The garden is a place of escape from the everyday world of earning money and feeding the kids (or in my case, a pride of cats), and the exotic garden, with its otherworldliness, provides the best escape of all. Whether you are a fair-weather gardener or the type who will work in the garden all through the winter whatever the sky throws at you, this style of gardening is absorbing and innovative, as much experimentation is involved. You may not always be successful, but when you are, the results are astounding. There is also tremendous joy in growing something in your garden that isn’t supposed to be hardy! And for the exotic enthusiast, growing something different from the neighbours is irresistible.
There is something for everyone in this style of gardening, from those who require their gardens to look good year-round to those who want to make a big splash in summer with flamboyant bedding. This latter aim is particularly well suited to parts of the United States that have cold winters and hot summers, where most of the more tender exotics—such as cannas, gingers, and colocasias, to name only a few—can grow exceedingly quickly in one season, speedily knitting together and forming an impenetrable jungle of foliage and flowers. In this environment, the choicer plants are generally overwintered in a frost-free basement, cool-room, or garage.
In my view, for plants to be considered exotic, they have to dramatically improve or change their surroundings. Many of the plants will do just that; whether they are trees, shrubs, or exotic-looking annuals, they are all architectural in some way, through their shape, texture, or colour. They might have tropical-looking flowers, brightly coloured foliage, or huge leaves. They all give a very different feel from the more traditional cottage-garden lupins, roses, and summer-bedding geraniums (pelargoniums), and are far more exciting than a backyard full of grass!
The prevalence of gardening programs covering exotics in recent years has brought many new plants to the attention of gardeners. This combined with a veritable explosion of outlets selling exotic plants means it has never been easier to start an exotic garden. Whether your garden is large or small, you can always create a wonderful oasis that will please you and your plants. Exotics fit well in a variety of different contexts, so whether your garden is overshadowed by high buildings in a bustling city or nestled in open countryside, you will always be able to find exotic-looking plants that suit the site perfectly.
Much experimentation has been carried out over the last decade or so by individuals and dedicated nursery owners who have made new discoveries and improved the availability of many new exotic plants that will not only survive but also thrive in your garden. Numerous new hybrids and cultivars are becoming more readily available as well, greatly enlarging the number of accessible plants that will transform your garden or yard into a veritable paradise. There are countless trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, whether evergreen or deciduous, that although hardy still give a truly exotic feel to the garden.
The scope for planting is huge, ranging from a palm grove, consisting of the many different hardy palms that are now readily available, to a Victorian-style fernery with a rich tapestry of moist, lush greens planted under a forest of giant tree ferns, giving an almost prehistoric atmosphere. Or how about your own banana plantation with a palm-frond-thatched jungle hut or tree house, where you can overlook your own personal heaven with gin and tonic in hand? Then again, perhaps you have a penchant for a typical Mediterranean or California-style garden with architectural shapes and soft silvery planting, with lots of container and potted plants, and maybe a cooling waterfall to reflect the heat.
You might desire more spiky architectural plants that would give the garden structure and attitude, and thus you might use the more drought-resistant plants from the succulent and cactus world. These xerophytes can live for months without water, reveling in the searing heat of high summer. The plants required for this style of garden are often far hardier than might have been thought, seeing as many of them hail from desert areas that often freeze during the winter months. On the other hand, some gardeners will prefer a mainly green garden with plants that give a moist, lush feel. These could be plants that grow at high elevations in the tropics, where the nights can also be decidedly cool. The wonderful Brugmansia species and hybrids fit into this category well with their enormous, often highly scented flowers preferring cooler maritime summers.
Exotics bring a welcome note of surprise to a huge range of environments. A few days ago I was driving down a leafy suburban road that I had never traveled before, counting the plants that give an exotic appearance. One front garden in particular stood out like a beacon, having a large range of mature exotics of all sizes and forms almost bursting at the seams. It was a gravel garden stuffed to the gunnels, defiantly standing out from the mundane neighbouring gardens. What a sight!