Who doesn’t love a tropical paradise? Who doesn’t desire to spend time in a place where the palm trees sway in the gentle breeze, the sand is warm and the refreshing scent of the ocean is in the air? I think most of us long for such a place. The problem is that such places are usually far, far away.
Well, maybe the actual tropical paradise is far away, but with a little careful planning it is possible to bring that tropical ambiance to your own landscape. While it can’t give you the ocean or a sandy beach, it can create an environment which helps elicit that warm, pleasurable appreciation of tropical beauty that most of us find so intoxicating.
The first step is to decide what you want to create it with. Perhaps the most obvious place to start would be palm trees. Palm trees may be the item most commonly associated with the tropics. It’s hard to think of the word tropical and not think of a palm tree.
Which palm tree or trees should you choose? There are over 2500 different species of palm trees worldwide, each with its own unique characteristics, morphology, growth habit and cold hardiness. Obviously we are trying to create a tropical paradise, and the word “ tropical” means close to the tropics. Close to the tropics means very, very warm. The warmer the climate in which you live, the easier it will be to choose palm trees for your landscape. There will simply be more options available.
Even if you live in an area not considered tropical or subtropical, however, there are still palm tree choices available. The Sabal Palm (Sabal Palmetto) can tolerate temperatures down to 7 degrees F. The Saw Palmetto (Serenoa Repens) is hardy down to 5 degrees F. The Needle Palm (Rhapidophyllum Hystrix) can even tolerate temperatures as low as -10 degrees F. for short periods of time! Many sources in print and on the internet identify cold hardy palms which are appropriate for the northern United States and even Canada. Clearly palm trees are a viable landscape option in far more places than most people realize.
One of the best ways to narrow down palm tree choice is to get a good palm tree book. There are many which provide photos of the most popular palms, in addition to valuable information about the care and nurturance of them. Pictures will work far better than any verbal descriptions to help you decide on palms that will be just right for your home.
Try and envision the palms you like in your yard and see if they are a good match. For example, if your home is a relatively small ranch-style, you may not want to choose a Florida Royal Palm (Roystonea Elata) which has a very thick trunk, and can grow up to 80 feet tall. It would simply outgrow and overpower the setting. Likewise, if your home is relatively large, you may not wish to use only a Pygmy Date Palm (Phoenix Roebelenii) or European Fan Palm (Chamaerops Humilis), both of which reach a typical height of only 10 feet. Some palms such as the Lady Palm (Rhapis Excelsa) are actually shrubs and are used as ground-cover. Try and decide exactly which palms will fit the image you envision.
The next step is to decide how you want it to look overall. It’s one thing to admire a beautiful tropical postcard or poster with the ocean and some palm trees, and quite another to actually design something for your own home and landscape. It can be a bit daunting. Many people become overwhelmed and think “where do I begin?”
I think it’s best to start with a very general idea of the overall appearance you want, and then fill in the details. One good way to come up with that general idea is to use sketches. You will probably want to make several, trying out different arrangements. A good way to accomplish that is to make an initial sketch of your home and property, and then make several copies of that. You can then use the “blanks” to sketch in the trees and shrubs in multiple combinations.
For maximum flexibility, you may even want to cut out small images of the trees, plants and shrubs you want to use which you can then easily manipulate around on the blank house/landscape copies to try and get just the look you want. It may seem a little obsessive to do that, but once you have everything cut out you can create almost limitless combinations without having to draw everything again and again.
When deciding on the overall look you want, do not neglect the element of variation. When there is little variation in size or species, evenly spaced and symmetrical plantings, the landscape takes on a more formal and planned aspect. This may work well if you have a larger house and you are creating a more elegant tropical look.
If there is more variation in size and species, it creates contrast, and tends to look more natural. It may even appear almost as if the landscape occurred naturally. I believe it also tends to draw the eye of observers and looks more interesting. If you decide to include a great deal of variation, you may wish to use curving, rounded shapes in the area to be landscaped rather than the more formal symmetrical plantings. For plants, shrubs and trees, groupings of odd numbers work well and look more natural. Following this idea, you would choose one, three or five of something to group together rather than two, four or six. Again, even numbers add symmetry and symmetry adds formality.
There are three basic height levels (with much variation in each) to consider when creating a nicely textured setting. The tallest would be for what are called “specimen” palms. They are called that because they are generally large, interesting and draw attention in and of themselves. Next would be smaller palms called understory palms. Understory palms are typically shorter, and are often planted in groups or clusters as opposed to planted singly. Understory palms also tend to be somewhat more shade loving since they occur naturally underneath other trees. Shrubs or groundcover form the third height level, and are the shortest. While most shrubs and ground cover prefer at least some shade, like the understory palms, it is not universally true. The Croton (Codiaeum Variegatum) is a beautiful tropical shrub and requires full sun to develop its striking hues of yellow, orange and red leaves.
Using the various height levels of the palms and/or shrubs you have chosen, you will be able to create a beautifully sculptured landscape with wonderfully varied textures and true tropical beauty. Be sure, however, to include only what is necessary for the image you want to create. Nothing is more sad than a landscape with beautiful trees, plants and shrubs, but too many of them. They can become crammed together such that one only sees a big blob of undifferentiated growth instead individual plant species, each contributing its own unique beauty. This is a situation in which less can truly be more.
Other things to consider in creating you tropical paradise are non-foliage items. Edging is a simple thing that can be used to create contrast with surrounding areas and heighten interest. Many different types of edging can be found at home improvement stores. Another, possibly cheaper way to create edging would be rocks of various sizes found in the area in which you live. Rocks, especially larger, irregularly shaped ones, can lend a simple, almost primitive attractiveness to a landscape. Remember that the more even and symmetrical your edging, the more formal it will look. The more rounded and asymmetrical the edging, the more natural it will look. It all depends on what you are trying to attain.
One of my favorite non-foliage items to help create a tropical paradise is a Tiki! Tiki statues come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes and configurations. You will find simple, natural, primitive looking ones, and you will find highly stylized, intricate and colored ones. All of them can look good in the right situation. It is a matter of personal taste.
If you follow the suggestions in this article you will be doing better than most, who “landscape” randomly, and tend to simply plop new trees, plants and shrubs in the ground with little forethought. With a little time, effort and patience you will be successful. These steps are actually amazingly easy. If you follow them they will yield a landscape of which you will be proud, and which you will enjoy for years to come. You will create a tropical paradise!
For more information about bringing the beauty of the tropics into your life, be sure to visit Tiki Island Life, where the goal is “Helping Bring a Tiki Island State of Mind to You.” There is even information about creating your own tiki!