How to Design a Tropical Landscape

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To create a tropical paradise in your garden, you need to design hardscape (permanent features) and softscape (plant material) features that will create the feel of the tropics. Here are some suggestions on how to achieve that design even in climates that are very different than the tropics.

If you live in an area that is definitely NOT tropical looking, I would suggest you create this style landscape in an area visually sectioned off by solid or heavily planted walls. Otherwise, your landscape will look jarring with the surrounding environment.

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HARDSCAPE: Ideally you can work a swimming pool or a smaller water feature like a pond or riverbed into your landscape. If not, consider adding a water element with a fountain or a pond-less waterfall. The same effect can be achieved on very different budgets so long as the sense of tropical water paradise is involved. You might also want to add a thatched hut for a bar or a meandering path of stone or other natural material.

MATERIALS: Use materials that make you think of warm, balmy climates. Lashed bamboo, thatching and rough wood work well. Boulders and rounded stone or gravel blend in nicely, too. A polished wood can also say ‘tropical’ in a more contemporary design.

SOFTSCAPE: Plants with large, broad leaves read as tropical plants even if they aren’t tropical at all. Some examples of plants that offer this effect yet can handle temperatures down to freezing — and some to well below freezing — are canna lilies, Hostas, Bear’s breeches (Acanthus), many bamboos, ferns and palms. Hanging trees, branches and fronds help to create a jungle feeling. Planting gardens closely so they grow thick and lush will also make your garden look tropical.

DECOR: Use palm screens and decorative fences made of cane, tikis and other Hawaiian or Indonesian sculptures, and light a path with torches. Hang or lay outdoor bamboo rugs and furniture. Dangle some wind chimes. You can add all kinds of fun accents to your theme.

How to Design a Tropical Landscape

Tropical designs can be contemporary, jungle-like, or look ancient. Make sure your garden is designed so you can fertilize, mulch and water a lot. Hopefully, you will not decide to create a tropical garden if you live in a dry area where maintenance will be an uphill battle and bad for both the ecology and your utility bills. There are some other wonderful design choices that might blend better.

If you live where you really want to build a tropical garden, but the upkeep will be too demanding, consider dedicating a small area to the effect. You can create just an oasis if you keep it in a walled-off area on a patio or outdoor room.

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Tropical gardens transport us to our own island paradise. You can build one for yourself. Hopefully, some of these design guidelines will help make yours successful!

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