to fussy. I use towering mahonia shrubs, which with their glossy, spiky leaves provide an almost prehistoric look and are happy in even quite dense shade. I’ve also used evergreen laurels: dull on their own, but they help to ‘paint’ those layers of dense foliage integral to tropical style.

Bamboos, of course, give an immediate exotic look to any garden. A personal favourite of mine is murieliae fargesia, because it is does not get too big and unlike some other bamboos, is not invasive. Large grasses have the benefit of gently rustling in a summer breeze: miscanthus sacchariflorus can grow to six feet or more, while Miscanthus sinensis is much smaller and makes a great border plant.

Miscanthus sinensis - hardy plants to create exotic gardens
Miscanthus sinensis

If you don’t already have shade, I’d recommend creating an instant effect with a sail-shaped awning or one of those pop-up gazebos, but try to use dark green versions that will tone in with their surroundings, as opposed to the white plastic varieties found in most DIY shops and garden centres. To add instant touch of glamour, drape gazebos and awnings with mosquito nets, sari fabric or even coloured sheets (but don’t forget to take them down when it threatens to rain!)

A small water feature also adds to the ‘holiday’ ambience. For quick fix, think about a solar-powered fountain, or solar-powered pump in a waterproof container and a couple of miniature waterlilies. Solar-powered garden features are available for less than £100 these days (try for a good selection).

Crocosmia - hardy plants for an exotic garden
Crocosmia keeps its looks until late summer.

Tropical touch

With the backdrop in place, let’s move on to the ‘filler’ plants and I am going to focus on totally hardy plants in this section. 

When people come into the tropical part of my garden, the plant they usually comment on first are Sum and Substance hostas. Unusually slug-resistant, these are several feet in diameter when established for a few years and make a dramatic statement when planted in a clump. 

Another eye-catcher is the umbrella plant, darmera peltata (syn. Peltiphyllum peltatum) which dies down each winter, before bizarre looking pink flowers on long stalks arrive in late spring, to be followed by the gorgeous, deep-green leaves that give the plant its nickname.

Strong foliage plants that will increase and colonise a space over the years include hemerocallis (the daylily), which has strappy leaves that will look good most of the summer. Crocosmia (often referred to as montbretia) is another plant that keeps its looks until late summer, with spears of bell-shaped flowers in hues of red, yellow and orange. Ferns and angelica are another easy way to add rich foliage to the tropical garden, as are euphorbias.

Trachycarpus fortunei
Palms are an easy way of bringing a touch of the exotic to your garden spaces.


While all these familiar plants help to create an exotic image, a few really dramatic imports will make all the difference, but beware impulse buys. What looks good in the garden centre right now may not look so good next summer, nor even survive the summer. 

For instance, canary palms are relatively large and cheap but can be hard to bring through the winter, even in an unheated greenhouse. Similarly, only choose (Chusan Palm) and chamaerops humulus (European Fan Palm) if you can give them some shelter or other winter protection, especially from wind.

Dicksonian Antarctica (the tree fern) adapts well to our climate, albeit with some winter-protection for the crowns (the easiest method is to fold the leaves over the top as they begin to die back in autumn). Again, with some protection, the banana plant musa basjoo will survive most frosts and is happy in a large container. 

Cordylines, fatsia japonicas and yukkas are all hardy exotics that have become widely available in recent years and make excellent investments because they should last for years, especially if containerised, fed and watered regularly. And think about giving your houseplants a summer holiday: my Swiss Cheeseplant looks fantastic sandwiched in its pot between a banana and a tree fern!

canna leaves - hardy plants
The bold, colourful leaves of the canna provide shade and impact for your outdoor space.

Star turns

What about flowers? Well, much depends on how much winter protection there is available. Canna lilies provide instant ‘oomph’ but in autumn, don’t forget to lift the clumps, complete with soil, into an empty pot and store in a frost-free place and do not allow to get too dry nor waterlogged. 

The more brightly coloured versions of Zantedeschias – the perennial arum lily – require similar treatment, although in Southern England, Zantedeschia aethiopica ‘Crowborough’, probably the most commonly sold arum, will often tolerate being left in the ground all year. Likewise, agapanthus may survive being outside in the winter in some parts of the UK, but when in doubt, plant in pots that can be wrapped in hessian sacking during winter against the frost.

Perhaps easier to manage is Lobelia Cardinalis, a dramatic perennial with rich ruby flowers from July onwards. Although it does not require any winter protection, it must be kept moist in the summer. Garden centres are increasingly featuring the Pineapple Lily (eucomis), aloes, agaves and hedychium (ginger) and they are wonderful hardy plants if you can give them the winter care they require. If not, then walk away!

And this is the key: while it is tempting to fill the garden-centre trolley with fabulous looking aliens, the reality is that the exotic look can be created without taking risks and spending thousands of pounds. Simply use what you’ve got, add in some more hardy plants and a star specimens to create a fairly labour-free and very impressive tropical garden fit for any holiday at home.

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Written by 10:27 am Gardening, Home & Lifestyle