ASK MARTHA: Fall in love with Tropicals

A thriving tropical garden is possible anywhere

Question: Hi Martha, I love the look and variety of tropicals but they seem difficult to grow. Are they?

Martha: Twenty years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that I would one day have a tropical garden. In fact, I was not at all interested. Tropicals (plants that grow naturally in a tropical climate) were just not on my radar. I was focused on my beloved scented geraniums, ivies, and topiaries.

Then something happened – I started visiting the tropical rooms in botanical gardens, and saw how fellow gardeners integrated them into their indoor and outdoor spaces. And since I’ve always been interested in propagation, I began reading books about the propagation of these unusual plants. A whole new world of plant material suddenly became much more interesting to me. Fast forward to today; I have now built an extensive collection of heat-loving, moisture-loving, and drought-tolerant plants.

A couple of things I’ve learned from my love affair with tropicals is that each genus of plant is typically extremely large and diverse. If you are contemplating a collection, it is essential to keep in mind the space you have available, and the size of the plants you desire. Most of the plants do come in smaller varieties, so you really can enjoy tropicals on any scale. I suggest a visit to a great tropical garden as I did - to learn more about these interesting and unique plants. Try the New York Botanical Garden; the Huntington Botanical Gardens, near Pasadena, California; Fairchild Tropical Gardens, in Miami; or the Ruth Bancroft Garden, in Walnut Creek, California. Or seek one out whenever you are traveling. 

I always look for unusual tropicals to bring home when I visit gardens and garden centers. I recently moved many of my favorite plants outdoors for the summer months. Here are a few ideas from my yard to enjoy! 

Arranging succulents in a triangle with the tall plants in back and the little ones in front, lets each plant show off its unique form and texture. (The large variegated opuntia in the last row is especially beautiful.) The composition also works from a distance, forming a dynamic display that’s visible from the house.

Many people are familiar with aloe vera, but the Aloe genus includes many other varieties with interesting leaf shapes and spine patterns. I love adding new ones to my collection. This Aloe peglerae, right, has modified spines and a wonderfully bumpy, thorny, frightening appearance.

I often plant several succulents in a single container. Aloe is underplanted with echeveria, right. Both are silvery-blue, so they work well together but stand out against the concrete planter.


Gardeners use the term succulent to describe any plant that evolved to withstand drought by storing water in its roots, stems, or leaves. The diverse group is made up of plant families from all the arid parts of the world. Growing a collection—or just one prized specimen—is relatively easy if you know the basics.


In warm climates, succulents can be planted in the ground or outdoors in pots year-round. Indoors, the best place for them is a sunny window or a greenhouse, planted in a fast-draining potting mix. Keep watering and fertilizing to a minimum, letting the soil dry between waterings.


Succulents tend to collect debris. You can clean them with dust remover spray for your computer, paint brushes, long tweezers, or even a vacuum cleaner, using the crevice attachment.


Most succulents are pest- and disease-free. But if they get mealybugs, wipe them with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol. If aphids appear, wash the plants with a focused stream of water. These methods will keep you from rubbing away the waxy bloom that gives some succulents their distinctive coloration.


To avoid getting pricked, display the plants away from high-traffic areas. Just because you can’t see the spines doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Some cacti have tiny, barbed spines that can bury themselves in your skin.


Once you get the specimens home, check to see if they need to be repotted. As a general rule, choose a pot that is one to two inches larger than its current container, and be sure there are holes in the bottom for good drainage. Use Miracle-Gro® Cactus, Palm & Citrus Potting Mix. This formula is fast-draining and includes sand and perlite to help create an optimal growing environment. The mix is also fortified with iron and plant food. Feed regularly with Miracle-Gro® Succulent Plant Food or Miracle-Gro® Tropical Houseplant Food, both available in an easy-to-apply instant feed liquid formula. 

Note: If you live in colder climates, as I do, be sure to consider winter storage when purchasing tropicals; most are happy indoors, with a warm, well-lit space away from cold drafts and heat vents. Since they are moisture-loving plants, a bathroom or laundry room is a good location.


Desert plants, which are acclimated to hot, dry climates, appear in an incredible range of shapes and textures. One thing they all have in common: a hint of silver in the foliage that deflects sunlight—a useful trait in the desert that also makes the plants attractive additions to a garden.

1. KALANCHOE THYRSIFLORA This succulent, also known as paddle plant, has big fleshy leaves that can grow six inches across. In cool temperatures, the red margins are more pronounced

2. AGAVE ‘SHARKSKIN’ Compared with other agaves, this one is virtually spineless. The leaves are very tough— almost woody, rather than fleshy.

3. ECHEVERIA ‘TOPSY TURVY’ The fleshy orange flowers bloom for months on end, even in the winter greenhouse. The cultivar owes its name to the slightly contorted leaves, which look as if they’re turning in on themselves.

4. DYCKIA ‘CHERRY COKE’ The dark- red color is unusual for Dyckia, which is often silver. The common name is sawblade, because of the razor-sharp spines on the leaf margins.

5. BISMARCKIA NOBILIS I bought my first of these palm trees at a plant auction at the New York Botanical Garden, and I’ve brought home many more since. I love the upright leaves and the play of light and shadow across them.

6. ALOE ‘ROOIKAPPIE’ This is another interesting variety of Aloe. It’s small— about a foot tall—and blooms prolifically in orange and yellow through fall.

Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.