Tropical garden design: everything you need to know

Tropical garden design: everything you need to know

You don’t need to travel to a tropical island to escape the pressures of modern life — when you have a resort-style garden, every day is like a holiday.Mar 16, 2020 12:00am

You don’t need to travel to a tropical island in Asia or the South Pacific to escape the pressures of modern life — when you have a resort-style garden, every day is like a holiday.


Let yourself go troppo in the garden! In tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, there’s a growing trend for gardens that resemble the lush surrounds of five-star resorts we dream of visiting.


Hiring a professional landscape designer is well worth the money — not only is the end result visually alluring, any potential problems can be addressed at the start.

Colourful vistas, linear pathways and focal points create the structure of the garden and help link indoor rooms with outdoor spaces.

Formal paths and straight garden beds contrast with the ‘jungle’ plantings, while luscious palms, colourful foliage, timber furniture, Balinese lanterns and brightly covered cushions complete the resort style.

Tropical gardens are all about creating contrast. Here, a formal pathway of stepping stones is flanked by the unruly foliage of tall palms and other tropical plantings. Photo: Nick Watt /

First impressions count, so the garden entry is important. Playing with visitors’ perceptions is an art and it gives the garden a great sense of fun.

As in life, the journey through our living environments should be as enjoyable as the final destination.


For the most part, tropical gardens rely on foliage rather than flowers to create interest year round.

Foliage should be flamboyant, lively and colourful, and plants must be chosen on the basis of the size, shape and texture of their leaves.

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Planting in groups of odd numbers (three, five, seven and nine) is a common trick employed by garden designers — it gives a broad brushstroke of colour and texture, and makes a huge difference to the feel of the garden.

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Make a statement by layering foliage. The more colourful and contrasting, the better. Photo: James Henry /

Placing plants with contrasting foliage next to each other will create drama and interest.

For maximum impact, position plants with red, yellow, orange, pink, purple and lime-green leaves next to each other.

Colourful flowers, such as fragrant frangipani, heavenly hibiscus, ornamental ginger and dramatic canna lilies will warm up the garden and provide further contrast to the vibrant ground-dwelling foliage and green canopy.


A selection of perfectly placed palms and bamboo is essential for achieving a tropical look in your backyard.

Although they’re often criticised for growing too big or escaping, palms and bamboo will benefit the style and mood of the garden — they provide the rustle of foliage in the wind, furnish your garden with a fern-like ceiling and dense green walls, and do a great job of privacy screening.

There are a million varieties to choose from, so visit a specialist palm or bamboo nursery where you can seek expert advice.

Remember that not all varieties are suited to every climate, and smaller-growing or dwarf specimens are the best choice for courtyards and pocket-sized gardens.

Even small spaces like inner-city courtyards or balconies can get a tropical makeover. Look out for potted varieties or dwarf species. Photo: Scott Hawkins


If you love to cook, try growing Asian herbs and spices in your tropical garden.

Not only do they contribute wonderful flavours and aromas to a wide variety of dishes, they smell fantastic in the garden and help deter pests.

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Fragrant herbs and spices such as mint and lemongrass will deter pests and be a delicious addition to any meal. Photo: Jason Busch /

Cardamom, kaffir lime, lemongrass, coriander and mint will grow well among tropical shrubs in cool, moist spots.

Edible ginger (Zingiber officinale) planted in spring will be ready to harvest in March or April — simply plant a healthy-looking ginger rhizome from the supermarket.

To harvest, dig up clumps with a spade.


Gardening in tropical and subtropical areas requires a different approach to gardening in a temperate climate.

Tropical gardeners rarely have to dig down to plant, instead they layer the soil with compost, leaf mould, garden clippings and mulch.

Leaf mulch layering is a process that occurs naturally in forests and gullies, where soil fertility resides in just the top few inches.


In the tropics, the best time to garden is early morning, before the heat and humidity build up.

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Take a stroll around the garden each morning, pruning as you go, and finish at the shredder. All shredded pruning material should be composted, then returned to the garden to maintain the natural cycle.

Tropical plantings in contrasting colours line a stone pathway. Photo: Anastasia Kariofyllidis /

Don’t expect a tropical garden to be maintenance-free.

Anyone who gardens in a warm, high-rainfall climate knows that plants explode out of the ground during wet periods.

They must be pruned into submission or they’ll take over. (The upside is that many rampant growers can easily be propagated from cuttings or grown from seed.) The need for constant housekeeping means a good pair of secateurs is essential — use them to regularly tidy up any brown foliage, dead palm fronds and spent flowers.

Feed your garden with a mulch of organic manure each spring and spray all the foliage with a seaweed solution once every season to keep the plants robust and strong.

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In tropical gardens, it’s best to keep the lawn area small — time spent mowing and weeding the lawn is wasted time!

Because tropical gardens require a lot of love and attention, it’s a good idea to ensure that any lawn space is kept to a minimum. Photo: Alicia Taylor /

Bright-leafed bromeliads will constantly surprise you with their hardiness and vigour.

They flower only once but will continue to grow, sprouting new plants, or ‘pups’, from the side. When a pup reaches about 10cm, cut it away with a sharp knife, then replant it in pine bark, not soil.

Alternatively, leave the plant to clump naturally. Bromeliads don’t have to be planted in the garden, they are just as happy attached to tree trunks or in pots.

Most ornamental gingers die down in winter, and you should remove all the shaggy, dying foliage.

When the weather warms up, feed them with aged manure as soon as the new foliage appears. Gingers need regular watering during their growing season.

Bamboo is a fast-growing screening plant that will add lush foliage to your outdoor space while providing privacy. Photo: Maree Homer /


In addition to the plants mentioned, the following varieties will also help you achieve a resort-style look:

  • Hawaiian hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
  • Vireya rhododendron (Vireya cultivars)
  • Crab’s claw (Heliconia angusta cultivars)
  • Fijian fire plant (Acalypha wilkesiana)
  • Giant elephant’s ears/giant taro (Alocasia macrorrhiza)
  • Elephant’s ears (Alocasia amazonica)
  • Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura ‘Kerchoviana’)
  • Zebra plant (Calathea zebrina)
  • Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum)
  • Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum)
  • Dancing ladies (Oncidium varicosum)
  • Canna lilies (Canna ‘Tropicanna’ and Canna ‘Tricolour’)
  • New Guinea impatiens (Impatiens)
  • Sago palm (Cycas revoluta)
  • Spiral ginger (Costus barbatus)
  • Crinum lily (Crinum pedunculatum)
  • Sacred Bali bamboo (Schizostachyum brachycladum)
  • Variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’)
  • Spindle palm (Hyophorbe verschaffeltii)
  • Majestic palm (Ravenea rivularis)
  • Medinilla (Medinilla magnifica)


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