Tropical resorts in the Islands represent some of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. Every year millions of busy, over-stressed people choose to spend their precious vacation time unwinding at tropical locales. Why? What makes these places so irresistible? Could it be the lifestyle ideal they represent, a setting where the pressures of everyday life can just be forgotten, replaced by an attitude of contentment, tranquility, and overall well-being. This slower, more laidback attitude is fueled in no small part by the natural beauty that surrounds you at tropical Island locations.
If something has such a positive effect on your attitude and outlook, why should you settle for experiencing it only once a year during vacation? What if it were possible to create a little piece of that Island allure in your everyday life?
While you may not have an ocean handy, you absolutely can create a beautiful, tropical resort style setting right in your own backyard. It’s not only possible, it’s a lot of fun. And, guess what? It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. With a little creativity, education and guidance, you can turn your boring backyard landscape into your own exotic, tropical Backyard Resort.
What is a Tropical Look Anyway?
Tropical landscapes are by their very nature very informal. To create your Backyard Resort, your backyard landscape will capture the wild and untamed mood of a natural tropical landscape. This mood can’t be captured with the boring, straight-line plantings of overly manicured shrubs that are so common in residential landscapes. The tropically-inspired garden will be much more casual, with seemingly randomized patterns of trees, shrubs, and foliage.
The exotic, tropical look of your backyard resort will be achieved by combining a wide variety of shapes, forms, colors, and textures. Banana plants with their large dramatic leaves, beautiful foliage plants like coleus and gingers, open and airy ornamental grasses, beautiful climbing vines, and tropical blooming plants all have a place. What may surprise you is that there is also a place for many of our more cold-hardy and traditional landscape plants. Uniformity and normality are out; randomness and whimsy are in.
So, How do You do It?
If you were lucky enough to live in an area that never has to suffer extended cold weather, you probably wouldn’t be reading this to begin with. You would have a year-round growing season with no fear of freezing temperatures, and you could grow whatever you wanted. For most of us, that is not reality so we’re going to have to get creative if we want to create that exotic, tropical backyard landscape, our very own little tropical escape.
The approach we’ll use is very simple. We’ll create our backyard resort by combining exotic looking tropical plants with well-adapted plants that either look tropical or look good in a tropical setting. The trick is to learn what plants and how to combine them to create that exotic, tropical look. We’re going to use a simple layering approach.
At a high level, here’s what to do: create a solid foundation, create the tropical landscape effect, and add the finishing touches.
Creating a Solid Foundation
The good news is that this may start with what you already have. Here, use only things that are reliably winter hardy. This is the skeleton for your backyard landscape and we want it strong. Large trees, evergreen shrubs and small understory trees, and perennials that return year after year will set your foundation. This is completely specific to your area.
Anything with big, deep green leaves works great, and all the better if it is evergreen. Ornamental grasses like Pampus and Maiden grass make great foundation plants. They seem to add a care-free feel to the landscape as they move with the wind. You should be able to find several that are adapted to your area. Finally, try to find some color for the foundation. Any shrub or tree that flowers and is well adapted to your area is great for your foundation. Crepe myrtles are favorites in southern landscapes.
Remember, the idea here is to set that permanent foundation. You’ll definitely want to use things that are reliable in your area, and will not succumb to winter cold.
Create the Tropical Landscape Effect
Now that you have a foundation, or backdrop, it is time to add the tropical effect plants to turn that normal backyard or swimming pool landscape into your own tropical paradise. Here, you’ll use true tropical plants that have to be treated as annuals in your area, unless you are willing to go to great lengths to protect them from winter chill. There are many plants that are tropical or sub-tropical that, with a little protection, will come back from roots each spring (i.e. bananas, elephant ears). Then, there are the interesting, tropical looking plants that may have no problems at all with winter weather.
For the tropical effect, you should have at least one palm tree. It’s hard to imagine a tropical landscape without the presence of palms. Why palm trees aren’t used more in southern landscapes can only be attributed to lack of information. Plant one and you can be sure you’ll hear more than one “You can’t grow that here!”. There a number of palms that can handle very low temps with little or no damage. Windmill, Sabal, and needle palms come to mind.
Palms create the tropical foundation, now you need to enhance the tropical effect. Let’s throw in some bananas, cannas, and elephant ears with their huge leaves for a start. All are very easy to grow and, with a little work, can be protected so that they come back year over year. Yucca and big ornamental grasses add great tropical effect too. Add some real color sizzle with tropical hibiscus, coleus, and Mandevilla and you’re going to start humming Jimmy Buffett and reggae tunes for sure.
Get creative here and have fun. Try seemingly crazy things. As an example, I’ve grown Papayas, Angel Trumpets, candle trees, and Caster Bean plants for years, treating them as annuals. Talk about a tropical effect that will turn some heads!
Add the Finishing Touches
The plants you use in the garden go a long way towards creating that tropical, resort-style setting we’re after, but there are other things as well. The tasteful use of containers can greatly enhance the overall effect of your backyard resort. Containers allow you to create lush garden settings in places where it might otherwise be impossible such as patios and decks. Tropical hibiscus, mandevilla, and bougainvilla all make a statement in containers.
Here’s a great tip. Go to your favorite garden center’s houseplant section. Of course, there is really no such thing as a houseplant. All plants want to be outside and will perform their best outside. Many of the so-called houseplants are really understory tropicals that will perform beautifully on a covered patio or deck where they have protection from direct sun. Experiment with some of these plants and you are sure to be amazed at the results.
Now, let’s go even beyond that and get into an area where you can get really creative and let your personality shine through…. garden art. There are no rules whatsoever here. Simple things like adding tiki torches along a path can make a real statement. Want to get more out there, create a faux Mayan ruin surrounded by tropical-looking foliage. If you don’t have a pool, build a small pond complete with cascading waterfall. Or, suspend a comfortable hammock between trees, complete with a fake (or real!) parrot watching over you while you relax. Remember, no rules here. This is all about you. Have fun.
Backyard Resorts – There you have it…
I sincerely hope you find this fun, useful, and at least marginally instructional. This little hobby has been an absolute joy for me over the years. Remember, my intent was never to give you a Backyard Resort in a Box, with step-by-step instructions on exactly what, when, and how to do everything. That just wouldn’t be possible in a single article and, even if it were, it would take all the fun out of this little adventure. The idea is to give you a taste of what’s possible and hopefully to whet your appetite with a few ideas and tools to get you started. Beyond that, you have all kinds of creative license in creating your own personal Backyard Resort. Now, get started and, most of all, have fun.
Eric Harris is the creator of Backyard Resorts, a website, eBook, and blog dedicated to creating exotic, tropical backyard and swimming pool landscapes, even if you live in an area that is decidedly NOT tropical. The idea is to help those of us who love that tropical, island atmosphere and vibe create a little slice of it at home, knowing that we’re going to have to deal with winter weather part of the year. Information and advice for specific tropical plants and plants that look good in a tropical setting, practical design approaches, winter care, and all kinds of other random Island-inspired musing are the theme. In addition to the eBook, articles and tips are available on Backyard Resorts Blog.
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