A Guide to Designing a Tropical Landscape

Most of Southern California is home to a warm climate that will support tropical landscaping. However, we do not have the humidity or precipitation to which these plants are accustomed. This does not mean that you cannot have a tropical backyard, but it does mean that some careful planning will help you create a personal paradise that will thrive without receiving a huge water bill every month.

Some folks may want to design a tropical oasis to remind them of their favorite vacation destinations in Hawaii or the Caribbean, while others may want to create a tropical vibe at home because their busy lifestyle does not allow for visiting these distant locales. Others may simply want to feel like they are living in their own private paradise every day.

If you are looking to incorporate tropical garden ideas into your landscaping design, here are some basics you need to know to help you along the way.

10 Tips for Designing a Tropical Landscape

Tropical Landscape Design

1. Go big, go bold.

Tropical gardens are defined by plants with large, vibrant leaves and bright blooms. Palm trees, birds of paradise and alocasias are good examples of tropical plants to include in your backyard oasis. Carry the bright colors beyond the blooms to include teal cushions or a hot pink side table in your decor.

2. Control the chaos.

A wild, jungle or rainforest look is part of creating a tropical vibe, but you don’t want your guests to need a machete to make their way to your outdoor living areas. Keep the larger plants and palms close enough to walkways and patios to create an enclosed, canopy feel without having them so close that you have to push huge leaves out of the way to walk by them.

3. Define outdoor living areas.

When you are creating a jungle, rainforest or other tropical feel, make sure you do not let it overwhelm your entire yard. Define your outdoor living areas with low-growing borders or ground covers that create space between seating areas and larger plants. You might also consider smaller tropical plants in containers to act as a border to define entertaining areas.

4. Buy plants close to home.

Most tropical plants cannot tolerate freezes or frosts, so purchase your plants as close to home as possible to make sure you are getting plants that can survive and thrive where you live.

5. Include palm trees.

Palm trees are readily available, thrive in Southern California and are essential to tropical landscaping. They are so common in Southern California that you may already have some to work with. If you are lucky enough to have established small palm trees in your yard, this will save you money and give you landscaping features to plan your design around.

Tropical Landscape Ideas

6. Consider water features.

An ideal backyard oasis includes water features with a tropical vibe. If you have the space and budget, this might be a pool with a beach entrance, Baja shelf and waterfall. The more you can make your pool look like part of the natural landscape, the more successful you will be in creating a tropical vibe in your backyard. If your space or budget does not allow for a pool, consider adding a pond or a smaller water feature with a waterfall.

7. Use bamboo as a backdrop and privacy screen.

Fast-growing bamboo is a good choice for tropical backyards where you need a privacy screen or want to block views that take away from your personal oasis. Bamboo is also an easy way to fill in spaces and provide a backdrop on which to feature various tropical garden ideas.

8. Choose your hardscapes carefully.

Bricks are too traditional, and concrete is to stark and modern. Neither of these are ideal hardscape choices for walkways nor patios in a backyard with a tropical theme. Paving stone walkways and patios and wood decks are better choices that will complement a tropical garden.

9. Incorporate lava rock.

Incorporating lava rock is an easy way to carry your tropical theme into your ground covers. So, if you have areas of bare dirt or some spots that are looking a little sparse, easy-to-find lava rocks are the perfect landscape rocks for the job.

10. Carry your theme into your décor.

Tropical landscaping provides the foundation for your backyard paradise, but it is the decorative details that will define your outdoor living spaces as tropical oases. From the color of your cushions to the shape of the string lights you hang along the edges of your patio, every detail should exude the feel of island décor. Hang a hammock between two sturdy trees, incorporate tiki torches in your landscape lighting design, and choose patio furniture made from teak, rattan or wicker.

If you have the space, include a tiki bar under a palapa or erect smaller palapas around your pool for your guests to enjoy.

6 Tips for Saving Water with Tropical Landscaping

Tropical Landscape Design Ideas

Folks who want a tropical backyard in Southern California need to consider the water needs of most tropical plants. While there are some tropical plants that are drought tolerant once established, for the most part, plants native to tropical regions require irrigation equivalent to the amount of rain received in tropical areas. Drought-prone Southern California receives far less rain than most tropical plants prefer, which means your tropical backyard is going to require regular irrigation.

