You can't blame us for dreaming about tropical garden ideas. The thought of being surrounded by palms and oversized agave plants is enticing. Cocooned in a little world of giant leaves. Drink as tall as the afternoon is long. Perhaps the scent of bougainvillea. Certainly, the smell of vacations. Even if it's just the sunscreen.
And we're not alone in this fantasy. “Tropical forests have a sense of wonder and mystery about them,” notes the Miami-based architect Damir Sinovcic, principal of Miami-based Liquid Design and Architecture.
The lush abundance of a tropical garden instantly soothes the senses and offers escapism from the hustle and bustle. What's more, they are surprisingly versatile and offer up the potential for all sorts of garden rooms and creative solutions. And so, giving our modern garden ideas the feel of an island near the equator, here are just some of the possibilities.
Tropical garden ideas
1. Create a tropical oasis
A lush tropical jungle that has been given free rein might feel a little overwhelming. So here, the Florida-based fine artist-turned-landscape architect Craig Reynolds (opens in new tab) has created a clearing. It creates a space to appreciate some “open views and layered, tropical winding paths,” explains his coordinator Tamara Alvarez. These “help create quiet, contemplative areas for relaxation.”
To create the dramatic path, Reynolds laid Chicago red bricks, and planted mature foxtail palms, Philodendron Burle Marx and Weeks Hybrid, placing orchids in the trees to give a bit of seasonal color, as they bloom annually.
Meanwhile, specimen Silver Alcantarea bromeliad and black bamboo bring extra color and texture to the space. “The bamboo also works for privacy as it helps to disguise the main entrance into the garden,” adds Tamara.
2. Introduce water features
You might think you’d found paradise if you encountered a waterfall whilst walking through a tropical jungle. Well, the South Florida-based landscape architect and waterfall expert Matthew Giampietro (opens in new tab) regularly creates paradise for his private clients, and has designed and created more than 100 rock waterfall (opens in new tab) creations.
This Jacuzzi and water feature is located in the town of Lighthouse Point in South Florida. “Our goal was to enclose the entire backyard space with plants, and direct all of the attention onto the water feature,” Matthew explains, “so we planted dense layers of tropical vegetation surrounding the pool.”
He even created planting spaces in between the rocks, so that, he says, “The plants will creep and crawl throughout the entire water feature - this breaks up the amount of rocks visible which also helps to create a natural appearance.” No wonder this approach is one of the biggest garden trends we're seeing right now.
3. Apply a minimalist aesthetic
Tropical gardens might not be your first thought when thinking of minimalist design. But the Australian landscape design firm Stone Lotus Landscapes (opens in new tab) has succeeded in creating a lush, verdant space, and at the same time a calm, understated sanctuary with clean lines and a fresh vibe in this Sydney home.
“To achieve this look,” says Stone Lotus's Jessica Cheng, “we stick with natural materials like limestone paving and natural hardwood.” Don’t be afraid to let timbers gray off, she advises. “It’s a fine balance between trying not to complicate it with too many layers and finishes, but also keeping it interesting.”
White, of course - “a lot of it” - definitely helps to keep things “fresh and minimal, and brings that coastal vibe”, says Jessica, even in an urban garden. “It also always makes the lush tropical foliage really pop.”
Her tropical garden ideas included lots of lush, broadleaf varieties, Bangalow palms and elephant ears, “to get that tropical Hamptons vibe,” she says.
4. Bring a sense of serenity with global art
At this private garden in Miami, the architectural firm Liquid Design and Architecture (opens in new tab), which specializes in luxury residential design, wanted to give the space a “layered and global feel”, says its principal, Damir Sinovcic.
“We drew inspiration from local sources, as well as faraway places, to create a garden that belongs in Miami, but is informed by global culture,” he says. The firm imported statues and outdoor furniture from Bali, Tibet, and India. Antique carved-wood figurines of court musicians came from Hindustan, India, and bronze Buddha hands from Bali, which were both converted into door hardware.
As we've seen when talking about Japanese garden ideas, there are ways to take inspiration from other countries that are sympathetic. We are keen to avoid suggesting cultural appropriation, but supporting artisans around the world is an endeavor we're keen on. These religious and cultural artifacts from other tropical zones appear to belong perfectly here, whilst also lending a transporting sense of another far-off world, and creating a space for contemplative serenity.
To achieve a verdant, tropical forest, they planted both native plants, such as the Bursera Simaruba and gumbo limbo trees, and non-native species, such as specimen Coconut palms, Bamboo, and Plumeria. “Heliconias, ferns and vines were also added to give the garden a densely planted, jungle-like feel,” Damir explains.
5. Create a lush sensory garden
In this Nairobi garden, in the prestigious neighborhood of the old Lavington suburb, the New York City-based garden designer Wambui Ippolito (opens in new tab) has created a “soothing and dense ‘green garden’”.
It’s a space that Wambui, whose clients have included Martha Stewart and David Letterman, has brought to maturity over the years, in a purposely monochromatic way. In what is a largely shaded area, she used broad-leaved evergreen tropical plants to create “a very lush garden that does not need much maintenance”. And we are all about low maintenance gardens.
It is, she explains, “a garden focused on foliage texture as opposed to bright flowers - here, it is about soaking in green and not being distracted by color.” To build up the structure of the garden, Wambui’s foundational planting included Thaumatophyllum xanadu, Philodendron domestica, Monstera deliciosa and Cyperus papyrus.
