Do you live in a chilly spot but long for an exotic garden all the same? Big hardy palms, ferns, bananas, bright flowers and unusual looking things with huge leaves? It’s entirely possible with a little planning.
We say this as we landscaped an exotic garden on the chilly outskirts of London just like this. Whilst London summers are generally warm the winters are distinctly chilly and even cold (in the winter of 2010/11 the temperature dropped to a bitter -14°C one night). Certainly our experiences in a typical year would be similar (or worse) than much of the South Island. So, we present some thoughts on landscaping with exotic plants and hardy palms: what you may wish to grow if you’re to turn a chilly suburban garden into a tropical paradise.
First things first, have a read of the article Growing palms in cold climates.
Besides palm trees plant bushes that’ll give your garden some colour in the warmer months. There are a number of hardy hibiscus species, many with blue-purple flowers and some of these being impressively large. Another plant family that’s hard to beat and looks great amongst ferns, tree ferns and Trachycarpus are Rhododendrons and Azaleas. Amongst the blue-grey palms plant olive trees. For colour low down besides paths Fuchsias can’t be beat.
Don’t overlook the native ferns and tree ferns in your quest for the exotic landscape. A dark south-facing spot can be transformed by the addition of several tree ferns and an under-planting of small and medium sized terrestrial ferns.
The beauty of a cool climate exotic garden is you’ve the freedom to mix things up a little. Gone are the rules about matching different plants, instead you’re seeking to create a combination of different exotic and attractive plants from around the world. For this reason we’ve chosen a range of different tough and tropical-looking exotic plants rather than following formal rules.
As with the majority of the garden styles we’ve proposed, the starting point is to develop a canopy to protect from not just the sun and wind but also frost. Conifers work well in this respect as they’re evergreen and will thus hold in what little warmth does exist on a cold winter night. This can make the difference of several degrees. We’ve seen palms virtually untouched by bitter frosts when grown in the protection of such trees.
Bamboo is of course a godsend for cool climate exotic landscaping. Not only will it serve to protect more delicate plants but of course it looks so exotic. Do be particular about the species you select. Many will take considerable cold but some also hold a good set of bright green leaves regardless of the temperature.
On to the important part, hardy palm trees. Whilst many plants will help to create a cool-climate exotic garden nothing will do so like a collection of hardy palm trees. Here are a few hardy palms that’ll succeed in most locations.
As with other aspects of the garden, feel free to mix things up somewhat so that, for instance, soft-leaved Chamaedorea palms share a corner with spiky Date Palms and tall banana trees.
Begin with the Chinese Windmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei. An ever-reliable hardy palm for cool climates that’s capable of ignoring frost and snow. Plant in clumps of three at different heights. There are other species of Trachycarpus that may occasionally be found, several of which also thrive in chilly climates.
Another hardy palm for cool climates is the Mediterranean Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis. A slow growing, clustering fan palm it’ll take decades to out-grow a corner in the garden.
Two large and relatively hardy palms that will do well in all but the coldest locations are the Date Palm, Phoenix dactylifera, and Jelly Palm, Butia capitata. Both tend towards a blue-grey colour and make a nice change from the standard green of so many garden plants. Slightly less hardy but every bit as tropical looking is the Senegal Date Palm, Phoenix reclinata, a tall, clustering palm that wouldn’t look out of place outside an expensive hotel in the tropics.
Other large and moderately hardy palms include the Australian Cabbage Palm, Livistona australis, an attractive fan palm not often seen in New Zealand and the Ribbon Fan Palm, Livistona decipiens, with more divided leaves than Livistona australis as well as the Palmetto Palm, Sabal palmetto. The latter being a large (but slow growing) blue-grey palm with thick fan leaves. Not forgetting the dwarf Sabal minor.
Amongst the smaller palms that are relatively impervious to all but the coldest weather consider the Bamboo Palm, Chamaedorea microspadix, or the tough Radicalis Palm, Chamaedorea radicalis. Both plants will cope well with chills and damp. Also useful for dark locations out of the sun is the Lady Palm, Rhapis excelsa, a slow-growing clustering fan palm with multiple thin stems and a graceful appearance.
Finally, perhaps a slightly unexpected suggestion, the Himalayan Fishtail Palm, Caryota maxima. Whilst not truly hardy it’s a palm that’ll take a fair amount of cold and frost. More than one might imagine given its tropical appearance. For the sheer exoticism of it this is a palm to grow if you’re able.
Aloes and agaves can both add a touch of the exotic to any garden. Select carefully as species vary from genuinely hardy to tender.
And now the soft-leafed exotics. Those giant bananas, colourful cannas and sweet scented gingers. For dramatic effect try Musa basjoo, a hardy banana that’ll survive heavy frosts. There are a number of gingers that’ll take incredible cold (and even those that don’t need to be lifted) and their less-hardy but equally exotic cousins the cannas (again, best lifted in chilly locations).
One of the features most associated with exotic gardens are large leaves. Here Gunnera and Tetrapanax papyrifer 'Rex' play the same role in the cool-climate exotic garden. There are a number of large leafed Colocasias and Alocasias too that’ll look truly tropical provided you’re prepared to lift them in the late autumn.