Garden Dirt | Bringing the Islands Home | Greenstreet Gardens

Garden Dirt | Bringing the Islands Home

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Ah. Summer. I see a lounge chair, crystal blue water, and a garden lush with tropical plants. A vacation in an island paradise? Wonderful. But if that’s not on your summer calendar, create your own paradise at home – with the colors and scents of tropical plants. It’s easy and most tropicals are relatively low maintenance.

Tropical plants look great around a pool, on a patio or deck. Create that tropic vibe with plants that have big leaves, bold colors in flowers or foliage.

Here are a few ideas to help you bring the islands to Maryland.

The summer sun is wonderful, but it can get pretty darn hot especially in July and August. Anchor your tropical paradise with a small garden tree bearing big tropical scent. A Sweetbay magnolia is a lovely native tree, with an abundance of small, white highly-scented flowers in June. It is deciduous, meaning it loses its leaves come winter, but it’s a hardy tree and does well in our area, with a moderately fast growth rate. At maturity, it tops out at around 20 feet and the lower limbs can be removed to allow for more plantings underneath. Cop a squat in the shade of one of these babies and breathe deep. Smells like Hawaii.

There are a number of tropical shrubs that shout paradise. Like the beautiful hibiscus. Happy at home in a large container or in the garden, the big bold blooms come in the colors of summer: yellow, red, pink and orange. Some even combine all colors in one flower, like the variety ‘Nairobi.’ Tuck one of the flowers behind your ear – and it’s like being in Tahiti. Well, almost.

If you’ve got a trellis or a fence, plant a Mandevilla vine and by summer’s end, the structure will be covered. Or plant one in a (large) hanging basket and let it grow down. This very fast grower has dark green leaves and is covered in white, pink, red or red-striped flowers.

Cool off a little with a Ruellia plant. Its slender dark-colored stalks support lovely lavender and purple flowers, just the color to bring down the heat.

It’s not all about the flowers. Tropical plants are also fondly recognized by their big, showy foliage. Elephant ears, banana trees (some varieties live here year round, bred to tolerate freezing temps), and ginger are just a few of the big leaved tropics that thrive in our hot humid summer. Plant them in pots or right in the ground; they’re happy anywhere in the sun, though the ginger is also happy protected from afternoon sun.

Crotons (pictured above) give great color in just their leaves. Bight green, orange, yellow, red – these plants make a statement left alone, or pair well with softer annuals planted at their base. They have a strong, upright growth habit. If you plant a croton in a pot, make sure the pot is heavy enough to anchor itself in high wind; the croton doesn’t give much and can blow over if the base is too light. As an added bonus, the croton’s color holds well into autumn, paring nicely with those golden seasonal shades.

Caladiums are a great choice for shady spots. Their big, colorful leaves are identified by the bold color and patterns – like ‘Miss Muffet’s’ bright green and white veined leaves spotted with red “polka dots.” These super easy to grow tropical plants brighten up a shady nook with great color. Mass these plants under a tree – like that Sweetbay magnolia – and you’ve got a super tropical garden.

No tropical garden is complete without at least one palm. The signature plant of the islands – any islands, except maybe an Alaskan island – palms come in all sizes. A small sturdy Sago palm fits nicely in a pot, while Majesty and Chinese Fan palms will rustle in even the slightest breeze.

Any of these gorgeous tropicals are easy to grow. Combine them with colorful annuals – like lantana – and create a potted paradise around your patio or pool. Remember to use only containers that have ample drainage, premium potting soil, and feed regularly. Tropical plants thrive in the heat, but they do require a daily drink. Most will not survive in our winter – except the hardy banana tree – but if you have a bright sunny indoor space, like a heated Florida room, bring them inside when the weather cools. Many over-winter as long as they have sufficient sunlight.

Now just add a tall, cool drink – maybe even a little paper umbrella to top it off – and enjoy your own private tropical paradise.

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