A tropical garden is among the most requested themes at Secret Gardens, and it’s easy to understand why. With visions of waving palm trees and lush foliage rustling in a warm island breeze, who wouldn’t want a garden that reminds them of tropical holidays. But what actually is a tropical garden, and what does it look like in the context of Sydney’s south-of-tropical climate?
What is a tropical garden?
A tropical garden usually incorporates plenty of bright colours and distinctively shaped flowers, paired with a veritable jungle of deep green leaves. The entire palette evokes an island paradise and inspires a sense of escape.
A tropical garden in Sydney needs to make concessions to the temperate climate. With the exception of certain sites with unique microclimates, which might deliver the particular conditions to support the most sensitive flowering perennials, shrubs and palms, Sydney’s winters are simply too cold for the full range of tropical varieties. What this means is that Sydney tropical gardens have developed their own climate-appropriate look, which focuses on a heavily green palette, with fewer of the riotously bold, clashing colours one might see further north.
Creating a tropical garden in Sydney
The limitations of climate in Sydney can actually result in an arguably better looking garden, enforcing a certain amount of restraint that delivers a more mature and universally appealing aesthetic. What tends to work best here is a combination of tropical shrubs with larger plants and trees, which also provide the canopy and shelter from the elements that the tropical plants need to thrive.
While many of the most distinctive tropical plants, such as ornamental gingers, generally won’t work in Sydney, there are plenty of more cold-hardy plants that can create a similar effect. We love lush and leafy plants like Philodendron ‘Congo’ and Ligularia (tractor seat plant) for their big and interesting leaf shapes. Alpinias provide beautiful spicy, fragrant foliage, while some, like Alpinia zerumbet, also have classic ginger flowers, providing a hit of colour and a distinctive floral shape that instantly evokes the tropics.
Structures in a tropical garden
Looking at the material options for a tropical garden really illustrates the point that ‘tropical’ is not a regimented look – it can be almost whatever you want it to be. While we tend to turn first to natural materials, like stone and timber, a tropical garden could equally take inspiration from Singapore rather than Bali, embracing modern, structured shapes and manmade materials like porcelain or travertine.
Generally though, tropical gardens are evocative of holidays and a slower pace of life, a look that works better with relaxed, earthy tones. Raw materials like stone or cobbles capture the look, while corten – with its rusty red colour – works as a beautiful accent against the deep, glossy greens of the foliage.