Water gardens - BOLD VISIONS, GREAT DESIGNS - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Bold Visions, Great Designs

Subtropical style


An array of leafy plants, such as Paulownia, hardy bananas and Arbutus lend a subtropical air, while scarlet Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ adds floral zing to this exotic-style design.


FLAMBOYANT FOLIAGE, exotic colourful flowers and unfettered leafy lushness embody this style. The vogue for subtropical design has been propelled by the ease with which we can now visit inspiring new landscapes and emulate these exotic locations in our gardens at home.

Exotic inspirations

Subtropical-style gardens have long been celebrated in their native homelands, but they are increasingly becoming a possibility for many 21st century gardeners in cool climates, with cities providing the warmer microclimates needed for exotic plants to flourish. Relatively inexpensive air travel has also brought previously unattainable destinations to the masses, offering a wealth of inspiration. Drinking in the rich variety of landscapes and plants, and captivated by such unalloyed exoticism, we yearn for reminders at home, recreating far-flung landscapes either as entire gardens or a special element of the design. Creativity is only limited by the strength of your imagination.

Defining features of the subtropical style are large-leaved trees and shrubs, and brightly coloured flowers and foliage, which are combined to create jungle-like tapestries of shape, colour and texture. Water, in the form of limpid pools or noisy cascades, further enhances the desired ambience, with architectural structures, artefacts and ornaments helping to build the stage set. Sand, gravel and pebbles can be combined to create a beachside panorama, while grasses surrounded by leafy plantings suggest a forest clearing.

The influx of hardier plant selections from higher altitudes offers endless opportunity for enterprising gardeners to create something very different, yet more sustainable, in areas that suffer frosts. You can also infuse subtropical schemes with hardy plants that mimic those from warm, lush landscapes, such as the bold-leaved Fatsia japonica and many shrubby euphorbias. These evergreens offer year-round interest in gardens with an exotic theme, while hot-hued tender bedding plants illuminate them in summer. Subtropical-style designs are even possible in cold and windy sites, such as on roof gardens; designer Andy Sturgeon has used Cordyline, Phormium and tough grasses, including Miscanthus, on a London roof to convey the look.

Tropical traditions

The passion for exotic, tender plants dates back to the 19th century when species from warmer climates were first brought back to Europe. New technologies, including the invention of plate glass in the 1840s, fuelled interest in these plants and professional plant collectors were despatched to discover rare new orchids and other exotics to decorate the glass palaces that were being built at that time. Although many were thought to be tender when first cultivated, experiment and experience showed some to be hardy in Britain, or at least hardy enough to be placed outside for the summer. The first subtropical garden in the UK was built in London’s Battersea Park by John Gibson in 1863. Gibson had previously been sent out to India to look for exotic novelties by the 3rd Duke of Devonshire and his then head gardener, Joseph Paxton. Entranced by what he saw, Gibson sought to create a subtropical display back home, assembling all manner of tender plants to form massed displays and weaving bedding plants into intricate mosaics, known as ‘carpet bedding’, a style which was then copied in parks and gardens throughout the land. Battersea’s subtropical garden continued to enthrall visitors until World War II, but then fell into decline; friends of the Park revived the feature in 1994 and the restored garden is now open to the public.

Contemporary styling

The subtropical garden style has survived in various forms over the years, but has largely declined in public places due to the lack of professional staff to develop and maintain the displays and sweeping cuts to parks’ budgets. However, interest is still strong in private gardens, fuelled by the wide availability of ‘exotic’ plants, such as palms and evergreen trees and shrubs.

Carpet bedding has largely fallen out of fashion and has been superseded by a more naturalistic style that echoes wild and cultivated subtropical landscapes. Designers and home-owners have also taken advantage of the hardier forms of tender plants that are being introduced from previously unexplored areas, such as Northern Vietnam and Taiwan. These more durable plants, including hardy palms, such as Trachycarpus, shrubby trees like Tetrapanax, tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), and spiky succulents, including Agave, have opened up exciting new design possibilities, particularly in urban and coastal areas that enjoy milder winters. Inspiration can be gleaned from publically accessible gardens, such as Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens in Dorset, Will Giles’ remarkable Exotic Garden in Norfolk, and, the most famous example of all, Tresco Abbey Garden on the Isles of Scilly.

