Tropical garden design for courtyards & patios

Martyn Cox / 27 September 2011

Don’t despair if you have just downsized and inherited a tiny, uninspiring courtyard garden. The most unpromising of spaces can be given a new lease of life and it won’t cost you a fortune. Martyn Cox looks at simple ways you can transform a tiny space, whether you want a leafy jungle or a classic formal garden



A space full of lush plants can make a lovely private oasis, where you can escape the rays of the sun and relax in privacy under a leafy canopy. A jungle garden will look good all year round and even lift your spirits in the depths of winter, but remember, many of the plants suited to this style of garden require attention to thrive.

Jungle planting

When planting up a jungle-style courtyard, go for a mixture of large-leaved architectural plants, smaller specimens with vibrant foliage and tropical flowers. Hardy Japanese bananas (Musa basjoo), bamboo, loquat, Tetrapanax papyrifer 'Rex' and Fatsia japonica make a good backdrop for blousy canna lilies, crocosmia, ginger lily and red hot pokers (Kniphofia rooperi and K.caulescens are particularly eye-catching). Tree ferns, silver-leaved astelia and Chinese dwarf banana (Musa lasiocarpa) are excellent in a partially-shaded corner.

If you don’t have any borders, or if the courtyard is entirely paved over, add some raised beds – those made from sleepers suit a jungle-style garden. Alternatively, grow a selection of plants in pots, aiming to place lower-growing varieties beneath taller specimens. Even Gunnera manicata and other leafy giants of the plant world can be grown in pots, but they will need regularly trimming to prevent them from taking over and demand copious amounts of water.

Not all jungle-style plants are completely hardy, so be prepared to protect bananas, tree ferns and others with sheets of horticultural fleece and bubble wrap over winter. Raise all pots up on pot feet to allow excess water to drain away. Ginger lilies and cannas grown in pots are best kept on the dry side and placed in a frost-free place over winter.

Walls and fences

A quick way to give your garden a new look is by painting the fence. Mossy green shades are best, making an excellent backdrop for leafy plants and providing colour in winter.

Screw trellis panels, or add training wires, to both walls and fences and use these vertical structures to support plants. x Fatshedera lizei has huge glossy leaves, while jasmine or trachelospermum are treasured for their scented summer flowers. Muehlenbeckia is a twining climber with wiry stems and tiny leaves that will quickly clothe vertical structures.

Finishing touches

A barrel fountain, pebble fountain or a bubbling urn are perfect for bringing the relaxing sight and sound of water into your garden. These can be placed anywhere, but are ideal for adding interest to a dark corner where nothing seems to grow. Water features need an outdoor electricity supply - if there’s no socket, you’ll need to employ a qualified electrician to install one for you.

To make the most of your jungle garden, add some lights so you can continue to use it after dark. Low level lights can be placed in beds, while spotlights can pick out the shape of your favourite plants.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.