Plant Your Way to Paradise

Coming home to a resort-style tropical garden can help you feel like you’re on an exotic vacation. But, nothing can shatter the illusion of a tropical getaway faster than a garden full of dead plants. Planting tender tropicals can get tricky, but following these easy steps can have your garden looking great year round.


First, start with a canopy that will shield your tropicals from potential frosts. Clumped bamboo is one of my favorites — black, blue or Asian lemon bamboo and can easily survive Florida winters. Self-cleaning palms, like Cuban royals, Foxtails, Montgomeries, Arecas and Adonidias will make your life easier. I also love using Chinese fan, European fan and Fishtail palms.

By using evergreens, like magnolias or hollies, you not only provide winter interest, but also give your tender plants more protection from frost and drying wind. Some other recommended evergreens are pine, holly, feijoa, bottlebrush, podacarpus and wax myrtle.


Height is important in the tropical garden. When placing plants, stagger them so that there are varying heights. Your garden should look natural. Position sun-loving palms and succulents in the hottest spots, and shade-tolerant plants beneath the canopies of large-leaved exotics.

The shapes of the leaves and plants will add interest to the garden. When making your selections, consider planting round-leaved plants near skinny, long-leaved plants. I also love to incorporate shiny-leaved plants — like Carissa Emerald Blankets or Green Island ficus — because they look wet, similar to rainforest foliage.


For sunny spots, consider plumeria, also known as frangipani, which forms into a small tree when left alone. Hibiscus, meanwhile, comes in single and double blooms and is easy to maintain. Cannas scream tropical paradise and do great in Central Florida. And night-blooming jasmine will add fragrance to your garden.

Bromeliads tucked in under the canopies are stunning. So are cast-iron plants (which take full shade) in mass plantings next to a bed of cannas bursting with color. Gingers and costas tucked in under palms are also lovely, as are neomarcias for upright tropical purple blooms. Alocasias, bananas, split-leaf philodendrons, monstera, orange and white bird of paradises, cordylines and coonties for sun or shade are also good options.

Just remember to tuck your tender tropicals under a canopy close to your house, fence or wall.


Consider pots of new guinea impatiens, heliconias and bromeliads for additional splashes of color. I love to tie orchids to the trunks of Arecas and Montgomery palms with florist tape at eye height. Lastly, by adding low-voltage landscape lighting to that special palm or water feature, you will enjoy the beauty and tranquility of your garden in the evening, as well. b

Shelly McKinney is the owner of Elbow Creek Garden & Gift in the Eau Gallie Arts District. Elbow Creek is part garden center, part boutique, offering beautifying home and garden gifts, as well as gardening workshops. For more information, visit