Catherine StewartHow to make a temperate climate tropical garden

‘Tropical Breeze’ has been a labour of love for Helen Curran for many years. Tucked away in north-western Sydney, it is an oasis of both calm and tropical abundance where neighbours and a busy road outside seem far away. And also this area’s climate is not at all tropical – in summer it’s hot and dry and will often hit over 40 degrees C, and in winter it can have many frosty nights. So how has Helen created this remarkable garden?

Tropical Breeze2

First is the need to create canopy, and many quick-growing palms were planted to establish the dappled shade usually favoured by tropical and subtropical plants. Now, Helen and Neil are gradually thinning this palm canopy, planting beautiful flowering tropical trees instead.

Second is the exclusion of the cold air that slides down into hollows during winter nights. Spreading, leafy shrubs, close planting and never cutting plants back before warmer spring weather helps them all through the winter.

Tropical Breeze20

Disguise the boundary fence with bamboo cladding


Third – to create the illusion of a tropical oasis, you need to disguise your boundaries with thick planting and fence-hiding screens.

Fourth, and this is something that Helen has developed over the years as she’s experimented with hundreds of plants, is making plant pictures. Although she knows and loves each one of her plants for itself, Helen never loses sight of the all-important way that they combine, putting together forms, colours and leaf textures to make wonderful pictures.

Just one of Helen’s wonderful ‘plant pictures’


Fifth – Helen knows that to hold interest in a garden, you need to have both ‘big picture’ wow, and small details as you move about. Everywhere you look, there are small plants that, when examined at close quarters, seem as if they’ve been hand-decorated. Do you know many suburban gardens that hold well over an hour of interest?

Use beautifully patterned leaves for close-up detail


Sixth – Helen and Neil use the exquisite, fine detail of top quality Balinese carving to embellish their garden. The white stone is the ideal contrast to both richly coloured foliage and dappled shade.

An exquisite-carved Balinese sculpture


Lastly, Helen is willing to take risks with her plant choices. Many of her latest favourites have come from nurseries in truly tropical Darwin. She is constantly surprised at people who say you can’t grow tropical plants in Sydney. Tough Darwin-bred plants get through both a long dry and a long wet season and, if you’ve created a good microclimate for them, they are quite likely to succeed.

Apart from bromeliads, cordylines, coleus and crotons, many of Helen’s favourite plants come from the Acanthaceae family, including Graptophyllum, Justicia, Strobilanthes, Hypoestes, Hemigraphis, Crossandra, Ruellia, Pseudoantherum, Fittonia, Megaskepasma, Barleria and Brillantasia.

Click on any photo to see a larger image slideshow. You can also click the photos in the slideshow (top right corner) to see a full-size version.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

12 thoughts on “How to make a temperate climate tropical garden

  1. I got to check this garden out a few weeks ago. So many tropical and subtropical plants growing exceptionally well in Sydney.
    Getting that multi-layered storey growing has greatly helped protect the sensitive plants. However, it was surprising to see so many of these plants also planted at the Sydney Botanic Gardens which shows how tough these plants really are 🙂

  2. This is a beautiful and inspiring garden which appears to be covering a huge area but I wonder if it is a normal sized block? Also ‘many years’ is how many? Is the garden as light filled as it appears?

  3. Hi Phileppa, yes this is a normal size block; it is around 670sqm. How many is ‘many years’ is a difficult question to answer as we gradually started the change to ‘tropical’ area by area. The palms were first planted in the pool area back in 1997/98; then every second year we planted palms in the next section of the back garden. The plants growing in the understorey have been gradually added each year since then. To give you an indication of the age of some of the plants, I can tell you that the Crotons in the sixth photo down in the middle column and the fifth photo down in the column on the right have been growing there for 10 years. The light in the garden does vary slightly from area to area, overall the garden has filtered sun to light shade.

  4. Hi.
    I would love a tropical garden around my pool but thought it wasn’t possible due to the occasional frost we get. I understand the need for a canopy, but where to start? What palms do you recommend? Are there other plants besides palms that would make a suitable canopy?

    • Hi Margaret, the wood structure is our Pavilion. It is the perfect place to just sit, relax and enjoy the garden. We also have the BBQ in there.

  5. Hello Helen,
    I have a similar garden in inner city Melbourne believe it or not!
    I am interested to know the names of the nurseries that you deal with as I am always on the look out for more suppliers.
    Your garden is beautiful…by the way!


    • Hi Jo, Sorry to take so long to reply but we have been away. The two main mail order places for tropical plants that I have used are
      El Arish Tropical Exotics in far north Queensland and Paradise Distributors in Queensland.
      I do know that Palms for Brisbane will send a box of plants down to Sydney but I don’t know if they would send to Melbourne.
      There are some good sellers, with unusual or hard to find tropical plants, on Ebay that I have bought from.
      The only other way is to go on a plant buying holiday in a large car which is what we do each spring.

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