During the past few months, many of my clients have asked me to include tropical plants in their landscape. It is fine to add tropicals as annual plants but not such a good idea to plant them as foundation plants in Zone 8. During some mild years, a tropical plant may survive winter, but many times they will freeze into a slimy mush. One terrific solution when adding tropical plants to your garden is to use them in containers and move them inside for the colder months. They will thrive during our hot, humid summers!
How to Grow Tropical Plants in Containers in Zone 8
Tropical plants grow big and fast, so the first thing to consider when using them in containers is to “go big.” Go big with the containers, and go big with the main tropical plant. Many tropical palms and blooming plants will grow tall in a short period of time and may topple a small or lightweight container. As with most container gardens, it is better to have a few large containers than too many small ones. Large containers are easier to maintain during hot summer months because they will have more soil and room for moisture retention.
When planting a large container, it is better to plant it on site. Haul the plants and soil to the pot. Don’t plant the pot and then move it. It will be too heavy. Choose a large container and a lightweight potting soil. If you have a few empty plastic containers from the nursery, crush them and add to the bottom of the container. This will take up space and aid in drainage. Fill the container to about 2 inches below the container’s rim so that the soil does not run off when watering. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of Osmocote® to the top 3 to 4 inches of soil to fertilize the fast growing tropical plants during the summer months. Read the plant tags for each plant you choose to make sure that each variety will thrive under the same growing conditions. Most tropical plants are happiest in morning sun and light and dappled shade during our hot afternoons.
Container gardening can be demanding. As with any type of gardening, the best fertilizer is the gardener’s attention. Check the container often to make sure it is getting the right amount of water and that it is not being attacked by insects. If insects do appear, put your best nozzle on the end of the hose and spray away with a good strong blast of water. It’s best to do the spraying in the evening so that the tender leaves won’t be damaged by the sun. Keep the container looking fresh and neat by deadheading any spent or dying blooms.
Flowering Tropical Plants
There are many excellent choices for flowering tropical plants. Going to the nursery or even a big box store is a great pleasure while you are searching for just the right plant. Remember to check out the greenhouse areas of the nursery because that is where most of these lush tropical plants will be residing. Tropical gardening really does add another dimension to gardening and widens the plant choice immensely. Here are some flowering tropical beauties to consider:
• Hibiscus – Hibiscus trees and bushes are usually one of the first tropical plants to show up in nurseries in early spring. It is hard to resist their big, bright blooms that range in color from light pink to dark pink, red and orange. These tropical beauties are easy to care for. All they need is sun, water and the occasional liquid fertilizer.
• Orchids – I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t like orchids. Add white phalaenopsis orchids to brighten a container pot in the evening. The large moth-like blossoms will shine under a full moon. Add cymbidium orchids for their strappy foliage and their branches covered with bright yellow to pink flowers. Orchids love living outside in the Midlands during the summer. Make sure that they are shielded from direct afternoon sun which will burn the foliage and blooms.
• Anthurium – These are wonderful to include in a container selection because their bold red blooms will stand out in any tropical combination. Their strong green leaves add texture to the tropical combination.
• Bird of Paradise – The Bird of Paradise is one of the most easily recognized tropical plants. Its bloom does indeed look just like a bird with its flamboyant combination of colors. These are very sturdy plants that add architectural interest to a container planting with their strappy green leaves. They are easy to grow and bloom all summer. This is definitely a plant to consider.
• Peace Lily – If you happen to have a Peace Lily living in your house, give it some fresh air and bright shade outside. Add it to a tropical outdoor container, and its white blooms will brighten the nighttime garden.
Tropical Plants With Showy Foliage
Plants with interesting foliage and texture can add so much to a container design. For variety, I will sometimes only use plants with interesting leaf color as well as texture and not worry about adding any blooming plants to an outdoor container.
Consider leaf color and texture when choosing companion plants for blooming varieties. Using the color wheel is a good way to insure complementary color combinations. These plants are usually the focal point of most tropical plant containers. Here are some to consider:
• Banana – Many gardeners in the Midlands grow banana trees in their gardens. That is a great luxury if you have a large garden. If space is limited, why not grow a banana tree in a large, simple terra cotta container? Add a tray with wheels to put under the container for moving the banana tree into your garage in the winter. Add a peace lily around the base of the banana tree, and you will have a beautiful, leafy tropical container.