It makes for a garden where nature reigns: “Nothing is jarring, frightening or off-balance,” Wambui says. “It’s a wonderful example of the type of garden that can be used for people with mental health issues and for neurodivergent children or adults.” A prime example of a sensory garden done well.
6. Create a space for outdoor dining
This is actually a Chickee Hut, a Floridan wooden-framed structure with a roof thatched with palms.
“They’re the perfect location for dining alfresco or for respite from the hot Florida sun,” explains Tamara Alvarez, co-ordinator for Key West-based Craig Reynolds Landscape Architecture (opens in new tab). The floor of the chickee hut is coral stone; an oolite bridge creates the entrance to the outdoor dining area. Beyond, it is surrounded by an ample koi pond.
“To help create a cool and relaxing space, the hut is surrounded by an expansive plant collection including thatch palms and a variety of bromeliads,” Tamara explains. “Dwarf papyrus and water lilies help provide the natural cover and shade for the koi, and a cascading oolite fountain creates peaceful, white noise and also aerates the pond to keep it clean and clear.” A tropical take on how to choose plants for your modern garden.
7. Install an outdoor shower among tropical plants
“We love outdoor showers,” says Jessica Cheng of the Australian landscape design firm Stone Lotus Landscapes. “Showers are such a versatile inclusion even if you don’t have a pool,” she adds. “You can use it if you’re coming back from the beach; kids like to play under them when it’s hot; and they’re great for cleaning dirty dogs (or kids) without taking the mess inside.”
In order to achieve this tropical escape in Sydney with a modern coastal resort look, as Jessica puts it, the Stone Lotus team planted “lots of lush broad leaf varieties such as elephant's ear, Bangalow Palms, Rhapis Palm and Ligularia”. Typically, showers are great for narrow gardens as they only need a space of about 2 square foot.
8. Create a natural staircase with rocks and vines
Tropical foliage is a perfect way to soften essential hardscaping. When the Bali-based architectural consultancy SHL Asia (opens in new tab) was tasked with designing the Natya Resort & Spa in Ubud, their chief challenge was navigating the steep valley on which the resort was to be built.
The solution was for the landscaping to follow the natural contours, and for the outdoor staircases to be made to look as naturalistic as possible. The retaining wall was clad in rocks that tonally matched the steps, making for a more organic, less jarring staircase.
Meanwhile, dangling red vines were trained to spill over the rocks to create an enchanting green tunnel for visitors en route to the site. Around the staircase were planted a range of tropical fruit trees and native plants commonly found in the surrounding area, including guava, banana, jackfruit and bilimbi, as well as highland trees and shrubs like fern trees and bird’s nest trees.
9. Add dark wood to the tropical vibe
“Dark wood tones reinforce the contemplative and jungle-like mood we set out to create in this project,” explains Damir Sinovcic of Liquid Design and Architecture (opens in new tab). “They also provide an excellent contrast to the bright green foliage, and help distinguish the built environment from the natural.”
The dark woods used here in this private Miami garden, which was once part of a subtropical coastal forest on a coral stone, enhances the cozy intimacy here, and is cohesive with the planting.
The wooden gates are actually modified antique doors salvaged from a 19th century pioneer-era home in Miami and are constructed of locally grown Cypress. The wood decking and paths are made from stained and treated lumber, so that it is able to withstand constant contact with moist ground.
“The rainy season in Florida spans from May to November so any wood used outside must be able to resist decay caused by constant exposure to water,” says Damir.
10. Plant a micro jungle
How to create a sense of abundance in a small garden? The challenge that founder of North State Gardens (opens in new tab) Matthew Erwin faced was that the garden of this vacation home on Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, was a very small space surrounded with wooden fencing and neighboring houses close by.
“In a small space, every plant has to contribute something interesting: color, size, texture, flowers, and so on,” says Matthew. We've been focusing recently on plants to avoid in a small garden, and Matthew advises using layers of height. “And don't be afraid to use large plants like the Banana Tree in small spaces.”
And in order to break up the view of houses next door and provide some privacy, Matthew used a lot of interesting varieties and varying sizes, textures, and colors of foliage, as well as some tall palms - key plants included cabbage palms, red banana trees, upright elephant ear, and Royal Purple.
What plants do I need for a tropical garden?
The plants you need for a tropical garden depend on your environment, explains Damir Sinovcic, principal of Miami-based Liquid Design and Architecture. And “the specific habitat requirements of each plant”.
But for your foundation, you want strong evergreens, he says. “Tropical gardens are primarily foliage-driven so evergreen plants with big, showy leaves become the main focus. For pops of color, he recommends flowering plants such as Heliconias, Gingers, Banana Palms and Birds of Paradise, and for adding height, particularly in smaller spaces, consider Traveler Palms, Coconuts and Bamboo.
All is not lost if you don’t have the climate for a tropical garden. The award-winning landscape designer and author Jan Johnsen (opens in new tab) recommends large-leafed ‘White Lava’ elephant ears, which can handle a cooler climate.
“Planted en masse, these bold and striking foliage plants take center stage,” she says. She also recommends Canna Lilies, with their large colorful leaves and eye-catching flowers. “They love warm weather and sun but are somewhat tolerant of partial shade.”
If you don’t have the space for a tropical garden, you could just pot them for your doorstep.
Fleur Britten is a well-respected journalist who for years was the Senior Features Editor at Sunday Times Style. She is known as one of the smartest lifestyle journalists around, revered for being able to decode trends and report on new zeitgeists as they happen. She now writes for the Telegraph, Livingetc, Vogue, The Times, Harper's Bazaar and the Guardian.
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