How to Design a Getaway Garden

Want to recreate your favorite vacation spot?  Here's how to design a tropical vacation retreat wherever you live, be it zone 5 or zone 9! By picking appropriate plants, borrowing from tropical cultures, and by captivating all of those senses, you'll be able to pass up those plane tickets for a peaceful backyard getaway.  How's that for 'living local'?

Push Away the Daisies! 
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with daisies, but if you're going to create an illusion of Bali or the Yucatan, you'll need to ditch the daisies and any other flower that would look out of place in the tropics.  Instead of planning traditional 'paint by number' flower beds, use solid masses of foliage to let plants from the region stand out and take center stage! 

Use bright colors set against lush greenery, especially the iconic tropical ones like hibiscus, orchids, and heliconias.  The large and architectural leaves of palms, bananas and alocasias are also a must, since they instantly transform any space into a tropical garden.

Look to the East... or West.
To make a convincing tropical garden, you'll have to set the stage a little.  Make your own 'theme garden' and stick with plants from a certain area!  For example, wouldn't it be neat to design a tropical Japanese garden? 

You could use the same plants from a temperate Japanese garden, but add tropical plants from southern Japan as focal points!  For example, Japanese birds nest fern, loquat, arenga engleri (dwarf sugar palm), and lady palm would be great tropicals from Japan to use.  Maybe you could even showcase a little Samurai Orchid in a Japanese pot, or grow a banyan bonsai!

Proper Culture
To create a convincing tropical garden, you'll need more than just plants.  You'll need to add the human element too, in the form of hardscaping, accessories, pots, art, and garden architecture.  For the aforementioned Japanese tropical look, it would be important to keep a simple and minimal design in keeping with a zen Buddhist mentality.  Only then should you break out the stone lanterns! 

Want your own spa?  Make an outdoor shower worthy of a Balinese spa by laying pavers through river stones, setting up a teak stool, and using a folding bamboo screen to add a little privacy!  Plant a lady palm or birds nest fern in the stones to really make it feel like you're showering in the jungle! 

Engage the Senses
Imagine a dinner party in your tropical theme garden.  Your guests would seat themselves at a dark stained table, taking in the amazing sights of your private resort.  As they gaze at the bromeliad centerpiece, scents of jasmine and plumeria would waft into the dining area, enhancing the other worldly experience. 

Your guest's nerves would be soothed by the gurgling fountain... by the chirping birds and bleating treefrogs that use your garden as a retreat from the city.  Maybe you'd even be playing some samba or bollywood music in the background to add another level of realism to the charade!  The great thing about incorporating great sounds into your outdoor room, is that they also mask the noises of city life, keeping you in your 'happy place'.

For more posts on garden design...


  1. regarding engaging the senses: one thing that really transformed our garden this summer was Gardenia. We've had very fragrant plants in the garden like honeysuckle, but Gardenia smells much more tropical. We are trying to overwinter our Kleim's Hardy Gardenia (marginally hardy in zone 8 according to friends).

  2. Great ideas there, and I find most tropical plants have large leaves. I love to entertain out in our back garden gazebo. Feature lighting is also something to consider. I love those citronella flares.

  3. That's what we've tried to do at our place - create a resort in the backyard. Guests love it but I miss the waiters bringing drinks and food. Then I'd really feel on vacation.

  4. Living in the tropical region seemed to drive me to green boredom. Wished I could exchange all the birdnest & staghorn ferns and many palm trees that grows here everywhere - even along the drainsides.

  5. Hi Steve, this is a very inspiring and informative post. But like James above i also feel like somehow claustrophobic already with the tropical vegetation everywhere, whether in natural habitat or in landscaped grounds. If i can only grow the maples, snowdrops, crocus, grape hyacinths, pansies and wisteria here, maybe the surrounding can be more exciting. haha! It really is difficult to put contentment in us. "in the eye of the beholder" can also be timebound. But i love biodiversity though, even if it is all green!

    By the way, i am very grateful to you for pointing a mistake in posting a bromeliad as a heliconia spp. My apologies for my carelessness and insensitivity. I already put a postscript for it and removed the photo. Thank you very much.

  6. Thank you for the tips RG. This entry is very informational.

  7. Mmmm, makes me think of a holiday in Asia.

  8. What about zone 10??? LOL...Just kidding!

    I had made a sitting area out by my okra and eggplants, and after I moved them, I had to move my sitting area around to them...some lighting and sound would be nice out there too! Hehehe. My theme would be hawaiian/tiki I think...would be fun!!!

  9. You made me want to book a trip to the islands!

  10. Excellent ideas here! I would love to redo my beds now.

  11. I love tropical everything.....I just put in two more birds of paradise....they love our weather here out of the sun.....colocasia as well. Lots of great ideas here....however, nothing beats living in a subtropical climate:)

  12. Ryan:
    I love gardenia! I have a couple growing in the garden myself, and the glossy coffee like leaves make a tropical statement too!

    Amen on the feature lighting and citronella torches! The lights are great for spotlighting the most tropical looking silhouettes.

    Thats what husbands are for!

    The grass is always greener, unless you live in a tropical rainforest. Then its just too green. :)

    You weren't careless or insensitive! Its not that big of a deal... it only highlights how great broms and helis do as companion plants!

    Conveniently, okra does look pretty darn tropical for a veggie! Hawaiian theme sounds cool!

    You've missed the point! JK!

    I love the BOP's too, and they're surprisingly tough providing they aren't too wet in winter. And, no, nothing beats living in a subtropical climate.

  13. Great ideas! they go straight to my book of someday


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