Many garden and houseplants may be hardy to your area, and those that aren't, can be brought inside for the winter. 

The portability of potted and container plants makes that easy. You can create the tropical feel without in-ground tropical plants - choose plants that give the impression of the tropics, and pop them into colorful pots. You may be zone 5, but hanging and portable plants allow you a tropical garden using zone 10 anyway. 

Balcony, patio and terrace gardens look amazing when combining them. Big, bold primary colors are best, but whites and pastels in colorful pots and accessories works just as well.

Let's not forget vines.... most of mine are in pots and guided by decorative trellis. If you have a balcony, fence or terrace, brightly colored varieties of trumpet vine, clematis, and honeysuckle will give you the height and a colorful, fragrant backdrop. Pollinators will gather all day. Mine are hardy and most are evergreen. Most Clematis vines are hardy in Zones 4-10. There are many different varieties, so you can combine early, mid- and late-season bloomers for a rotating display. As the blooms mature, they take on some interesting features. 

Use color and interesting foliage features all over. Don't use cactus, but use succulents.... they hold water and their shapes and leaves have a tropical feel - don't design a garden that looks like a hot and dry climate. Skip the average cactus, roses, cottage, romantic and wildflower looks. Make it feel warm and humid, even if it isn't, but don't make it look too "florida".  Shoot for jungle and rainforest designs. Do use any plant you like, in the northeast. You're not going into the garden in winter, so it why not? If you don't have much room for houseplants, use a lot of annuals and bulbs. If you have a place for a few grow light setups, that works great to keep plants that don't go dormant, looking good in your home. Putting some plants in terrariums also works well to keep your tropical plants in great shape until you can put them back in the garden. But the best bet is using hardy perennials that are bold and colorful that can stay outdoors.


An example of using northern cousins of tropical flowers.... I am addicted to Giant Hibiscus. They're a showcase in my garden from July until the hard frost. I've had to wait to cut some stalks down until after Halloween. Nothing says "tropical" like the 5-6 ft. tall hibiscus along my fence. These are the hardy variety of hibiscus, for my Zone 6 garden and lower.

There are "Tropical" Hibiscus varieties - especially for hot climates, that are not cold hardy at all. I learned that one the hard way. 
Beautiful and bold colors are what you'll want to grow in-ground or outside in pots. They come up every year, sport their 10-12" flowers all along the stalks. They die down to the ground and then come back stronger and better every summer. That's my number 1 pick for height in a tropical garden design. Choose plants hardy to your region. They're awesome in-ground, in pots, against walls, balcony and deck railings. You can't miss with these. You can over winter tropical varieties indoors, but why bother if cold hardy varieties are available?

The only care they need is staking or tying, and I do it when the plants reach half their growth height. Mine stand up against my white fence, and I only need to tie them with twine or string to keep them from flopping onto their understory neighbors. I trim out some of their errant stems as they grow along my paths. The hibiscus is a workhorse garden plant. I have them in semi-shade in one spot, full sun in others. Perfect plants for a cottage garden design, or as a backdrop for Victorian, romantic, moonlight garden, or wildflower garden styles. Bees and butterflies busy themselves on the blooms all season. A family member of this plant that is not tropical in style is the variety of hibiscus we all know - Rose of Sharon. Use the plant that is named "Giant Hibiscus" for a specifically tropical garden design.

The giant hibiscus comes in many colors and shades. I'm on a waiting list for the blue.


There are several varieties of flowers, foliage plants, vines, ferns and groundcovers to choose from for a tropical or rainforest feel. 

Ferns and Ferneries - Visit our ferns page for information and ideas for using and growing ferns in your shady and partially sunny spots, in pots under tall plants, in corners, hanging, and in nooks between potted plants. There are several hardy varieties. 

I successfully grow hardy Maidenhair, Japanese Painted, and Autumn ferns in Zone 6. Ferns look right at home with other foliage plants in tropical or rainforest garden themes, and they come in all sizes. Plant these in pots or in-ground. They spread via underground rhizomes and seed by the spores on the underside of their leaves. Get the best-behaved varieties that aren't going to spread everywhere, or be vigilant about thinning the plants if you plant them in-ground.

