To say my garden looks sad right now is actually giving it a compliment it doesn’t deserve. Too much rain this spring followed by unrelenting heat has left wide swaths of brown leaves and dying flowers. As anxious as I am to bring back my garden to its full glory, the garden center offerings this time of year are few and far between and, if truth be told, I am getting tired of planting pots of mums for fall color. Luckily, there are other ways to bring vibrant color back to the garden. Embassy Landscape Group’s designers suggest that adding tropicals to your landscape can keep your garden view striking throughout the coming months.
Tropicals can be considered tender annuals and planted directly into the garden, or they can be used in containers which can be brought inside during the winter months. As with any planting however, it’s not only important to select the right plant for the right place, it’s also crucial that they are properly acclimated. An indoor houseplant that thrives in the bright sun from a west window could easily roast on its first day outside in the full sun. Taking time to gradually introduce tropicals to outdoor conditions (especially in the height of the summer months) will help to keep them healthy and growing. Some experts recommend keeping newly introduced tropicals in shaded, protected locations for only a few hours a day for their first week and then slowly moving them into their permanent spot.
Keeping container planted tropicals well watered and well fed during the hot summer months is also a key factor to their success. Deep, thorough watering with tepid water allows the soil surrounding the root system to absorb and hold more water. In turn, the water helps the plant take up the soil’s nutrients, provides structural support and contributes to cooling off the plant through transpiration, or the evaporation of water from the foliage. Most outdoor tropicals will need to be watered on a daily basis. Allowing soil to become bone dry between waterings means that the water runs down the sides of the container and out the drain hole; the soil does not soak up any for the plant’s use.
Ironically though, the frequent waterings that tropicals in containers need can also create problems. Too much water can flush minerals from the soil, robbing the plant of necessary nutrients. Consistent half strength water soluble feedings can help to replenish the soil and keep the plant healthy. Another problem caused by overwatering is root rot. Excess water forces oxygen from the soil, causing roots to decay. The rot can spread and as it does, the plant becomes susceptible to fungal diseases which can eventually kill the plant. Using a soil probe to test for moisture levels can help prevent overwatering.
With literally hundreds of tropical plants to choose from, it’s hard to know which ones will shine in a Midwest garden. To help you narrow your search for the best tropicals for late summer and fall plantings, Embassy’s Jo Ann Prieto, horticulturist and seasonal color specialist, and Jamison Wiley, designer, at Embassy Landscape Group, have shared some of their favorite tropicals and some of their outstanding design ideas.
Crotons Codiaeum variegatum
An exotic beauty that seamlessly transitions from the summer garden to the star of the fall display. Crotons thrive in hot, humid weather and prefer well-drained, full sun locations to hold their brilliant colors. Nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees F can cause the plants to suffer. Move them indoors in the winter, placing them in the brightest light available. Crotons need frequent watering; their broad leaves have a high transpiration rate.
Ti Plant Cordyline terminalis
With color choices ranging from green to purple and everything in between, Ti plants make a dazzling display in a bed or a container. Treasured for their promise of good luck, Ti plants are traditionally placed around the homes of the indigenous Hawaiian people. Their slender leaves are the perfect foil for more rounded blooms like petunias. They need strong but filtered light to retain their bright colors. Ti plants prefer a slightly acidic and consistently moist but not soggy soil .
Sago Palms Cycas revoluta
(Photo courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dinesh_valke/)
Not really a palm, Sago Palms are actually members of the cycad family -- a species found as far back as the Triassic and Jurassic eras. A slow growing species, plants may add only one frond a year. They are happiest in filtered, bright light and a slightly acidic to neutral, well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Keep them slightly moist, not soggy, and protect from heavy frosts.
Hardy Fiber Banana Musa basjoo
A banana tree thriving in the Midwest seems too good to be true -- but it is! Surviving winter temperatures of negative 10 degrees F, this banana is a fast growing variety that can reach 6 to 14 feet in height in a season. Its huge, green paddle-shaped leaves add glamour to the urban landscape, and bring a distinct touch of the tropics. Filtered sun in the heat of the day and organically rich, well-drained soil is a must for this plant. Water regularly but be careful not to overwater or root rot can occur. If left outdoors, Musas should be cut back to about 2 feet after a heavy frost or cold temperatures kills the foliage. Mulch the roots heavily to protect the plant over winter. If brought indoors, place it in a bright, sunny room. Hold back on watering and feeding throughout the winter months.
Australian Tree Fern Cyathea cooperi
While its name seems to be an oxymoron, the Australian Tree Fern does fit both categories, at least visually. This fast-growing tropical beauty can reach up to 25 feet in height, sporting broad lacy fronds 3 to 4 feet wide. Unlike other tropicals, the Australian Tree Fern prefers a more shaded location. It isn’t overly picky about soil type, but it does require frequent watering along the trunk. Try not to directly water the crown as that seems to promote rot. A bi-weekly feed with a weak, liquid fertilizer is recommended. If grown as a container plant, plan on repotting it every year. To slow growth, keep the plant in a slightly undersized pot.
Chinese Fan Palm Livistona chinensis
The Chinese Fan Palm, commonly called a Fountain Palm, is the perfect choice for a year-round touch of the tropics. Slow-growing, these easy to grow palms can live for 40 years and are great for beginner gardeners. Give them full sun to partial shade, good drainage, and slightly moist soil and they will reward you with a graceful, almost flowing addition to your garden. Because they are so slow growing, container grown Chinese Fan Palms don’t require frequent repotting. Their roots are quite fragile though, so handle them carefully!
Golden/Red Shrimp Plant Pachystachys lutea
Described as whimsical and joyful, Golden (or Red) Shrimp plants bring the tropics home to your garden. Easy to grow, shrimp plants offer a profusion of bracts and blooms that can brighten up the landscape. A hot, humid climate is ideal for these plants, as is morning sun and afternoon shade. They need constant moisture in the heat, but if taken inside during the winter, it is best to cut back on water. Regularly trimming off dead bracts and cutting back leggy branches helps keep shrimp plants looking healthy and increases blooming.
Elephant Ears Alocasia
A garden favorite for years, Elephant Ears are now one of the most popular indoor tropicals as well. There are at least 70 species of Alocasia and dozens of hybrids available today with colors, shapes, sizes and textures to suit any design palette. Depending on the species and the variety, mature plants can reach 2 to 15 feet in height and have a spread of 2 to 8 feet. As a group, Elephant Ears are water loving plants and need to be kept consistently moist. The species determines the amount of sunlight , but color is consistently better in the full sun varieties. They tend to be heavy feeders and seem to do best with liquid fertilizers. PLEASE NOTE THAT ALOCASIA ARE HIGHLY TOXIC PLANTS TO BOTH ANIMALS AND HUMANS.