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Tropical Plants for Not-So-Tropical Landscapes

Tropical plants like palms are a great plant to add to your landscape or planters this summer. km406 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Most of the plants that gardeners grow as houseplants or as centerpieces in summer pots are in-ground plants in their tropical homelands. Crotons, umbrella plants, poinsettias, and the like are species that happily grow year-round in landscapes where temperatures never go below freezing. They'll tolerate potted conditions in a Minnesota living room, but no plant is native to the inside of a house.

The seldom-known good news for cold-weather gardeners is that most houseplants and tender potted plants do just fine when planted in garden beds during the frost-free season. Most even prefer taking a "summer vacation" in the warm, humid outdoors with "real" soil around their roots.

For much of the United States, tropicals can grow outside in the ground for at least five months (May through September) and maybe up to seven months (April through October). Then it’s possible to dig and pot the tender plants before frost hits and grow them inside through winter before recycling them into another round of in-ground duty next summer. Many of these plants add showy textures and forms, colorful leaves, and something different to a non-tropical yard.

Chanticleer agaves

Planted blue-leafed agaves give a summertime tropical flair to this Teacup Garden at Chanticleer in Pennsylvania. Photo by George Weigel

A few tips

Keep these tips in mind when using "houseplants" in the landscape:

  • Most will die with even a brief period of sub-freezing temperatures, such as during a surprise overnight late-spring frost or when that first fall frost sneaks in early. Be sure to monitor the temperatures in your area to avoid your tropical plants coming into contact with any freezing temperatures.
  • Some tropicals suffer leaf damage even when temperatures dip into the low 40s. Give yourself plenty of buffer and watch those overnight forecasts.
  • Before moving an in-ground tropical back into the house, hose off or spray the plant after digging and potting so you don’t take bugs inside.
  • Be careful about light. Even a tropical that prefers full sun can wash out in color or drop leaves if it goes directly from inside to full sun outside.
  • To head off damage, acclimate the plant to increasing outside light over a seven- to 10-day period or, preferably, plant it outside in the shade or partial shade.
  • If you’d rather not unpot and plant tropicals, you can plant the pot into the soil. The roots won’t flourish as well, but it’ll cut down on how often you have to water compared to growing tropicals in an above-ground deck or porch pot.

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