Yes, you can have a tropical-feeling garden in Alberta

While your neighbours are meticulously manicuring their sheet of lawn in the backyard, how does lounging in your own tropical-feeling garden sound? Capturing the essence of a tropical garden in our Zone 3 climate is achievable.

Understanding texture, scale and colour can help create a Caribbean paradise

This Edmonton garden has a tropical vibe by grouping pots of Zone 3 hardy bergenia, purple palace heuchera, ostrich fern, sea lavender and blue lyme grass. Annuals like canna lilies give an extra tropical vibe. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

This summer, CBC Edmonton's Tanara McLean is doing a special column focusing on gardening in our Zone 3 climate. Everything from knowing your planting zone, to ditching the lawn for a water-wise garden, she'll explain why certain garden practices will help you get the best out of your Zone 3 garden.

While your neighbours are meticulously manicuring their sheet of lawn in the backyard, how does lounging in your own tropical-feeling garden sound?

Capturing the essence of a tropical garden in our Zone 3 climate is achievable.

Here's a simple guide to adding a bit of Trinidadian relaxation to your home garden.

Mimic what a tropical garden looks like

Take note of what qualities tropical gardens have.

We're talking juicy, broad leaves that hang like umbrellas, multiple layers of different sized plants converging in a symphony of green, and dense plantings that make the boundaries disappear.

Once you get a good sense of the atmosphere you're trying to recreate, you can find hardy plants that have the same qualities.

Observing and mimicking the leaf shapes and growing habits of plants in a tropical garden can help create a similar feeling with cold hardy plants. (Daryl-iMagery/Shutterstock)

Pick plants that work together to create a tropical feel

How you group plants together will change the tone and atmosphere of your space. Although graceful daylilies look at home in a mixed cottage garden, the moment you group them with the broad leaves of ligularia and the juicy, flat leaves of hostas, daylilies transform into exotic beauties.

Think of it as plant collaboration: how they work together to create a feeling.

Despite being native to regions of China, Korea and Japan, daylilies have a distinctly tropical flair. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

Consider texture and leaf shape

Different leaf shapes and sizes will bring texture to your space.

A palm tree has has fat, pointy leaves that seem like bristly, oversized feathers. Pair that with something sturdy like a thick hosta that has a bit of delicate peach fuzz on the leaves, and toss in a fern with long arching fronds to the mix.

They all have different shapes and leaves, and even move differently in the breeze.

Contrasting leaf shapes of bergenia, heuchera, ferns, ornamental grasses and canna lilies add texture and interest to this garden. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

Plant in layers

A naturally tropical setting is packed with plants that grow at different heights.

Think about your garden as a multi-tiered cake from top to bottom. The top layer is the canopy of trees, the mid layer is made up of shrubs, climbing plants and taller plants, then you have an understory layer with short plants and ground covers.

When you fill each layer, you end up with a tapestry of greenery that makes the space feel full and enchanting.

Try growing things vertically in unexpected ways, like growing a clematis up a tree trunk or through a shrub, or covering your fence boundaries with a climber like Virginia creeper.

Virginia creeper is trailed up an arbour and outer fence boundaries in this Edmonton garden to create an illusion of dense foliage. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

Go big (and small) with scale

Tropical gardens create drama by varying plant sizes.

When you pair dramatically large plants with medium and small plants, you're setting a stage for plants to showcase how special they are because their qualities are being highlighted by their neighbours.

Consider putting a giant hosta variety like Sum and Substance in planter pots for a dramatic but tranquil effect.

And don't be shy to put big plants in your small space! This can actually make a small space feel larger.

Tanara McLean, our summer garden columnist, is here with some insight into how you can make a tropical garden using Zone 3 plants. 6:31

Don't underestimate green-on-green

The human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour!

Aim for various shades of green to create a light and dark contrast. This will help create depth, even if your garden is a tiny one-metre by two-metre balcony.

A symphony of green is a timeless look, but foliage colours like the burgundy of a heuchera, or the glaucous leaves of a silvery-blue hosta, add charm and interest.

Hot flower colours like red, orange and yellow immediately say tropical destination.

But why not add shots of purple, blue and pink? Your garden, your choice!

A symphony of green foliage is a timeless look. Here, bergenia, hostas, heuchera, ornamental grasses and ferns blend harmoniously. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

Zone 3 hardy plants for a tropical feel

Experiment and have fun with mixing plants for a tropical feel!

You can try these combinations, based on light conditions.

Sunny to partial sun location:

  • Daylilies and true lilies (Hemerocallis and Lilium)
  • Ligularia
  • Liatris (Liatris spicata or Liatris pycnostachya)
  • Bergenia (Bergenia crassifolia)
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
  • Guacamole hosta (plantain lily)
  • Orchid primrose (Primula vialii)

Partial shade to full shade:

  • Shield-leaf rodgersia (Astilboides tabularis)
  • Sum and substance hosta (plantain lily)
  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
  • Toad lily (Tricyrtis)
  • Creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)


Tanara McLean is an award-winning producer and journalist based at CBC Edmonton. She grew up in Red Deer and has spent her entire career in Alberta, working in print, radio and television.