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Sunday, August 11, 2019

How to Have a Tropical Garden in a Non-Tropical Zone - Arkansas

                                                                                                     (Photo: early Summer)
I love to travel and have big dreams of living in a tropical location one day, but until then I will make my paradise in Arkansas.

                                                                                                   (Photo: mid-summer)

This is my fifth year having a "tropical" garden in Arkansas (border of zone 7b & 8a). Let's start with just facing the facts though, you cannot have true tropical plants lower than zone 10. So how do I have a tropical garden? Lots of creativity and thought. Many different plants have come and gone over the years.

                                                                                                                 (Photo:early summer)

The first step is to find cold hardy plants and trees that look tropical but are cold tolerant. The key to a tropical look is something with large colorful leaves. If you can't spot the plant from across the garden center, it is not going to work. 😀 Think of the flowers on the plant as a bonus and just look at the foliage.

Some of my cold tolerant trees and plants:

                                                                                                               (Photo: early Summer)
Loquat tree 

Hardy from zone 7-10

Medium growth rate
Looks very tropical
Does not require much care
Some of the leaves turn yellow and fall off in the hot summer no matter how much you water it!

                                                                                                        (Photo: mid Summer) 
Windmill  Palm Tree

Cold tolerant down to zone 7
The snow doesn't seem to bother them here.
This is the only palm that I have found to survive the winters here.
Put a little slow release fertilizer on them in spring for extra growth. They will do fine without it.

                                                                                                (Photo: early to mid Summer)
Banana Trees

Three varieties of cold hardy banana tress grow here: Musa basjoo, Musella lasiocarpa or dwarf banana, and Musa velutina. All will die completely back to the ground in the winter, but will put up new trees from the roots in the spring. The stem will live if you cut it back and wrap in the fall.

                                                                                                            (Photo: mid Summer)
Cyperus Alternifolius Plant  (Umbrella Palm)

Hardy to zone 7
Easy care
Dies back to the ground in the winter, but returns with vigor
   and will grow to about six feet by then end of summer

                                                                                                                      (Photo: early Summer)
Lily Turf

Hardy to zone 5
Easy care
Fairly drought tolerant, I only have to water occasionally

                                                                                                       (Photo: late spring)
Canna Lily

Hardy to zone 7 or more
They come is many colors, flowers and foliage
Die back to ground in winter
I fight with leaf rollers all spring and summer on these, but they are worth it.

                                                                                                                     (Photo: early Summer)
Hardy Hibiscus

Some are cold tolerant to zone 4
They die back in the winter and put out new growth in the spring.
Insects love them
If it's a really humid summer, mine get a black mold/fungus on them sometimes.


Most hard ginger grow in 7 - 10

I have peach, white, and a variegated. All multiply like crazy without any care other than an occasional watering.

Calla Lily

Cold tolerant to zone 8, but they do fine here
Available in many colors
Bloom in spring only


Hardy to zone 9. With that being said, I do have these in the ground and they come back without being mulched for me.

                                                                                                                (Photo: late spring)
Quick Fire Hydrangea

Hardiness Zones 3a - 8b
Bloom out white then turn pink

                                                                                              (Photo: early summer) Pineapple Lily

Hardy to zone 8, but they do fine in the ground here

                                                                                                             (Photo: late spring)

Bush Clematis

Hardy 3b-7b
They are a little picky about the heat here. They don't look great by the end of summer.

Variegated Yucca

Hardy to -30 to -35 Fahrenheit (-34 to -37 C.)

                                                                                                                    (Photo: late spring)
Next, if you are like me, you will find the cold tolerant plants didn't quite give that resort feel you were looking for, so you go for the true topicals. I fell in love with Aechmea blanchetiana bromelaids (the big orange ones) my first trip to the Florida Keys. They are not easy to find for sale, even in Florida. I finally found a lady selling them from her yard and got one. Since then, I have order different kinds from Florida Nurseries and Puerto Rico. I feel like these bromeliads have made the biggest impact in the garden. They are fairly easy to grow and are easy to move indoors in the winter. I am writing a post on their care soon and will share the link here when I post. My mother lives next door, so I can put most of my plants in there. Some of them I bring into my sunroom.

