Creating A Tropical Garden Oasis In My Backyard

By Nikki Tilley | March 31, 2022
Image by Aravind S M
by Nikki Tilley
March 31, 2022

“While one thing may lead to another, all things eventually lead to the garden. And once there, very few things lead back to the real world.” Luke Ruggenberg says this in his latest book Leavesdropping — a great read by the way — and it really resonated with me. This is exactly how I feel about gardening in general, but especially when it comes to my little tropical garden oasis. 

My Tropical Backyard Paradise

I may not live in the tropics, but I created my own backyard paradise. I can get lost there. Nothing else matters in that moment but the quietness of my thoughts, and the calmness of nature. The real world becomes a distant place. Granted, I am not lucky enough to live somewhere warm year round, nor can I grow “legit” tropical plants in my garden all year. But I can grow tropical looking garden plants and treat the more tender ones as annuals. Doing this allows me to at least feel as if I’m lost in a tropical paradise. 

In 2018 I totally revamped my backyard gardening space. In the area just behind the greenhouse and nearest the woods, I put in a wildlife garden. Just for fun, I also created my own little rain garden next to it, but with a twist. My goal was to create an exotic jungle-like feel, a tropical paradise of sorts, but one that could handle the wonkiness of our NC weather, which while hot and humid in summer isn’t always accommodating to tropical-like plants in winter. This was the spot where I’d taken my son’s old truck liner (that he kept forgetting to haul off) and turned it into a lush garden bed. 

I punched holes throughout the liner for drainage before digging out the spot and sinking the liner halfway into the ground. Then I filled it with a mix of the excavated soil, sand and compost. I knew whenever it rained the plastic truck liner bed would remain quite moist, since the holes I’d added were small, making the water drain out more slowly. I incorporated a mix of plants that could handle the moisture as well as the part sun/part shade conditions. Mind you it doesn’t continually rain where I live, so the plants had to also tolerate drier conditions when necessary. No easy feat. 

Because some of the plants are treated as annuals in my hardiness zone, this little garden changes each year. And I’m always trying new things. The first year, and most memorable, there were colorful caladiums, elephant ears, toad lilies, cannas, and even big-leaved wild violets. Joe-pye weed, peacock orchid, tiger flower, and lady fern grow here. On the outside of this bed, you’ll find dwarf hardy banana, various irises and lilies. Sweet William enjoys this location and often reseeds. On occasion I’ve planted and enjoyed fancy looking spring bulbs, like parrot tulips. There’s hosta, coleus and spiderwort growing in this space. I planted a ZZ plant out there too, treating it as an annual. I have another I keep indoors. Once I actually had a volunteer tomato plant sprout up in this backyard paradise.

Tropical gardens are different for everyone depending on where you live and what you like. My little oasis changes from year to year, but its appeal always remains the same. And I still get lost in it every season.

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