How I Keep Tropical/Desert Plants in a Cold Climate Location

Like a lot of you out there, I am kind of obsessed with warmer climate plants and succulents. Take me out to the desert or a tropical location and I’ll just be making mental notes of which plants I wish I could be growing in my yard back home. For a while, I kind of resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to stick with what plants are zoned for our particular climate (one that gets cold in the winter). But over the years, I’ve gathered a few tricks to be able to have some tropical/desert plants outside at my own home, and I’ll tell you what they are!

Find out if there are cold-hardy plants that can survive a winter in your area (you may be surprised): I didn’t realize that banana leaf trees could survive a Tennessee winter until I started seeing them around town and asked a local plant nursery about them. We also found that there are a few Tennessee native cacti species (pictured above) that can live through winter as well, so I got my hands on a few cacti paddles from a local nursery and have had to be patient while they grow (I guess those aren’t usually for sale full grown or they would be super expensive if they were). So there may be some plants that kind of die and come back each year in the spring that you can plant outdoors, and others may not be guaranteed but have a chance of coming back based on how cold it gets (those are a little more of a gamble but it pays off if they survive). Check with a local nursery to see what tropical/desert options you may have where you live!

Take note of special care instructions for desert/tropical plants: Sometimes these special plants need some extra care, so make sure to ask if there’s anything you need to do to “winterize” outdoor plants. For the banana leaf trees, you do need to do a couple of extra steps like cutting down the tree trunk before winter hits about 1 foot off the ground (and at an angle so the inside juices will drain out) and build a little mound of mulch or dirt around the base to help keep it warm (most plants will benefit from that step in the winter). It looks sad in the cold months but it will grow back fast once the warm weather starts. You can go from nothing to a tree about 6 feet high in only two months once spring hits—it’s crazy! Make sure to note if they need soil and rocks underneath them for good drainage too (I lost a full cactus crop by not knowing about that and had to start all over the next year).

Search for cold-hardy lookalike plants if what you want won’t survive: There may be some plants that won’t do well in your area in winter, but may have other similar looking plants that give you the same vibe. For example, agave won’t survive a Tennessee winter, but yuccas will and if you get the right variety, they look really similar and can totally give off a desert vibe and keep themselves alive each year.

Consider potted plants that can ride out winter indoors: An easy way to keep warm weather plants around is by leaving them in planters and then simply bringing them inside once the temperature drops too low outdoors. I always have a lot of plants inside during the winter for just that reason, and then once it warms up again, back outside they go! You’ll still want to keep in mind that these kinds of plants usually need as much light as you can give them, so if that’s the case, try and keep them in a sunny spot in your house to keep them happy and then gradually move them into more and more direct sunlight outside once the weather is warm enough.

And for the truly dedicated, plant what you want and dig it up each year: This may be a bit too much for some of you, but I really wanted to plant something that would compliment our outdoor Palm Springs vibes in my raised beds near our porch. But there’s no sun in that spot, so I was having a tough time figuring out what to plant. Things like ferns were the only thing I could find that were happy in the shade, but I’m just not a fern person—they just aren’t my vibe, so they were empty for a while. I knew that sansevierias (a.k.a. snake plants, a.k.a. mother-in-law tongue plants) would be happy in the shade, but they wouldn’t survive the winter. So I asked the local nursery if I could just buy a bunch of sansevierias and pull them apart to spread them throughout the bed for the spring/summer/fall, and then just pull them all out again and put them in planters inside for the winter. He said he didn’t see why that wouldn’t work as long as I didn’t mind the extra effort, and 10 seconds later my cart was full of plants. It totally works!

I will admit that I have a lot of sansevierias in my home in the winter, but it’s hard for me to feel like I have too many plants, so I’m totally fine with it. Now, not every plant may be able to handle being moved around like that (sansevierias are notoriously pretty tough), but if it can handle it, then you may be able to get away with it too! We also have a 10-foot tall cactus next to our porch that started out 3 feet tall about 4 years ago, and every year we plant him outside by our porch and then dig up his root ball and bring him inside to winter. You definitely want some thick leather gloves when dealing with that bad boy, but it works and he makes us so happy to see outside!

Treat some plants as “annuals”: OK, this category is for a plant that you want that won’t survive outside or inside over the winter. Bismarck palms are in this category for me as they do great outside over the summer, but just don’t get enough light in my house to survive indoors, and it’s too cold for them outside. Generally, I’ll just bring them in once it gets cold and enjoy them until they die and then get new ones once spring has sprung. If you’re on a budget, I would only do more economical choices or bigger special plants in this category and try and get other choices that will survive outside over the winter or will be happy indoors and still be alive when spring comes.

Just a note that to each his own, but I don’t suggest getting the types of cactus that have all the super fine prickles that are impossible to get out of your skin if you plan on moving them around all the time. I usually only get spineless cactus or ones with the more obvious thicker thorns as I don’t mind getting poked by those (at least they don’t disappear into your skin and bother you for days), but you really don’t want to deal with tiny furry prickles and move them around a lot. Ouch.

If you love the look of a tropical or desert landscape but didn’t think you could have that outside where you live, I hope this has given you some ideas for creating your dream plant space! Happy planting! xo. Laura

Credits//Author and Photography: Laura Gummerman. Photos edited with A Color Story Desktop.
  • I have a cinder block wall with a few flower bricks here and there — like the ones on the first picture of website of tropical desert plants. My wall has never been painted and wanted to paint it white, or acid stain? What color did you paint? What finish? thank you so much.

  • I live in Florida and have this problem in reverse. I love all the plants that grow in more north ern states through the spring, summer, and winter. They are all too delicate for the scorching Florida sun.

  • You have a truly green thumb and a great taste to create such a beautiful landscape design.

  • It’s important to note for for folks that live in Northern Climates that you’ll want to purchase Musa Basjoo (aka the Cold Hardy Banana), not a regular banana plant (Musa acuminata)(zones 9 and 10 only). You likely won’t get any fruit from the ornamental version but it’s been cultivated in japan for ages and can stand cold temperatures with proper over-wintering techniques. I live in Seattle and it grows well here. But you’ll be disappointed if you spring for the regular banana version. 🙂

    • Yes, good thought! I got the kind of banana plant that local nurseries sell so I assumed they were selling the right on for this climate. We did get some bananas last year but they were tiny and never really ripened here…


  • I don’t think I’d actually be ambitious enough to be up for this, but I so enjoyed reading about it! Thank you for sharing!

  • Ha! This post was super useful, having struggled to keep some of mines alive during colder months!

  • This is perfect, thank you! I have the same taste in plants as you, Laura. I’m in Michigan which is a much different climate than Tennessee, but we still have varieties of prickly pear and other succulents that will survive a northern winter outdoors. I have a few tropical plants that I bring indoors every year and they definitely start to whither away in desperation around Feb-March (we can’t bring our plants outside until May), but the summer really revitalizes them before I bring them in again for another winter. I have a prickly pear I grabbed from a random roadside bush in Florida a few years ago and I can’t believe how well it grows both indoors and out – I just can’t kill this thing. My husband can barely move the pot anymore, it’s so huge. Do you have any cactus glove recommendations?

    • For cactus moving I would suggest the thickest leather work gloves that you can find! That’s what usually works best for me 🙂


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