Dressing the set

While plants provide the ambience, buildings, furnishings and artefacts can reinforce the character of the subtropical style. You can create an eclectic look with elements from a variety of sources, or opt for a more carefully researched approach to create a colonial or more culturally indigenous theme. Many off-the-peg garden buildings with a verandah, railings, and either a tin shingle or thatched roof, are ideal for a colonial look. Or, if your budget will stretch, why not go for bespoke architecture, such as a Thai dwelling on stilts? Dressing the set with appropriate artefacts will create a design that exudes charm. A beach-hut setting with a tin sheet or thatched roof, complete with typical objets trouvés, will lend bags of atmosphere, or simply include a few colourful soft furnishings coupled with modern furniture and tropical-style umbrellas to transform the commonplace into a subtropical paradise.


The trick to creating a successful subtropical planting scheme in a less than favourable location is to identify an ideal microclimate, or an area where one can be successfully created. A ‘microclimate’ is a zone where the conditions differ from the general climatic characteristics and, in terms of subtropical planting, this may be an area of increased warmth, moisture or shelter. South or west-facing aspects are usually warmer than sites that face east or north, which are cool and exposed, and only suitable for durable, shade-tolerant plants. Some tender plants’ ability to survive can be determined by an increase of just one or two degrees, so placing them in a slightly warmer site can make all the difference. You can also grow plants from drier climates, such as succulents and bulbs, in areas that experience low air temperatures, if their rootstocks are not saturated by cold winter rain.

There are many ways to improve your conditions and widen your plant choice. Try erecting walls and fences to trap warm air; brick walls also radiate heat and raise the temperature further. Or plant hedgerows or groups of trees and shrubs along exposed boundaries to provide shelter, and if you have heavy clay soil, plant exotics in raised beds filled with free-draining soil mixed with horticultural grit. Whatever your conditions, there are subtropical-style plants to suit; your designer or plant supplier will be able to advise you further.


Denise Cadwallader’s contemporary exotic-themed garden


A Mediterranean retreat is enlivened by colourful perennials and drought-tolerant shrubs, succulents and citrus trees.



This secretive trail comprises leafy, shade-loving Fatsia, bamboos and tree ferns, and woodland perennials.




A tropical-style garden

The design brief for this garden was to exploit the 50m x 25m (165ft x 82ft) sloping site behind a modest brick house in southern England, creating two functional spaces: one for dining, the other for entertaining and sunbathing. The seating area was also designed to offer views of a stream that runs along the edge of the slope. The original garden comprised a lawn with fringing borders and crumbling stone retaining walls. The solution was to create decked and paved terraces, supported by serpentine retaining walls, with a lawn below leading to a board walk beside the stream. The subtropical planting includes chusan palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), Miscanthus floridulus grasses, and a range of bamboos and spiky phormiums. Hummocks of box and Hebe rakaiensis spill over the timber decking, while red-hot pokers and the daylily Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’ provide floral highlights.


Debbie Roberts and Ian Smith both trained in Landscape Architecture at Leeds University but elected to focus on garden design, forming Acres Wild in 1988. Most of their award-winning designs are for gardens in country settings, but they also work in other styles and situations. Their design philosophy is to integrate the house with the garden, creating a strong underlying structure softened with naturalistic planting. Based in Sussex, their work includes projects in the UK, Europe, and the United States.



1 Weatherworn decking

Naturally weathered boards create the impression of an abandoned ‘forgotten world’ and provide a foil for the planting.

2 Casual furniture

Rustic hardwood furniture and a calico parasol create a beach-side atmosphere, while fixed benches define the patio edge.

3 Encroaching jungle

Mass plantings of trees, bamboos and leafy shrubs merge the garden with the neighbouring properties behind, creating the impression of an encroaching jungle.

4 Exotic-style planting

Hardy, yet exotic-looking plants, such as Trachycarpus and Chamaerops palms, Phormium and Kniphofia lend a flamboyant look.

5 Effective edging

The undulating, mounding habit of the evergreen shrub Hebe rakaiensis makes it ideal for hiding the edges of timber steps.