Tropical schemes are easily put together. Pick your star architectural plants, fill the gaps with flowers and foliage, then check that the pots and background create the right illusion. Simplicity is the key.
With the emphasis on bold, punchy, exotic planting, avoid pots that will upstage the plants. The latter should grab all the attention. Only try exciting shapes or painted pots where the plants command equal attention. Avoid anything green in the background (from decking to a lawn), so that all the leaves are clearly visible, without any competition.
The choice of gap fillers is important because if all the plants are headline-grabbers, they will fight for attention, and you’ll get more losers than winners. Use the fillers to guide the eye to the strongest shapes, and create breathing spaces. The most reliable and highly effective include shade-happy hostas and ferns.
Tropical scenes demand sparing, judicious use of color, just enough to hint at parrots and toucans. Traditional English bedding plants, such as petunias and busy Lizzies (Impatiens), are ideal, as are the flashier dahlias, red hot pokers (Kniphofia), ginger lilies (Hedychium) and montbretia (Crocosmia).
Tender plants can be treated in four ways: grow them as annuals and discard at the end of the season; take cuttings from the parent (again discarded); keep the plants under cover over winter; or wrap the plant and pot in bubble plastic, or in straw inside a chicken-wire case.
Chamaerops humilis (Image 1): The slow-growing dwarf fan palm comes from southern Europe but is happy in colder areas. It makes a bushy, low-growing clump of stiff leaves, and is quite a rarity because it doesn't get ripped and ruined by fierce winds. Bring inside in winter in cold areas.
Trachycarpus wagnerianus (Image 2): A slower-growing, neater version of the Chusan palm (T. fortunei), with smaller, straighter, stiffer, but equally splayed leaves. The extra rigidity and smallness mean it is better able to withstand windy sites. Move indoors in winter in cold areas.
Agave (Image 3): These American succulents are all slow-growing. Tender Agave americana has extraordinary, long, saw-edged, viciously spine-tipped leaves, which can reach 5 feet high. 'Variegata' has yellow-edged leaves but is more tender; and 'Mediopicta' has a yellow leaf band.
Phormium cookianum 'Sundowner' (Image 1): One of the flashier forms of mountain flax, making a chunky clump with a burst of tall, arching, bronze-green leaves with pink margins. The summer flowers are a minor bonus, and are well worth leaving for the superb pods that follow.
Musa basjoo (Image 2): The Japanese banana is hardy enough for mild inner city gardens. It puts on prodigious annual growth and has massive paddle-like leaves up to 6 feet long. In cold areas, cut off the leaves when frosted, create a tube of chicken wire around the stem, and pack with straw.
Canna 'Striata' (Image 3): With its 18-inch high, vertical, paddle-shaped, green- and yellow-striped leaves, place this canna where the sun shines through it, to get the full effect. Orange, gladiolus-like flowers emerge above the foliage in midsummer. Bring under cover in winter.
Excerpted from Simple Steps: Containers for Patios
©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2007