ARTICLE Jason Burgess

Tropical themed gardens are one of the most popular choices of backyard styles today and it is easy to see why. Stepping out into your own tropical oasis is like reliving that on-holiday feeling, every day. No packing, no airports, no jetlag.

When you think five-star resort you probably automatically default to Hawaii, Bali or Tahiti. No matter what your idea of a tropical idyll might be, taking a leaf from resort garden designs can serve you well in your own yard. Of course, you are probably not going to be growing coconut trees in most of New Zealand but the general layouts of resort gardens are worth considering. They work really well in setting the scene, conveying easy visual flow and providing spatial divisions. They also allow for the effortless transit of people and goods.

Tropical plants arranged around rocks in a beautiful backyard

Great garden plans begin at the entrance. In a tropical themed garden a formal path framed by raised garden beds with jungle plantings can provide a portal and transition zone from the madness of the outside world to the calm of your personal sanctuary. Spice up the street with fragrant frangipani, heavenly hibiscus, ornamental ginger or dramatic cannaillies. Offset the vivid colour with a screen of green, including palms, bamboo and ferns to provide seclusion from the road while set the luxuriant tones for the rest of your yard. 

In the right situations adding bamboo along a fence line can enhance privacy from above and also buffer wind while helping create a warmer microclimate within the garden. Raised beds provide visual and spatial contrast and help to contain the sometimes voracious, spread of some tropical flora -not to mention purposely-crowded plantings. In a tropical garden lush is an understatement. Multi-layered planting is the name of the game. Trees and shrubs of varying sizes spilling over tall grasses and ground covers in the lower levels, each plant in its completion for sunlight creating a cascade of dense foliage, colour and texture.

Bamboo fence with tropical plants enhancing privacy

Where entry space is limited a few strategically placed architectural plants in pots near or beside the front door or gate may be enough to hint at the Tropicana haven that lies beyond. A fern-like ceiling and dense green walls of foliage can supply urban gardens with privacy from all angles. Remember that unlike the tropics our winters can be long. Be careful not to shade out the sun and natural ambient light.

Always identify the centrepiece of your garden first. It could be a lawn, pool, entertainment area, children’s playground or even a mini-putt course. Once those areas are located, then start planning your pathways, bridges, boardwalks, floating decks, gazebos or arbors, garden beds and retaining. Create an illusion of space in tight areas by staggering the levels in your yard. This will provide more opportunities for intimate areas or play zones.

When it comes to planting, always think about how light and shade affects your area so you know where tall trees could work and how the garden as a whole can be maximized year-round. Plants should add life and harmony. Before digging in your blooms of choice, layer the soil with compost, leaf mould, garden clippings and mulch.

In this part of the world, many of our endemic sub-tropical species like karaka, nikau, tree ferns, pohutukawa, kohekohe and taraire can -with a bit of onward maintenance- be easily worked into an overall tropical garden design.

The list of tropical exotics is endless but take a look at a range of palms, orchids, cycads, gardenia, anterium, agaves, taro, sago palm, heliconias, impatiens, banana and variegated leaf plants like dwarf umbrella trees. A mix of any of these will remind of the wild colours, flamboyant foliage, structure and surreal leaf shapes of the tropics. 

Stairway in a garden with plants carefully set under each step

Plants should be chosen based on their size, shape and texture of their leaves. Tall plants first, then fill in with medium sized bushes and shrubs before completing the design with leafy bushes and ground covers. Garden designers often plant in odd number groupings (three, five, seven and nine), it gives a broad brushstroke of colour and texture. This can make a huge difference to the feel of the garden. Placing plants with contrasting foliage side-by-side adds drama and interest.

Bright-leafed bromeliads are great in clumps. They do not have to be planted as they pup quite nicely in pots and can also be attached to trees stumps or trunks too. Herbs and spices will smell fantastic in a tropical garden. Not only do they help deter pests, but they are safe for human consumption too! Try cardamom, kaffir lime, lemongrass, coriander and mint. These will grow well among tropical shrubs even in cool, moist spots.

Thatched roof cabanas, dark timber fences, retaining walls and furniture will provide a sense of warmth and calm. Day beds and loungers with bright coloured cushions are an invitation to chill out. Balinese lanterns and coloured feature garden lights will imbue the evening with a sultry after-hours mood.  Water features, wind chimes and the rustle of foliage in the wind, can provide subtle background ambience to lift the senses. 

Concrete screens and pavers, stone steps, ornamental carvings like Garuda’s, pagoda’s and Buddha’s make exotic focal points and a clean contrast to the overall jungle atmosphere. 

A tropical garden is by no means a maintenance free experience. Have a good pair of secateurs on hand for regular tidy ups of browning foliage, dead palm fronds and spent flower heads. Then lie back and take a sip of your daquiri.

Check out examples and find motivation in these Subtropical styled garden and A tropical garden landscape designs.


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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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