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A Tropical Oasis
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A Tropical Oasis



When we think of water, much of the time we think of a tropical scene – Hawaii, the Caribbean or some other exotic island somewhere – a place we’d all like to go.

Why not create that “somewhere else” in your clients’ backyards? They’ll thank you for all the money you’ll save them on that cruise that probably would have been less than perfect anyway. And this tropical scene will be one they can enjoy not only this week, but for as long as they want.

Imagine palm trees swaying in the wind, the sweet smell of plumeria, hula dancers. Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away here, but the imagination’s a powerful thing. And you can create this tropical paradise for your clients even if you live and work in a climate that makes growing this type of plant difficult. All you need is a little understanding of what gives a garden this feel and how to put it together.


Strictly speaking, tropical plants grow in latitudes closer to the equator than any in which most of us live. Southern Florida and Hawaii are probably the only places in the United States located where they enjoy this climate naturally.

Although purists might argue with me, my Southern California version of a “tropical landscape” ranges far beyond plants that grow only in the tropics. In fact, I’ll use any plants that have large and/or coarse leaves. (By coarse, I mean leaves that have more defined shapes and lines, such as philodendrons and palms, as opposed to fine leaves that appear feathery, wispy or soft.)

This opens us to lots of possibilities, and there are many plants I would recommend for your tropical landscapes. The important thing is to set the “bones” of the yard by beginning with specimens that strongly set the tone for what surrounds them. Palms, large leafed plants, strappy leafed plants, and ferns all work well in this environment.

Of course, the clients’ sense of what’s “tropical” plays a role here, too, and you have to find out what they’re thinking when you say that word. They may tell you that they hate palm trees, but love ferns. They may say anything goes, even roses. As you ask questions, you also should determine if they want lots of color, low or high maintenance, full and lush or more of a desert oasis.

As always, your primary job is to try and understand the vision they have. Gather as much information as you can from them, and then narrow down your choices for plants, taking your climate into consideration. Your best resource in finding the plants you need is the edition of the Sunset magazine’s gardening guide that goes with your area. The drawings alongside each plant description will help you determine how well your selections will fit into this plan.

These books also have sections on good plants to use near swimming pools, focusing on those that are as litter-free as possible and have smooth textures. (They don’t particularly like using roses near pools as much as I do, but everyone is entitled to an opinion.) As a rule, using their suggestions will keep you safe with your clients.


Many tropical plants, due to their sheer size, can make a very dramatic statement. Although this may be what your clients want, it may also overshadow the beautiful watershape you have created for them.

Remember that one of the keys to a great landscape (or even a good one) is balance. If a specimen plant becomes too dominant in the landscape, it can really detract from everything else you’re trying to achieve.

A Tropical Palette

Here are some plants that are quite popular and easy to grow in moderate climates. Get creative with unusual specimens, and remember that most of them can be placed right next to a watershape without disturbing the integrity of the structure over time. (Ficus is the one exception: These plants have invasive root systems and should never be placed next to a watershape.)

Palms – Queen or King, Sego, Pygmy Date
Canna Lilies*
Zantedeschia aetheopica – Calla Lilies
Alocasia – Elephant’s Ear
Colocasia – Taro*
Agapanthus – Lily of the Nile
Clivia miniata – Kaffir Lily
Ficus – many varieties work well
Baby tears
Bulbs – particularly Lilies and Amaryllis*
Fatsia japonica – Japanese Aralia
Hemerocallis – Daylilies*
Strelitzia reginae – Bird of Paradise

* denotes plants that will survive in Zone 1 (coldest climates)

– S.R.

It is also important to find out if they want a dramatic or subtle look. If it’s to be dramatic, your eye should instantly be drawn to the planting when you look at the yard. If it’s to be subtle, everything should blend well together, with no one dominant feature.

There are many ways to achieve these looks. Here are some suggestions:

[ ] Dramatic: If you are trying to create a dramatic statement with the plants, start by choosing a striking specimen. This would be one plant that draws visitor’s eyes directly to the place where it is planted.

For example, you might want to use a large queen palm. These are typically purchased according to trunk height. Start with one that is in proportion with the size of your watershape. A palm with a 6- to 8-foot trunk, for instance, would fit well next to a 15-foot-diameter pond. If your watershape is smaller, you’ll probably want to choose a smaller variety of palm, such as a pygmy date palm.

Once you have chosen your specimen, surround it with complementary plants that enhance its appearance while framing it. Use some smaller palm varieties, for example, or some philodendrons, microlepia ferns, agapanthus and calla lilies. All of the plants, of course, need to be to your client’s liking. Just make sure ones you choose as surrounding plants do not dominate or create visual competition: This can completely detract from your original plan.

To make sure they blend, use at least three of each complementary plant. They tend to blend better when repeated throughout the design. Also factor in the mature size of the plant when making your selections. After all, a 20-foot palm would look completely out of proportion standing next to a 5-foot-wide pond.

If you absolutely have to put in a larger plant, consider placing it further away from the watershape so it won’t overshadow the pond or pool as it matures. And be sure the rest of the plants also have the proper scale and proportion.

[ ] Subtle: To create a more softened tropical landscape, you’ll need to blend plants with coarse textures (as discussed above) with those that soften.

The objective here is to keep plantings flowing by making smooth transitions between them. For instance, you might want to place a microlepia fern next to a 3-foot high sego palm. Their slight variance in size will cause your eyes to settle on both plants, instead of leaving one to stand out – and the microlepia fern will soften the coarse look of the sego palm. Also, placing these and other plants close together will give a more natural feel.

Height, depth, scale and color all need to be blended smoothly to be sure you have a settling, soothing landscape. If any one of these design elements is too dominant, you’ll end up with a dramatic look or one that doesn’t feel as comfortable when you look at it.


Of course, many tropical-style plants require humidity to look their best.

If you live in a region that is dry, you’ll need to install an irrigation system that mists the leaves of your plants. The best way to do this is with a drip system that has misters set to go off every hour during the hottest hours of the day. This can make all the difference in the plants’ appearance.

Unfortunately, not every climate can easily accommodate tender tropical plants. If you happen to work in one of those areas that isn’t kind to humidity-loving plants year ’round, you have two choices: Use plants that are hardy in your area that are also large and/or coarse leaved, or use plants that can be planted in containers and brought inside during harsh weather periods (including bromeliads, ficus trees or small palms).

Many of the potted plants can be cut back to the ground during winter, making them easier to carry and move. This kind of seasonal rotation requires a lot of time and effort not to mention storage space, but for a small area, it may be worth it.

You and your clients also have to be realistic. If you live in Maine or Minnesota or Alaska, this type of landscape may prove difficult to attain. But if you choose something manageable, anything is possible. Imagine your clients sending out their Christmas cards next year with a picture of them seated in their lounge chairs next to a watershape surrounded by tropical-looking plants with the message “Greetings from Alaska.” It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

If you are uncertain which plants will thrive in your area, go to the local wholesale nursery and ask them for a list of tropical-style plants that will do well. Other great places for ideas are botanical gardens, which grow their tropical plants in greenhouses even in the coldest climates. The curators and gardeners who work there tend to be quite knowledgeable about how you can grow these plants in your situation. They may even be able to suggest specialty nurseries or sources for plants that you might not otherwise have known about.

Remember, if you stick with large- or coarse-leafed plants, you should be able to achieve the kind of look you desire.

If you’re still not sure how to tackle this type of garden setting, e-mail me at [email protected]. I’ll be more than happy to make suggestions.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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