Depending on our current drought conditions and the municipality in which you live, you may be limited to watering only certain days of the week or you may have a limit to the units of water you are allowed to use each month before being fined for excessive water use. Even when Southern California is not in a drought, residents here must always consider water conservation efforts both to save money on their water bills and to do their part in helping us avoid water restrictions during our next drought.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot use your favorite tropical garden ideas in your landscaping, but it does mean that you may want to work water conservation into your design to balance out your property’s irrigation needs.

To help you achieve the tropical garden of your dreams without wasting water, here are six tips for saving water with tropical landscaping:

  1. Plant your landscaping in zones to ensure that plants with similar water needs are grouped together. This allows you to irrigate some zones more while conserving water in other zones.
  2. Consider planting smaller areas with tropical plants to create themed focal points in a larger landscape design that includes complementary native plants that are more drought tolerant.
  3. Install an automatic irrigation system with a rain sensor. This will allow you to more efficiently irrigate your landscaping and help you save even more water by automatically shutting off your system when it is raining.
  4. Replace your natural grass lawn with low-maintenance, artificial grass. Natural grass lawns are generally the biggest water hogs in residential landscaping, so by replacing yours with drought-friendly synthetic turf, you can divert the water you would have used trying to keep your grass green to instead be used in your tropical garden.
  5. Expand hardscapes that require no water to compensate for the water needed for tropical landscaping to thrive. For example, you might create a flagstone walkway meandering through your garden or expand your outdoor living areas with a paving stone patio or wood deck.
  6. When developing your tropical garden ideas, include plants that look like they come from the tropics but that are actually drought tolerant, such as hostas, which have big, showy leaves that will blend well with tropical foliage.

7 Drought-Tolerant Plants and Low-Water Tropical Plants for Tropical Landscaping

Tropical Landscape Pictures

Although it may seem impossible, you can have tropical landscaping and still meet your water conservation goals. To accomplish this, you simply need to include tropical plants that happen to be drought tolerant and drought-tolerant plants that look like they could be from the tropics.

To get you started, here are seven plants to consider:

1. Birds of Paradise

Birds of Paradise are a quintessential feature plant in tropical backyards, so it is fortuitous that they also happen to be drought tolerant. You will need to water these regularly until they are established, but once they get going, you will enjoy showy spring blooms with minimal irrigation requirements.

2. Lantana

Choose pink or orange lantana for a drought-tolerant ground cover you can use in borders around your tropical garden. The vibrant flowers and rich, green foliage will hold their own against showier tropical plants while allowing you to save water without giving up your dream of a tropical backyard.

3. Palm Trees

Palm trees are one of just a few trees you find both in tropical vacation destinations and thriving in the desert. So, if you are looking for something that will remind you of your first trip to Hawaii or your last stop in the Caribbean, palm trees might be the way to go. Like most plants and trees, palm trees will require regular irrigation until established but, once established, will be drought tolerant. Talk to your local garden center to make sure you choose options that are known to thrive in your area.

4. Daylilies

Many daylily varieties prefer moist soil, but some are quite drought tolerant, thanks to their ability to store extra water in their root system. Aside from helping you save water, daylilies are a good fit for tropical landscapes, because their big, showy, colorful blooms will fit right in. No one short of a botanist should question their right to reside among your tropical plants, so this perennial is a solid choice. Talk to your local garden center to determine which varieties are the best options for your area.

5. Plumeria

Plumerias are tropical plants that can be grown as shrubs or small trees. They will need full sun if you want to enjoy their hot pink or yellow and white blooms and are not cold tolerant, so only plant these if you live in an area with mild winters. The fragrant flowers are most aromatic at night, so plant your plumerias near outdoor living areas where you host parties or your bedroom window to enjoy the scent after dark.

6. Rose of Sharon

If your dream tropical garden is filled with colorful hibiscuses but your practical side says you need drought-tolerant plants, rose of Sharon could be the perfect compromise. This perennial, sun-loving shrub may not have flowers quite as showy as other, less drought-tolerant varieties, but it is a hibiscus. If you are going for a tropical look, skip the pink and lavender options and head straight for plants with white, red or violet blooms. While this one can grow to nearly 10 feet tall, you can keep it trimmed to just a few feet high if you are looking for a low hedge.

7. Zephyranthes

The genus Zephyranthes includes tropical plants with blooms in pink, white or yellow on vibrant, green foliage. It is best to purchase these perennial bulbs as potted plants at your local nursery so that you can enjoy continuous blooms from the first season. This is one of the examples of tropical plants that are drought-tolerant once established, which makes them a perfect choice for tropical gardens.