Some of my favorite tropicals: 

                                                                                                                (Photo: early summer)
Aechmea blanchetiana bromelaids

Aechmea blanchetiana bromelaid and Neoregelia Petra bromeliad

                                                                                                                               (Photo: early summer)
Aechmea Blanchetiana 'Lemonade'

Neoregelia  Maria Bromeliad

The bromeliads are in pot in the ground. I just move the mulch back, loosen the pot, and take them inside for the winter.


Purple Turmeric

Pineapple plant

These can easily be grown from a pineapple purchased at the store. Just cut the top off and plant in a pot. I put the pot in the ground for the summer.


Coleuses are one of my favorite ways to add a huge pop of color. They can easily be rooted from cuttings and carried inside for the winter.

Lastly, add accents that give the feel you want. My taste is a mix between Florida and Bali (with a few other counties thrown in). 😁 Don't be afraid to mix looks! It's your garden and if it makes you happy, use it!

My garden decor: Planters, torches, statues, bamboo wind chimes, bird baths, and lanterns


I use a slow release fertilizer in the spring and again in the middle of summer. In addition to that, I use liquid Miracle Gro every two weeks during the middle of the summer when it’s so hot and humid. This may sound like way too much, but the plants get so stressed and need these extra nutrients. Crazy, I know, but it helps! On the banana trees, I add about a tablespoon of Epsom salt to the fertilizer mixture once a month or when they look  a little yellow and wilted. This is just what works for where I live and will need to be adjusted for your area.

The plants listed above are just some of the many in my garden. If you see something that I didn't mention and have a question, just ask. 😊 Hope you get inspired to create your own paradise! 

Happy Gardening! 

*Link to blog post two years ago to see more plants

* Updated garden tour post

2020  Garden Tour here

2021   Garden Tour here


  1. What a great article.
    To the point that having most cold hardy, you don’t really feel that belongs to the tropics...
    I think the more variety the better, but looking at mu garden makes me want to go to Bora Bora for the real thing

  2. Great tropical garden! I’m in the Florida panhandle and don’t have as nice of a tropical garden! I’m hoping to get it there! My issue is with the canna leaf roller as well. This year I’m planning to be more vigilant about getting rid of them quickly before they turn my cannas to brown shreds. I have trouble getting most of my plants to form large thick clumps. That is part of why I think I’m having trouble getting a good lush tropical look.

    I recommend adding red fire spike if it works in your zone. It has a nice red spike flower and the leaves are nice and lush and it grows very well. Another thing I recommend is daylilies but not the old varieties that you typically see. There are crazy gorgeous ones that daylily Hybridizers create with 7in blooms of orange, purple, pink, red, green and lots of crazy patterns. I got addicted to them recently. My favorite is called Big Boy Butterfly and I have others on the way for this spring like Lava Flow, Blazing Cannons, Parrots of the Caribbean, etc. I find that they are great for adding huge blooms to the garden.

    1. Thank you! I normally have trouble with leaf rollers in the spring, but last year, it was all summer. My mother grows daylilies and they are a beautiful flower. I will have to check out the red spike flower. It sounds like it would be a nice addition. Thanks for your recommendations!

  3. Would like to know where in AR & how did you prepare our clay soil??????

  4. Such a beautiful garden you have. I love the way you setup zen garden with buddha too. I have similar passion of growing tropicals in non tropical northern Virginia, zone 6b. I grow many in containers and bring them indoors in winter. One plant I want to suggest is to grow at least 1 plumeria plant, that will sure add a character and complete the tropical look.

    1. Thank you! I love plumerias and will have to try one!