Subtropical paradise

Who needs a trip to the tropics when you can forget the chill of winter in your own lush, exotic garden?

Subtropical gardens are renowned for lush greenery and dramatic textural effects. Summer and autumn bring an abundance of rich, exotic colour including hibiscus, bougainvillea, heliconia, gingers and exquisitely scented frangipani. But with the right choice of plants, colour can be carried throughout the year.

If you live in a frost-free region or warm micro-climate, here’s a taste of what you can gaze out upon to warm the cockles of your heart.


**Canopy and middle-storey plants are extremely important in a subtropical garden. Their role is to protect the undergrowth from wind, harsh sunlight and cold. oostly, the canopy consists of palms, tree ferns and other evergreen trees. These provide height, shelter, shade and dramatic foliage effects.

oiddle-storey plants are generally more shrubby and used as background fillers between layers. Two of my favourite winter flowerers are Brugmansia ‘Butterscotch’ and velvety-purple Tibouchina (formerly known as lasiandra). Brugmansia actually flowers in flushes year round – every two months on average – and produces a strong heady scent, more apparent on humid summer evenings. Coincidentally, these two make a formidable colour combination as well – classic blue and yellow – albeit rather more intense than a traditional blue and yellow combo. They’re both tough characters, bouncing back when given a hard cut back in spring, which they benefit from to keep them compact.

**Fillers and drama

**The second most important aspect of a subtropical garden is to fill every space, thus creating a full, lush gardenscape – just as you would see in a tropical jungle. Ferns, canna lilies and massed bromeliads are popular fillers. Add winter colour to this layer with vireya rhododendrons and oetrosideros ‘Tahiti’. Vireyas are lovely as colour spots around the garden. They flower intermittently, but usually manage at least one lot of flowers through winter. oetrosideros ‘Tahiti’, related to our native pohutukawa, grows to a compact 1x1m and is ideal for mass planting, containers or colour spots in a dry, sunny area. To create a little drama, go for bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae). These grow quite large, so are best treated as a one-off feature plant or containerised focal point.

**Arid dwellers

**Subtropical gardens in New Zealand tend to be a mix of moisture-loving and arid plants – paradoxically known as succulents. This, of course, is not always conducive to plant health, as succulents do not take kindly to rich, moist soil. However, it’s possible to combine the two, provided succulents are given sunny areas with gravel or coarse sand mixed into the soil to provide sharp drainage. The best winter flowerers are the aloes – pure poetry in an abundance of bloom. And they attract birds, as well.


**Climbing plants seal the lush, overplanted effect. our native Tecomanthe speciosa is a masculine woody climber that requires strong support. once well-established, it throws great bunches of creamy green flowers directly off its woody stems in early to mid winter. Also fully dependable for a magnificent display, and quite cold hardy once established, is brilliant orange flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta).

Growing Vireya Rhododendrons

  • Use an open, free-draining soil mix, such as orchid mix or bark combined with potting mix.

  • In the ground, plant with root ball half-exposed and cover over with bark mulch to form a mound.

  • Plant into a pot only slightly bigger than the root ball.

  • Position to receive about ¾ day sun – but protect from midday sun.

  • Feed with long-term, controlled-release fertiliser pellets, every six or 12 months depending on the brand.

  • Liquid feed through spring/summer.

  • Remove spent flowerheads.

  • Prune in springtime only if the plant becomes straggly and unattractive.

  • Water regularly through summer.

Hint: Some gardeners allow vireyas to dry out to induce flowering, but be careful – it can also induce death!

Plan & plant

  • First and foremost, provide a warm, sheltered, frost-free aspect. Plant or erect shelter and shade before planting anything else.

  • Work soil into a crumbly open loam with compost and sheep pellets. Raised beds and imported planting mix are handy where soil is poor. Add coarse sand or gravel when planting succulents.

  • Plant canopy specimens first – this protects under-planting from sunlight. Ferns and palms may need “nurse” plants to protect them at first.

  • Fill every space to create a lush effect.

  • Plant thick ground-cover – it looks fantastic and keeps weeds down.

  • Use dramatic plants as feature plantings or focal points.

  • Introduce water in the form of a water feature or small stream.

  • Keep your layout informal – use long, lazy curves.

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