Striking foliage and flowers, and easy to care for. These mostly- and partial shade dwellers grow well in tropical climates, but need to be brought indoors in winter in northern climates. I grow mine outdoors until frost, and then they spend winter indoors. They are great houseplants that don't need a lot of sun. The plants mentioned are hardy to about 20 degrees. Plant any variety of  bromeliads in clusters of brightly colored pots or planters and bring them in for the winter. That's the way not to limit the scope and variety in your tropical theme. I find them quite beautiful, in a pre-historic kind of way. Gorgeous markings, unusual feature, and long-lasting bloom. Be aware that many types die after blooming, but they have probably re-produced, and those teeny plants become your new stock, and some don't ever flower. Some will burn badly if given too much sun.

You can choose some really stunning tropical bromeliads and just bring them indoors in winter to decorate your home. I had quite a collection of bromeliads, along with succulents, in a large, elevated flower bed indoors. They grew best in indirect light, in windows with eastern or western exposure. I had some in any room I wanted, because they are spectacular growing under Grow Lights. They liked the humidity of my bathroom, best. My plants put off lots of babies, called "pups" that I popped off, and placed in cactus soil in pots to develop a bunch of roots, before giving them a pot or roomy, community planter. 

In the garden, I use them in big cactus and succulent bowls and dishes as beautiful and portable accents. Brightly-colored plants are placed on side tables, on pedestals, rocks, and on center tables in my seating areas. Portability is key in the design of  my urban garden. If you grow these in a container or pot, be sure not to make them larger or heavier than you can easily lift and move. Been there... You don't want to have to remove the plants to climb up steps when it's time to bring them indoors, or repot them once you have them in house. During the summer season, when my fickle nature presents itself, I know I can just move pots or an entire garden of them, all around my yard. Bromeliads in a container mixed with succulents and evergreen ornamental grasses looks amazing. If planting into a pot or container, use cactus soil. It's the most well-draining potting mix..

**Cold hardy, within the context of this article, means they are hardy down to about 20 degrees. 
The few specific plants mentioned below are the most cold hardy.
Choose any variety that will grow indoors during winter. Many varieties take mixed exposures outdoors, full sun to shade.




The hardiest bromeliad varieties:


Aechmea - largest family of cold hardy species, such as  Aechmea Gamosepala and Aechmea Cylindrata. Genus to consider- A. apocalyptica, A. recurvata, A. winkleri, A. calyculata, A. caudata, A kertesziae, A. distichantha and A. Nudicaulis. They can be grown in well-draining soil as an accent, groundcover or focal point,


There are lots of c old hardy Billbergia hybrids with different flowers and forms. Many of the toughest ones color nicely in sun, often with pink spotted foliage.  Billbergia Nutans, or Queens Tears have soft and wavy green leaves that drape down. Billbergia Pyramidalis 'Striata' or 'kyoto' have variegated foliage with yellow stripes or white margins.


I've grown several of these beauties that are popular because of their architectural foliage. 
Neoregelias have a lot of hybrids to choose from, with many of the leathery ones suitable for colder regions. 
Neoregelia Spectabilis
is a common plant with pink tips on the leaves, and is quite hardy in sun or frost. 


Spiky, tight clusters of rosettes and a pretty clumping nature along with a smaller size.  Some have dark, burgundy leaves. Others are green, bronze or black.  The contrasting white spines look very ornate, and point forward and backward


suggestions: Vriesea Philippo Coburgii, V. Vagans, V. Lubbersii, V. Corcovadensis and V. Flammea . All great choices if you get frost. This very large hybrid is supposedly very hardy. Nice for the focal point that adds height to your design.

Flower and Foliage Bulbs

Plant brightly-colored flowering bulbs - Irises, dwarf canna, medium-height Asian and border lilies that come in bright colors. The lilies pictured above, and dwarf and very colorful. Long-lasting bloom. These bulbs are hardy perennials.

Choose shorter or dwarf varieties to set among foliage and in colorful pots, and choose those that will bloom in succession, so that there's always a colorful display among your foliage. Plant in staggered clusters of 5 among and in back of foliage plants, in-ground or in pots, or both.

