How to Grow an Obscure Tropical Plant in Your Backyard

How to Grow an Obscure Tropical Plant in Your Backyard

Introduction

Growing an obscure tropical plant in your backyard can be a fun and rewarding hobby. With some planning and preparation, you can create the right conditions for your tropical plant to thrive outside of its native climate.

While challenging, successfully growing a tropical plant allows you to enjoy unique and beautiful foliage, flowers, or fruit that you may not find at a local nursery. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to get started.

Choosing the Right Tropical Plant

The first step is picking the right tropical plant for your backyard. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Climate – Match the plant to your hardiness zone and sunlight conditions. Some tropicals require very warm temps year-round.

  • Size – Make sure the mature plant size will work for the space you have. Some tropical trees can reach over 50 feet tall.

  • Care difficulty – Opt for beginner-friendly plants if you’re new to tropical gardening. Slow-growing plants are also easier.

  • Fruit/flower interest – Select a tropical fruit tree or flowering plant that aligns with your gardening goals. Popular choices include citrus, banana, palm, hibiscus, orchid, etc.

  • Obscurity – Do your research to find a plant that is hard-to-find in your area so you can enjoy something unique. The rambutan and monstera are examples.

Ideally choose a plant that is obscure but still suited for a backyard environment. A rare tropical vine or shrub can be a good option. Consult reputable nurseries that specialize in tropical plants to discover new plant possibilities.

Providing the Right Growing Conditions

One of the main challenges of growing tropical plants is replicating the warm, humid environment they naturally grow in. Here are some key elements to get right:

Temperature

  • Many tropical plants require minimum temperatures between 60-70°F to thrive. Temperatures below 50°F can damage or kill the plant.

  • Use cold hardy cultivars selectively bred for cooler climates when possible. This expands your options.

  • Provide a microclimate with insulation, heating devices, or a greenhouse to maintain warmer temps around the plant.

Sunlight

  • Most tropical plants need high light conditions.

  • Ensure the plant gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Morning sun is best.

  • Adjust sunlight with shade cloth if the area gets intense afternoon sun. Filtered light is better than full shade.

Humidity

  • High humidity levels of 50-80% are ideal for tropical plants. Lower humidity can cause leaf browning and other issues.

  • Use a humidity tray, mist frequently, or install a humidifier nearby to increase the humidity surrounding the plant.

  • Avoid dry airflow from heaters, fans, and AC units that can dry the plant out.

Water

  • Tropical plants often require more frequent watering, such as 2-3 times per week, to stay moist.

  • Use well-draining soil and containers with drainage holes to prevent root rot from overwatering.

  • Adjust watering frequency based on container size, weather, and the plant’s needs. Check soil moisture before watering.

Wind Protection

  • Many large-leafed tropical plants are prone to wind damage, especially when young.

  • Build a sheltered garden area using fences, hedges, trellises, or walls to block strong winds.

  • Stake tall plants while they are small to prevent uprooting once they grow larger.

Soil

  • Rich, loamy potting mixes with added peat or compost provide good nutrition for tropical plants.

  • Soil pH between 5.5-7.0 often works well. Adjust based on the plant’s preference.

  • Re-pot into a larger container as the plant grows to allow the roots ample room.

Overwintering Tender Tropical Plants

One big challenge with tropical plants is protecting them through cold winters if you live in a cooler climate. Here are some overwintering techniques:

  • Move potted plants into a heated greenhouse or bright, south-facing indoor area before temperatures drop below 50°F.

  • For dormant plants, provide cool but frost-free storage around 40-50°F such as a basement or garage.

  • Small plants can be overwintered indoors under grow lights. Provide 14-16 hours of daily light.

  • Insulate the roots of in-ground plants with mulch and wrap or tent the foliage to protect from frost.

  • Take stem cuttings in late summer to propagate new plants for insurance. Discard if overwintering succeeds.

  • In very cold regions, treat tender tropicals as annuals and replant each spring. Store tubers, bulbs or rhizomes over winter.

With some preparation and experimentation, you can discover the right overwintering method for your tropical plant.

Common Pests and Diseases

Growing tropical plants in a drier backyard environment can make them more susceptible to certain pests and diseases. Here are some potential issues to watch for:

  • Spider mites – Tiny sucking insects that thrive in hot, dry conditions. Look for fine webbing and speckling damage on leaves.

  • Mealybugs – Cottony white sap-sucking insects that leave sticky residues on plants. Often found in leaf axils and new growth.

  • Scale insects – Immobile pests that attach to leaves and stems. Look for hard bumps or softened areas on plant tissue.

  • Bacterial and fungal leaf spot – Caused by overly wet foliage. Prevent by improving airflow and reducing water on leaves.

  • Root rot – Caused by overwatering. Allow soil to dry out between waterings and ensure pot drainage.

  • Sunburn – Caused by intense sunlight. Treat with shade cloth if leaf scorching occurs.

Routinely inspect plants for signs of pests and diseases. Remove insects by hand or use insecticidal soap. Improve cultural practices to avoid disease issues.

Fertilization

Tropical plants growing in containers require more frequent feeding:

  • Use a balanced liquid fertilizer monthly during the active growing season.

  • Switch to a fertilizer with more phosphorus in the fall to encourage root growth and flowering.

  • In winter, reduce feeding but provide light nutrition every 6-8 weeks if plant is actively growing.

  • Flush the soil monthly by watering thoroughly without fertilizer to prevent salt buildup.

  • Top dress containers with compost or worm castings 1-2 times per year for organic nutrition.

With the right fertilization schedule, you can keep your tropical plant healthy in a pot.

Enjoying the Fruits of Your Labor

If everything goes well, you’ll be rewarded with a thriving tropical plant and can enjoy:

  • Unique tropical flowers that add vibrant color to your garden.

  • Exotic fruits like guava, papaya, and lychee to harvest each season.

  • Large, architectural leaves and shapes. The banana plant is especially striking.

  • The satisfaction of successfully growing something rare and exotic.

  • A conversation piece and backdrop for outdoor entertainment.

  • Fragrance from tropical blooms like gardenia, jasmine, and plumeria.

Don’t get discouraged if your first attempt fails. Tropical gardening requires some trial and error. The effort is well worth it when your plant finally flourishes!

With the right plant selection and care, you can transport a little slice of the tropics to your own backyard. Happy growing!