How to Create A Tropical Style Garden
By Axis Fuksman-Kumpa • September 1, 2022
Just like a natural rainforest, tropical gardens are known for their lush layers of beautiful plants! This landscaping style is made for everyone who loves to be surrounded by greenery and blooms. Best of all, you don’t have to actually live in the tropics to achieve this look—you can cultivate a tropical feeling in any climate.
Keep reading for tips from our expert landscape designers on how to build the tropical backyard of your dreams!
What Makes a Tropical Garden?
It’s simple to find design references for tropical landscaping—all you have to do is look to nature! Tropical landscaping can include everything from a densely-planted, jungle-style backyard to a more pared down modern tropical garden.
For a more minimal take on tropical landscaping, you can select a few statement tropical plants that you want to feature and make them the stars of your garden beds while keeping the rest of your landscaping more low key. On the other hand, if you’re a maximalist in your interior design, this is your chance to include lots of plants in your landscaping.
Whatever your personal style is, there are some common design elements that unite tropical gardens:
- Lush layers of foliage in different sizes, textures, and heights
- A bold mix of glossy green leaves and vibrant colors
- Bright, colorful foliage, flowers, and accessories
- Natural wood and stone that feel like they could have been sourced from the jungle
- Landscaping features reminiscent of the tropics (we’ll get to this more further down!)
Plants for a Tropical Garden
Let’s start with the good news: you don’t need to live in the tropics to have a tropical garden! Picking tropical landscape plants can feel intimidating if you live in a cold or dry climate, but you can add tropical plants to any backyard by selecting bold foliage and flowers suitable for your region.
If you live in the southwest, a palm tree or two can become the centerpiece of your low-maintenance tropical front yard landscaping. For people in the great cold north, you can fill your yard with lush native plants and put your more delicate tropical plants in planters that can be brought inside in extreme weather.
We’ve created gardens all over the country, and we’ve cultivated a list of plants that we keep coming back to in our tropical landscape designs. This includes plants for a range of different climates and the low-maintenance tropical landscaping plants we’re all dreaming of. Here the shortlist of our favorite plants for a tropical garden:
- Yucca | Zones 5 to 10: This is a very adaptable native plant that requires low water use. There are many cultivars with variegated leaves like 'Color Guard'
- Sumac | Zones 4 to 8: The Tiger Eyes Sumac (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger') is a great cultivar with chartreuse leaves, but the straight species works well in gardens as well! It is native and the leaves are very tropical and can climb up into interesting forms.
- Hardy Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) | Zones 5 to 9:This great native alternative to Rose of Sharon hsa many cultivars in many colors.
- Coontie (Zamia pumila) | Zones 7b to 11: This native cycad is very hardy. It thrives in partial shade but can tolerate full sun and is drought tolerant as well. The leaves are stiff but not spiky so it can be used near paths
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) | Zones 5 to 11: This versatile plant is native to both East and West coasts plus parts of Canada and Mexico. It’s a butterfly magnet - bonus points! It has large leaves and showy unique flowers - and is great for damp areas of a lawn.
- Frangipani or Plumeria sp. | Zones 10b-11: This is a quintessential tropical plant. It’s native to the Caribbean basin, but as climate changes push northward it also works in the Florida Keys or Puerto Rico. For colder areas, it does well when kept in a container and brought indoors for the winter as they go dormant and require little attention. It’s drought tolerant and you’ll recognize the flowers as they are often used in leis!
Hardscape for a Tropical Garden
Most people’s Pinterest boards of tropical garden ideas are dominated by plants, plants, and more plants—but it’s thoughtful hardscaping that will elevate your backyard from a wild jungle to a luxurious outdoor living space. There are some easy guidelines to infuse that tropical feeling throughout your hardscape whether you’re looking for small tropical garden ideas or recreating a jungle inspired retreat in your backyard.
When it comes to materials, the more raw and organic, the better! Natural wood furniture and a rough-hewn stone patio look at home in a tropical landscape—on the other hand, sleek metal and squared off concrete would feel out of place. For accessories, natural textures rule. Handmade ceramics and textiles are perfect picks, but don’t be afraid to opt for boldly dyed colors to complement the hues in your plants.
Of course, we can’t resist a good landscaping feature! Here are some of our favorites that fit the tropical theme:
- Bubbling fountain: The sound of flowing water instantly adds to the rainforest atmosphere! You can choose a large centerpiece fountain or a miniature tabletop version if you’re on the hunt for tropical small garden ideas.
- Hammock: Kicking back in a hammock instantly turns your brain to vacation mode—perfect for your backyard retreat. Match it to your landscaping by choosing a woven, natural material.
- Tiki hut: Trade in a traditional pergola for a charming tiki hut that can cover your outdoor seating area—or better yet, your outdoor bar.
- Waterfall: Forget traveling to a rainforest waterfall—it can travel to you! This can be a small water feature or an impressive cascade into your backyard pool.
- Porch swing: Suspended seating on your covered porch lets you continue to soak in the tropical vibes, rain or shine.
- Swim-up bar: If you’re looking to go big with your tropical backyard ideas, you can’t beat a bar for your pool! Nothing says tropical luxury like being able to snag a Piña Colada without ever leaving the water.
Looking for even more inspiration? Visit your local botanical garden and take style notes on how plants are displayed in the tropical areas. (We’re big fans of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for any Florida locals or visitors!) Bring those tropical landscape ideas back home to your yard and let your green thumb run wild!
Oh, and if you want design help from an expert—we’ve got you covered.