Irises and lilies come in lots of styles, for shade, damp areas, wet areas, hot and sunny areas. Some varieties are re-blooming.... in spring, and then again in fall. The bulbs reproduce, so dividing the rhizomes and bulbs, and planting elsewhere, is a bonus, along with their cold hardiness. They grow in a lot of regions, and winter doesn't bother them. Pest- and disease-resistant.


After blooming, the iris's strappy leaves stay green for most of the season. These can blend in with the foliage plants, or you can cut them into "fans" shapes, or cut them down altogether. 


The leaves will continue to grow after a hard cutting, until frost kills them in the fall. Both of these plants grow very well in containers and pots.

Warning: All parts of the lily plants, including the petals and bulb, are poisonous to cats. Keep cats out of that garden. It apparently doesn't affect feral cats, as they damage the gardens and torture birds seemingly with impunity.

Both of these flowers are perennial, and the lily blooms last a while. The fragrances add to your tropical garden. You get the look of rainforest orchids in a zero-maintenance plant. Pollinators love them. Irises generally bloom in spring. Lilies bloom early and mid-summer.



The fragrance of lilies is more pronounced in warm, humid weather, and at night. They make a great addition to a Moonlight Garden. The fragrance of all lilies is very exotic. They love being in a vase.... the fragrance of one bloom is aromatherapy.




Stargazer Lilies s are an incredible sight when planted enmasse. So-named because some of the blooms appear as if they're gazing up at the sky.

One of the most fragrant and easy-to-grow showcase lilies when planted enmasse. 

All lilies have large, long buds in a fantastic shape.
They look very pretty while you wait for the blooms. A nice architectural plant that's quite photogenic.

Stargazers are tall, and mature plants might need a plant support. 
There are multiple blooms in a radius along the stalk. I've had one bulb produce 8 large flowers in succession, along the stalk. 

Mix them in with interesting foliage plants in partial shade, Like hosta. Which also blooms with big, fragrant spikes.

Don't be afraid to combine color and interesting foliage all over the garden. Urban gardeners can have entire small spaces filled with colorful pots that contain dwarf trees grasses or giant foliage. Foliage can be placed between or around the pots, in hanging planters, and vines attached o railings, railing planters, and trellises Make the garden look fuller by planting low, medium and tall plants. The eye will think there's a bigger space and larger garden.

Don't use cactus, but do use succulents.... they hold water and their shapes and leaves have a tropical feel - don't design a garden that looks like a hot and dry climate. Skip the spring bulbs, roses, cottage, romantic and wildflower looks. Make it feel warm, wild and humid, even if it isn't, but don't make it look too "florida". Hawaii is ok!

Shoot for jungle and rainforest feel. Use hanging baskets for height and big color statements.
Petunias... get the trailing type with large blooms, but not too ruffly, skip the  striped varieties, and hang them in pots. White, dark blue, dark purple, and reds have great impact. I'm not a big petunia fan, unless we're talking about the Mexican Petunia. The average petunia is messy and needs pinching to prevent legginess. And i don't car for the plant's sticky feel. Having said that, i still think they're great for a tropical theme.

Do not hesitate to use any plant you like, in the northeast garden. You're not going into the garden in winter, anyway, so why not? 
If you don't have much room for houseplants, use a lot of annuals and bulbs. If you have a place for a few grow light setups, that works great to keep plants that don't go dormant, looking good in your home. Putting some plants in terrariums also works well to keep your tropical plants in great shape until you can put them back in the garden. But the best bet is using hardy perennials that are bold and colorful that can stay outdoors.

Continue Reading On Page 2---->

Click the pic on the right to download a .pdf file for a very 
pretty garden design plan from Better Homes and Gardens.

Plans can be multiplied for  larger gardens, and plants can be swapped out for plants you prefer.  Garden plans include a full-size color illustration, planting list and a detailed planting guide.

You can create your tropical garden using just about any of the plans offered on this site. Just adapt the plantings to the look you want.

You can check the hardiness zone for the plants you like, choose plants that have the same height and care attributes, and create away.

We have lots more free garden designs for you to download-->

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