"Creating a perennial tropical border," by the Whistling Gardener

The Whistling Gardener shares how you can build your own tropical paradise. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
The Whistling Gardener shares how you can build your own tropical paradise. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

The Missus and I have a very convenient arrangement. The back yard is hers and the front is mine. So in the backyard she has created a very pleasing cottage garden look with lots of flowers and raised vegetable beds. But in the front yard I have gone the tropical route.

In fact, I have done the tropical thing for many years using real tropicals that have to be dug and green-housed every winter. It is truly a labor of love and a monumental endeavor.

But several years ago I decided that while I like the tropical look I was no longer going to dig up and put everything under cover for the winter. So I started to create a tropical looking border that consisted of plants that were hardy for our northwest winters.

The results have been stunning if I do say so myself.

To create a tropical border one needs to develop an eye for foliage, particularly bold leaves and strong colors like gold or purple. This contrast in colors is what creates drama in our gardens.

Hot colors like the reds, oranges and yellows also connote excitement. Hot steamy excitement like one would expect to encounter in the jungles of tropical America.

So to build your tropical paradise you first need some structure and what better plant to use than a Musa basjoo. This is a truly hardy banana plant (sorry folks, no Chiquita bananas here, just foliage) that will grow 12 feet tall in one season.

Pair that with a Paulownia tomentosa tree that will grow 15 feet in one year (if chopped to the ground the previous winter) and you have the bones of a tropical border.

From here you plant a couple gold and purple smoke trees, a golden Leycesteria, some common calla lilies, dark leaved dahlias, red flowering Crocosmia, one or two bronze colored Cimicifugas, a golden Tiger Eyes Sumac, some Persicaria Brush Strokes and of course some ornamental grasses like Cabaret Maiden Grass and Zebra grass and you have the makings of a tropical garden.

Add in some hot colored annuals around the edges and voila, you have a tropical garden.

I would be remiss not to mention Painter’s Pallet Persicaria, Jessie Euphorbia, cardoons, Melianthus major, red hot pokers, scarlet Floral Carpet roses, Black Lace Elderberry and the monster of all tropicals, Tetrapanax papyrifera ‘Steriodal Giant’, the Chinese rice paper plant.

All of these plants work together to create the illusion of a tropical jungle.

What I find truly amazing is the transformation that takes place between early March and mid-August. During this time my tropical border goes from nuclear waste zone to biomass extraordinaire.

Where there was exposed soil in April there is now leaf to leaf vegetation. Plants that were visible in May are now obliterated by adjacent foliage. This border that was virtually transparent in February is now impenetrable.

This rampant growth is the essence of a tropical border. It personifies what we think of as a tropical jungle. In a very primeval sense, it is intoxicating and sensual in nature.

July is the perfect month to find tropical looking plants at the garden center (along with real tropical ones as well). Come down and check out my garden (I am right next to the nursery) and if you find yourself getting excited then perhaps it’s time to plant your own tropical border.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at

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