Tropical Color in the Summer Garden

I might be biased, but what better plants for a summer garden than tropicals? Tropical plants happen to thrive on the very same heat and humidity that makes even the most red blooded southerner miserable, so I never have to worry about my garden flopping during a heat wave. Here are some ideas from my trip to Winter Park for incorporating some temporary tropical displays in your own garden, be it in soggy Seattle or sultry Savannah.

Temporary Tropic Tempo
Incorporate both annuals and bulbs for a nearly instant blast of pizazz to your beds. Bright annuals like coleus fill in quickly like a technicolor red carpet while architectural crinums and cannas erupt from the ground like modern sculptures.

Get clever when using color. This photo is actually from Disney but it illustrates my point perfectly. Pair plants with similar colors like these caladiums and New Guinea impatiens for a colorful and classy one-two punch! I just love how both the black and pink are mirrored in the spots and blush of the caladiums.

Complementary Colors
Red and green aren't just for Christmas anymore. You might remember your art teacher teaching you about how complementary colors (opposite on the color wheel) make each other appear to be even more vivid than they normally would. This caladium and bird's nest fern combo works especially well since the green is found both in the ferns and on the margins of the caladiums.

Give Color Some Height
Bring the color to eye level. There is no excuse for a temperate or tropical gardener to not plant gingers, especially these deliciously scented Hedychiums. They can be grown like bulbs and overwintered indoors, so like I said... no excuse. After all, who could resist a close up gander (and whiff) of these tall and gorgeous ginger headed beauties?

Floor to Ceiling Color
Use root hardy vines like this passionflower to for fast tropical color. Many of the most tropical looking vines at the nursery (again, like this passionflower) only look like they'd perish after a frosty winter and will actually return from the roots in subsequent years. Don't be afraid to prune mercilessly though!

Everything in Moderation
It's okay to use every color in the rainbow, as long as it's not in equal parts. For example, this idea garden at Leu Botanical Gardens might combine purple with yellow, pink, orange, red and green, but the dark and heavy purple is in balance with the the lighter and brighter colors. The Persian shield is incorporated as carefully as it would be in a vivid expressionist painting.

Plant Some Purple
When in doubt, plant some purple. Plants with vivid purple flowers and foliage look undoubtedly tropical, work well with green and create the illusion of receding into space. As the second and third photos demonstrate, purple is also a great choice for a dramatic edging as it clearly delineates between the lawn and garden.

Pop in Some Bromeliads
Bromeliads are totally underutilized in gardens. They're just as easy as temporary plantings as annuals or bulbs, but they look great in your home all through winter too! Just submerge the bromeliad's container or rootball in the soil and cover the lip of the container with mulch. Be sure to choose a shady spot for your bromeliads so that they don't get sunburned during the move!


  1. Excellent tips Steve! The photos are an explosion of tropical colours and source of ideas for next year :)

  2. Hi Steve, looking at these shots seem like looking at one of our garden shows here. They are very lush and healthy. I love that red coleus, i haven't seen it here, am sure it will be very saleable if ever we find it. What plant is that yellow at the back of the red coleus, it looks like sweet potato!

  3. OK. I'm running out right now to move some red/green caladiums around my bird's nest fern. Just beautiful pictures of summer color.

  4. Gorgeous flowerbeds filled with so many great ideas. Thanks for sharing them, Steve. I'm going back now to study them.

  5. I love the color combinations...they really pop!

  6. Those are great tropical settings! I think I can copy some of those ideas in my own garden. I find myself adding more and more bromeliads, coleus into my garden. The big reason is for their color. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Mark and Gaz: Glad you liked the tips! You guys know a thing or two about bold tropical color...

    Andrea: The coleus is actually pretty common around here... the yellow plant behind it is actually more coleus! What a versatile annual. :)

    NanaK: Don't the folks at Disney have the neatest ideas? The plantings only really stand out as brilliant after I get home and look at the details in the photos.

    Susan: Glad you liked the ideas! I really liked gathering them from different gardens in the Central Florida area... what fun!

    The Sage Butterfly: Don't they? Those folks at Leu, Polasek and Disney sure do know what they're doing...

    Ami: Thanks! Your garden also has a lot of color and you use it well. Which reminds me: I need to catch up on your blog posts!

  8. I just LOVE this post and keep going back to it to stare at the pictures!


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