Brian Minter: Big, Bold, Easy-Care Tropical Plants Can Transform Your Outdoor Living Room

Brian Minter offers some tips on how to brighten up your outdoor living room for the summer.

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Finally, we have warmer and more consistent summer weather, and maybe it’s time to ‘show off’ a little on our patios and balconies.

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So far, it hasn’t been the best year for annual color, but big, bold, and easy-care tropical plants can transform our outdoor living areas into spaces usually found only in warmer-weather getaways.

Bananas are perhaps the most popular outdoor drama queens. Fast growing green Musa basjoo is the safest bet for our region. Starting with a four to five foot plant, grown in a good sized container, you can expect a seven to eight foot specimen in just weeks, and its long, lush leaves will sway in the wind all summer long. and well into the fall. They are relatively inexpensive, easy to care for, and create a nice tropical theme in any yard.

The large, colorful leaves of Ensete maurelii will add a dramatic tropical touch to any patio.
The large, colorful leaves of Ensete maurelii will add a dramatic tropical touch to any patio. Photo of Minter Country Garden /jpg

Although much more tender, the burgundy red banana (Ensete maurelii) is a real eye-catcher. It also thrives in a warm sunny spot and makes quite a statement. Also fast growing, but much more compact, it’s ideal for smaller spaces as an impressive display or focal point.

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Once established, the tropical hibiscus will bloom steadily outdoors throughout the summer and well into fall. Larger forms of trees or shrubs need little care once they find a home in a sunny spot. Although their blooms last only a day or two (be sure to remove spent blooms), they constantly produce new buds for a continual floral display of vibrant red, orange, yellow, or pink blooms, setting the tone for a tropical-themed patio.

Native to the tropics of South America, the angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia suaveolens) isn’t seen as much these days. Extremely fast growing, a six to seven foot specimen can be grown in one season. The huge, hanging, floral trumpets produce a beautiful perfume. The most popular colors are yellow, peach, white and pink. They tend to flower in clusters, and are easily trained into tree forms for the most impressive displays. All parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, so it may not be the best plant if you have small children.

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Elephant ears are the newest “hot” outdoor plants. Botanically, they are known as colocasias or alocasias; I have yet to find an authority on tropical plants that can clearly explain why they have two different names. Native to tropical Asia, they are members of the taro family. Its two most prominent features are its very large, green, “elephant ear” leaves and the rich black foliage of many varieties, such as Black Magic. They all need warm summer temperatures to thrive outdoors, and should be placed out of strong winds to prevent leaf breakage.

Although we see them growing in full sun, they actually prefer a slightly shaded spot during the hottest summer weather. Like all of these tropical masterpieces, taros work best in a container on their own. The various varieties of taro are truly magnificent additions to our summer patios, and will also provide a wonderful display well into summer.

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The many varieties of citrus are some of the most beautifully scented plants to enjoy in our yards. From lemons and oranges to limes and grapefruit, they will provide a continuous supply of aromatic blooms all summer long. Citrus plants are very easy to care for as long as they are rooted, not over-watered, and fed with a citrus fertilizer, such as Evergreen and Citrus 30-10-10 from GardenPro. They are happiest outdoors in the yard from late spring to early fall.

When I travel to Europe, I see impressive laurel trees (Laurus nobilis) almost everywhere, both in gardens and on patios. Classified as a zone 7 plant, they can go out on the patio as early as March and stay there until November. The glossy, dark green leaves of these easy-care plants have that wonderful herbal ‘bay leaf’ scent used to flavor many of our meat and pasta dishes. Sweet bay trees are especially beautifully shaped as topiary forms.

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Fragrant eucalyptus, with its silvery-blue foliage, makes an attractive potted plant.
Fragrant eucalyptus, with its silvery-blue foliage, makes an attractive potted plant. Photo of Minter Country Garden /jpg

Some new patio favorites are the many types of eucalyptus. There are more than 600 varieties; all are native to Australia. The two most popular in our area are Cider Gum (E. gunnii) which is technically hardy to -12C to -15C and E. cinerea Silver Dollar which is hardy to -8C to -10C Its silvery blue foliage and their distinctive scent they are delightful additions to any patio. They grow so fast that they can easily be a source of cut branches for bouquets. When trimmed regularly, they can make an attractive container tree from late March through October.

All of these patio specimens are unique in appearance and, for the most part, are easy-care plants. The challenge with all of them is that they need winter protection, particularly when temperatures drop below 5C to 0C. Even hardy ones like sweet bay and eucalyptus have no root protection when planted in containers. We overwinter all of our tender plants in a cool greenhouse where we can keep the temperature above 5 to 8C.

This is much more difficult to do in a traditional home. The addition of a sunroom or small attached greenhouse would give you a new year-round extended living space, as well as a cold-weather storage area where these plants can add an abundance of beauty over a long winter season.

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