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Bring a taste of the tropics to your garden

Lounging by the pool with an umbrella drink close at hand, steel drum music in the background and the warm sun baking your skin: this is an environment you’ve carefully curated to mimic your favourite vacation experience.

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Rubber Tree

But something is missing – splashes of colour everywhere provided by the greenery that surrounds resort pools. Whether you want to mirror a Caribbean getaway or just want to add the lush colours and textures of tropical climes to your yard, it’s possible to surround yourself with the hot pinks and luminescent oranges, shiny leaves and layered bark trunks of tropical plants though you reside in southwestern Ontario.

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Add exotic Hibiscus in luminescent oranges.

According to Michael Pascoe, academic coordinator of academic apprenticeship in the horticulture department at Fanshawe College, his crew of students at the Mac Cuddy Botanic Garden uses several methods to include tropical plants in the landscaping of that extensive property in Strathroy.

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Large pots and baskets provide a riot of colour when filled with plants of diverse shades and textures. This one is planted with Persian Shield, Sidekick Lime Sweet Potato, Copper Coleus, Inch Plant, Wandering Jew and All Black Phormium.

The most dramatic is plunge planting. A hole is dug that is larger and deeper than the pot that holds the plant. The pot and its plant – often a palm, fichus, rubber tree, banana, agave or cactus – are put into the hole and covered with dirt. Porous (not glazed) clay pots, with a hole in the bottom, are best for this as they breath and allow water to pass through it.

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Mandevilla, a flowering, climbing favourite.

“This really surprises people when they come for the annual open house at the garden. They ask, ‘How are you able to grow palm trees and cacti in Ontario?’” says Pascoe. (This year’s event is June 6 and 7.) Adding dimension to your deck or patio with tropicals planted in glazed pots of varying sizes and complementary colours to create a visual theme is another method that Pascoe favours.

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Hanging baskets with shade-loving Begonias.

Planting smaller vining tropicals around the bases of larger ones provides additional colour and variety. Employing hanging baskets of tropical plants to bring colours and textures to eye level and above is the final method that Pascoe’s crew uses. He advises that using large peat moss-lined baskets is best.

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Peat moss filled baskets are best, according to Mike Pascoe, but all hanging plants require more water during the hottest days of summer, due to evaporation. This cacophony of colour includes Wormwood or Silver Mound, Fuchsia, Deep Purple Sweet Potato, Silver Sage, Liquorice Plant and Parrot's Beak.

Caring for tropicals once they’re out in the yard is straightforward. According to Pascoe, plunged pots don’t need to be watered as rainfall will normally take care of their needs. Potted plants will need to be watered more often when the temperatures climb in July and August. He recommends soaking pots with water, letting the excess absorb and then soaking again to ensure they get enough water. Baskets will often need even more water as they are more exposed to light and air causing water to evaporate more quickly.

Pascoe recommends fertilizing bi-weekly in the spring and weekly during flowering season with a 20-20- 20 fertilizer. The only thing tricky about using tropical plants in your yard is introducing them to the outdoors. Though they are from warmer climates, they are easily sunburnt, according to Pascoe. So slowly bring them outside, with the first stop in a limited light outdoor environment, like a garage with the door open or a covered patio after the threat of frost is over and then moving gradually from more shaded to sunnier areas.

Janine Glover, owner of A&M Garden Centre, agrees that gauging light levels for tropicals is important. “They are sensitive to light. Some are shade plants and others love full sun. Not all do, even though they are native to hot places. Check the labels for preferred light before placing them in your yard or garden.”

Glover enjoys the variety of available tropical plants. She says that Dipladenia is a very popular one and surprisingly hearty. “I have people come into the centre saying that theirs lasted until first snow.”

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Other flowering favourites include Mandevilla, Bird of Paradise, Hibiscus, Gardenia and Bougainvillea. “The majesty palm will grow to 10 or 12 feet over the years and does very well in patio pots,” recommends Glover. “The tropical red banana provides colour both summer and winter with its deep red/green leaves and grows very quickly.”

Why book a Caribbean vacation when you can enjoy one in your own backyard by adding beautiful tropical plants?