Garden design trend brings a touch of the tropics

by Len Lear
Posted 7/13/23

This summer, area landscape designers aren’t just sticking to what’s local. 

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Garden design trend brings a touch of the tropics


This summer, area landscape designers aren’t just sticking to what’s local. 

Tropicals such as palms, crotons, cannas, hibiscus and birds of paradise are coming into vogue – either as companions to hardier plants or for tropical beds on their own, according to Susan Galka, of Romancing The Garden landscape design firm in Wyncote.

“They’re a bold and delightful surprise alongside the bountiful palette of what will grow in the Philadelphia area,” said Galka, who has been serving customers for 27 years. “Some years ago, a wonderful client who has since passed away insisted upon banana trees amidst her more formal plantings.”

Though growing tropical plants in containers is a definite trend, Galka said, incorporating them into local gardens is not so commonly done. 

You can risk trying to keep some of these warmer weather plants outside through the winter, she said, while others you can’t. 

“Due to the changing climate, crape myrtles, some varieties of hardy gardenia, camellias, edgeworthias, bananas and other choice southern plants may now survive our winters,” she said. Cannas, elephant ears and angel trumpet trees can be brought into the garage or basement to overwinter after several applications of insecticidal soap. Other tropicals can be potted to enjoy inside during the gray months, when color and the fragrance of summer are in short supply.”

Galka has been a lifelong gardener since growing up with her parents and grandmother at her childhood home in Connecticut. 

“The passion runs deep,” Galka said. “I grew up gardening through my earlier life, and then later at home with my children and in volunteer activities. My parents were amazing gardeners, and my grandmother, who passed away two years ago, was gardening until she was 97.”

When Galka and her family moved from Chicago to Philadelphia in 1996, she had no intention of starting her own company. 

“When my children were old enough, I thought to start a nursery of rare plants, and a friend of mine here held a reception where a ‘friend of a friend’ of ours came,” she said. “They asked if I could possibly landscape their property, and I said of course, and that’s how it started. Word-of-mouth did the rest.”

Some local projects that Galka's company has maintained for years include the Chestnut Hill Hotel and Market at the Fareway, where her eye-catching designs won a Philadelphia Horticultural Society award for their beauty. 

One unnamed Chestnut Hill Hotel guest is quoted on their website as saying, “Your gardens (near the hotel) are lovely, clearly the result of great efforts and thought. You have a wonderful gift. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.”

According to Galka, “It helps that Ron Pete (owner of the Chestnut Hill Hotel and Market at the Fareway) is the best person to work with. His vision was to have a space that would bring people together, and it has become a vibrant community meeting space.”

Beyond designing garden ideas from scratch, Galka is often required to solve long-standing problems in other older properties. 

“One of our clients had a very difficult backyard in terms of drainage,” she said. “It drained to the center from all other points of the yard, so we worked on grading and developing rain gardens to collect the water and making it into a beautiful woodland garden.”

Galka said that some pandemic-related problems remain in her business, but others have improved significantly. 

“Supply chain problems with getting plant materials have improved greatly,” she said, “It is still very hard to hire staff people. I am fortunate because even though I have a smaller crew, they are really great workers. 

“But the greatest thing about this business is building long-term relationships with our clients,” she said. “There is such a joy in shepherding these outdoor designs.” 

Sam Frost contributed to this article. For more information, visit Len Lear can be reached at