November 21, 2019

In the garden: Plant your own tropical paradise

With a little planning and a large budget, it is possible to recreate the decadent feel of a luxury resort in your own South Australian garden.

With today’s affordable travel, many of us think of a holiday as packing a few casual clothes and heading off to a tropical paradise. Whether it’s interstate or overseas, the moment you arrive, the heat, the humidity and the lushness herald that the holiday of your dreams has begun. 

The one stand-out fact about many resort gardens is that the planning and diversity of plants is breathtaking. Bare land has been transformed into a virtual cornucopia of lush, leafy, colourful, perfumed plants. The budgets are eye-watering as developers fully understand that the finished landscape is the key to making their resort stand out as the most sumptuous. 

And it works. Just take a look at Singapore; its investment in projects such as The Gardens by the Bay and, not to be outdone, the gardens at Changi Airport now have an added feature garden with the Jewel. This world-class facility invites the outdoors in with a mix of natural wonders, including a plethora of tropical plants. Most airports, public areas, verges and roadway median strips in many popular Asian destinations are committed to serious landscaping of their properties. The tropical overload begins before you even get to your resort because the planners know their market and commit to the ongoing maintenance required for each and every project. All we tourists see are the beautiful leafy results.

The question people ask upon their return to Adelaide is, “I just loved the enchanting environment of colour and the waving palms, can I create my own tropical paradise here in South Australia?”

My reply is usually, yes you can, but there are a few important considerations before you plant. Whereabouts do you live? Coastal, plains or Adelaide Hills? 

Tropical plants don’t do well in frost-prone areas. They also hate hot, dry, low humidity conditions and are not that keen on our alkaline soils. However, if your proposed location has a few of the required environmental and climatic conditions, and with a little help with plant selection, practical planning, a healthy budget and commitment to ongoing care and maintenance, you too can have that slice of tropical paradise right here in SA. 

Apart from the initial siting, the basic rules are: rich, well-drained soil, canopy cover to create shade, correct plant selection and, finally, humidity. This can easily be achieved with an irrigation system that includes misting jets, also add an organic mulch that will hold moisture to help create ideal growing conditions. Shade can be artificial to start with, such as shade sails or existing tree shade.

Once you have the right location, to plan a modest tropical feel garden back here in SA is not that difficult. Many of the plants you may have admired from your Southeast Asian poolside cabana can be grown here. 

When it comes to the planting plan, do your homework and don’t go for the wildly exotic to start with. Tropical plants are not cheap, so seek advice at your local garden centre before buying anything. 

Plant the larger feature plants first, such as palms and subtropical trees. These will take some time to reach their full height, but will create an appropriate sense of scale in the meantime. Next, look for mid-level species that can grow under the shade canopy. These may be smaller palms, tree ferns or tropical flowering shrubs. As the garden develops over the months and years, there are myriad lower-growing plants to choose from. These “filler” type plants, such as bromeliads or aspidistra, will add to the true tropical lushness to your garden area.

Also, don’t be worried about blending some old favourites into your new tropical patch, such as sword and maidenhair fern, hibiscus, kentia palms, clivia, peace lilies, gardenia and frangipani.

Finally, if you haven’t any garden space, or the budget, you can be equally as creative and get the same results with a potted tropical garden. Whether indoors or out, find a large container and the same rules apply. You can still have a piece of paradise; it might just be a smaller slice. 

There is a seemingly endless variety of exciting tropical plants that can be used to create your luxury resort garden. Here are a few of my favourite suggestions:

Tall plants to create shade
Native frangipani
Ficus – but only if you have the space!
Bamboo – also makes an excellent screen
Suitable palms such as bangalow and kentia
Any large tree that offers a high canopy 

Mid-level plants
Philodendron varieties
Tree ferns
Dracaena varieties
Strelitzia (bird of paradise)
Parlour palm
Rhapis palm

Plants to fill the gaps
Spider plant


This story first appeared in the September 2019 issue of SALIFE magazine. 

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