By Jason Wyrwicz. President of Pots, Planters & More.
The passion and romance of the tropics add drama and dimension to elegant homes, and creativity to commercial areas. According to Megan Montgomery of Louisiana Landscape Specialty, a licensed horticulturist and landscape designer, creating a feeling of lushness intermingled with pops of bright color is the real secret to achieving that tropical aesthetic.
“You want to feel like you are in a rainforest or jungle - like you are one with nature,” says Montgomery. Here are her suggestions on how to bring the beauty of the exotic to any outdoor spaces by incorporating elements of tropical garden design:
A Designer’s Paradise
To create a lush jungle-like feel, use the technique of dense plantings, which means putting lots of plants into a small space. This can be applied around the borders of your backyard or small courtyard for a more private enclosed aesthetic, producing a living wall effect. Keep in mind that the texture of plants can enhance perception of scale; rougher plants appear closer, while finer-looking plants exaggerate distance. Isolating an individual plant will create drama and draw the eye, especially in brightly-colored planters; this is a great way to emphasize a doorway or gate.
“The saying, ‘fill, thrill and spill’ is another idea to keep in mind when using planters,” says Montgomery.
She suggests a combination like Jelly palm to fill vertical space, hibiscus to add beauty and sweet potato vine to spill with its electric green hue. Color plays a vital part when building a tropical ambiance—vibrant foliage and bright flowers evoke the feelings of the rainforest. Montgomery thinks pinks, purples and whites are a must in giving the allusion of a tropical hide-away. When creating these designs, she says, “I always think of Puerto Rico.”
Whether you chose a symmetrical design which is more traditional or the more artsy asymmetrical take, rhythm and harmony play an important role, giving your landscape a pleasing and finished appearance. Rhythm is the movement of the eye across repeated features; this can be achieved through repetition or even graduation in sizes. A larger pot grouped with containers of descending sizes or an alternating repeat of two different plants looks nice on steps or along a walking path. Unity is accomplished by using similar colors, shapes or textures throughout a layout; use this element to define a sitting area.
Get the Real Story
In the tropics, plant life is so dense that they grow in layers. The vegetation at ground level is called the "understory" and as such, can tolerate very low light, while palms reach to the sun. “The overstory of tall palms to the understory really creates that ambiance of texture and feeling,” says Montgomery. Create this exotic look in your own yard by planting in bundles with two or more different plants of varying height. This is particularly fetching around a tree or in the aforementioned planters. “Foliage plays a huge part in these designs,” confirms Montgomery. Select a plant to be star of the show such as agave, yucca or cacti, adding some hibiscus or fern. Crocosmias offer an exciting pop of color with their orange-red flowers that dangle along the stem and look fetching with an under plant of cannas.
When creating your own exotic hide-away, attention to detail will really help capture that taste of the tropics. Red ochre gravel paths lined with birds-of-paradise ushering guests to secluded areas, lush with vegetation, will seem like a piece of paradise. Rattan or teak furniture piled high with bright hot cushions and pots of ginger or large hibiscus will lend the feel of Hawaii or the Mexican Rivera to any space.
Containers Make Tropical Gardens Possible In Any Climate
Take account of your environment before selecting plants that will thrive in the provided conditions. Montgomery is quick to point out that “most tropical plants do best in warmer climates, like above zone seven.” She does, however, add that this look can be achieved outside of these zones by selecting plants that can survive a mild frost, such as the banana plant. However, if you live in a colder climate, the lush look of a tropical garden is not necessarily off-limits: “The more northern climates will do best to create a tropical patio between the months of May and September.”
Planters play a big part in allowing some versatility in your yardscape, allowing tropical plants to be brought indoors during cold weather. Incorporating large urn planters and substantial box planters to give the space an enclosed feel is the best way to invoke that lush tropical feel.
Montgomery suggests plants such as petunias, oleander and hibiscus for use in cooler environments. Soil selection is also important; it’s essential that the medium can drain easily. Most tropical plants don’t like “wet feet” or they will get root rot or grow mold. The use of pots allows you to be sure the plants are getting the correct soil. Mulch heavily to reduce the cold from reaching the roots and ensure excess water escapes containers with the use of ample drainage holes.