• Cordyline – These decorative plants are sometimes sold as Dracaena in our local nurseries. One way to tell the difference is to look at the roots. Cordyline roots are white, and tropical Dracaena roots are usually yellow or orange.
• Bromeliad – Bromeliads are much more popular and fashionable than they used to be. They are very easy to grow, and their foliage adds interest to a tropical container. There are many different varieties. Choose the one that makes you smile. They come in so many different colors and textures. The strappy leaves can be found in red, green, purple, orange, yellow, striped or even spotted. This showy foliage plant can be used as a great substitute for a flowering plant in a container combination.
• Amazon Elephant Ear – This type of elephant ear is one of the showiest I have ever seen. These dramatic, gorgeous plants will be the stars of any container with their large, arrow-shaped leaves. This variety of elephant ear is easy to grow and will add drama to any container combination.
How to Grow These Tropical Beauties
Giving your new tropical plants the optimum conditions will ensure a long season of beautiful flowers and foliage. Make sure you find a container large enough to hold all of the plants you choose. Use a light potting soil with or without moisture control beads. I tend to lean toward potting soil without moisture retention beads but I have heard good results from other gardeners when they use moisture retaining potting soil. Tropical plants are used to growing in sunlight so make sure the container is placed with morning sun exposure and dappled shade during the afternoon.
This group of plants is also used to plenty of moisture. It is beneficial to let the top layer of soil dry out before watering again. Water the pot thoroughly and make sure it drains thoroughly. Consider raising the containers on pot feet or simple risers to aid in better drainage. The best type of fertilizer for tropical plants is a water-soluble fertilizer such as Osmocote® or Miracle-Gro®. Follow the directions and apply the amount that is recommended for the size container. If you are using a granular fertilizer, make sure that none of the fertilizer beads collect in the bottom or folds of the leaves or blossoms. They could burn the plant.
Pruning should not be necessary during one season of growth. However, if a plant grows too tall or too wide, judicious pruning is perfectly fine. Take pictures of your tropical container at its growing and blooming peak so you can remember which plant combinations were successful and can duplicate the combination in the following seasons.
Chores for the June Gardener
• Choose an empty, sunny spot in the garden and sow a packet or two of zinnia seeds for summer flowers to cut for the table.
• Plant a pot of herbs and place it beside the grill for easy access while grilling steaks and vegetables.
• Dahlias may be planted in an area with morning sun and light afternoon shade. They can require staking, so do it now so that plant grows around it making the stake less obvious. I like to use lichen covered sticks for stakes for a more natural look.
• Prune flowering shrubs as they complete their blooming cycle.
• Pinch back dragon-wing begonias so they will stay sturdy and full.
• Fertilize crape myrtles with a balanced, liquid fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro® to encourage more blooms.
• Monitor watering. Make sure your irrigation system is doing what it is supposed to do. Check drip systems to make sure there are no cuts or that the emitters are not clogged.
• Clean out any fountains or birdbaths so there is fresh, clear water for birds, bees and butterflies.
• Peruse the landscape at night. Make sure all outdoor lighting is working and fixtures are pointing in the right direction. Make sure there are no blinding spotlights.
• Fertilize your grass again around Father’s Day.
• Add fresh mulch if any of the beds look tired.
• Bring all indoor plants outside for a dose of fresh air and sunshine. It is best to park them under a nice shade tree.
• Buy a new hose if your old one is full of kinks. A good hose makes for a very happy gardener.
• Spread Milorganite if deer are a problem. It may not work as a deterrent forever but it is worth a try and is a great fertilizer as an added bonus!
• Find a spot in the garden for a new focal point such as a large bird feeder on a post, a new birdbath or an interesting trellis to grow a climbing rose or vine.
• Keep up with your gardening journal to record successes and failures. Make notes about changes such as more or less shade due to trees growing or trees being removed.
• Enjoy June in the garden!
Plants in Bloom
Butterfly Bush, Crape Myrtle, Magnolia, Mock Orange, Hydrangea, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Pomegranate, Roses, Oleander, Abelia, Salvia, Crinum, Daylily, Lantana, Impatiens, Phlox, Plumbago, Snapdragon and Verbena.