Tips AU

35+ Tropical garden design

By Gianna Huesch

Published: June 9th, 2020

Tropical garden design is all about creating your very own piece of paradise

The best tropical garden designs recreate the calm, warm and lazy vibes of exotic destinations, like Hawaii, Bali, Fiji and Tahiti or even local holiday hotspots like Byron Bay or Noosa. With bold landscapes full of dramatic, often brightly colourful foliage together with pretty bursts of flowering plants, it’s easy to emulate the lush gardens of a tropical retreat at home.

The overriding feature of a tropical garden is that it is designed to be abundant and dense, with teeming plants crowding each other and jostling for attention. Tropical gardens can appear as if randomly planted but usually a lot of thought has gone into their design. Plants are selected for their purpose, with certain ones best suited as a canopy or a backdrop, while others make the perfect fillers, climbers or groundcovers. Others you might choose simply for their luxuriant foliage or gem-like blooms. Layering up the planting palette this way creates a dynamic display of shapes, textures, contrasts and colours.

Choosing plants that thrive in a tropical climate

There are so many wonderful choices of tropical garden plants that suit our climate. Hiring a landscape designer is naturally your best bet to get your planting palette just right, but here’s a (very) short list of my favourite exuberant, vibrant tropical plants with fantastic growth rates:

  • Heliconias
  • Banana leaf plants
  • Canna Lillies
  • Pink cordylines
  • Bromeliads
  • Giant bird of paradise
  • Frangipani,
  • Crotons
  • Bamboo
  • Rhododendrons
  • Bougainvillea
  • And, of course, you can’t beat palm trees for tropical vibes.
  • You can also add Asian herbs and spices (such as lemongrass, coriander, kaffir lime and cardamom) for fragrance, pest deterrence and for the kitchen!

So let’s take a wander through 35+ tropical gardens which do a great job of evoking the languid and lush environs of an island resort…who needs to travel to a tropical destination when the heat is on in your own backyard?

1. Surrounded by lush greenery

The aim of great tropical garden design is to create a sense of being enveloped by a rainforest canopy and being surrounded by wild, untamed foliage for a truly immersive experience.

This relaxing space is perfectly set up for outdoor entertaining with swaying palms overhead, a calming black, green and silver palette, wood and cane elements and charming hanging garden lights.

hanging lanterns in a tropical garden
Source: Lonny

2. Colour and contrast

Bursting with colour and texture, this Balinese-inspired front garden showcases the typical exuberance and high contrasts of tropical garden design. Brightly coloured, oversized plants with exaggerated physical forms are juxtaposed to create visual interest and heighten the drama.

Balinese inspired tropical garden design
Source: Homes To Love

3. Verdant pathways

Density is a vital part of tropical garden design since tropical plants grow entwined and entangled with one another in the wild. To replicate the jungle look, plant your tropical plants closely together and add clumping and spreading plants between taller ones to fill gaps.

Here, densely planted jungle walls add a sense of mystery and adventure to a winding pathway. Keep things neat with low-growing ferns and grasses to line the sides of the path – it’s a great garden edging idea.

lush pathways
Source: Trendedecor

4. Rainbow hues

Turn up the heat by planting tropical plants that boast multi-coloured foliage in sunset colours. Choose plants with leaves in vibrant shades of reds, oranges and yellows to add flamboyance and warmth to your glossy-green foliaged landscape.

rainbow hued tropical garden design
Source: Nafha Home

5. Scale and drama

Palm trees can grow to extraordinary heights and provide the necessary scale and drama that defines a striking tropical garden design. If you only have a smaller garden space, you can also find plenty of dwarf species of palms that will still give a fantastic tropical flavour. Thanks to their size, palms are also excellent for adding privacy.

scale and drama of a tropical garden
Source: We Are Found

6. Tropical entryway

Give your front garden a lush makeover with the addition of some luxuriant, colourful tropical plants, like this set of bromeliads, palms and plumerias, punctuated by striking red ti plants. For more front garden inspo, you may also like to see our article on front garden ideas.

front gate tropical garden ideas
Source: Sunset

7. Resort vibes

Your choice of décor and furniture will also help set the tone for a tropical garden. Go for colourful, happy, beachy textiles and a comfy cane or reed sun lounger. Or make a statement with a hotel-style luxury piece of garden furniture.

resort vibes
Source: Desire To Inspire

8. Modern monochrome

Oversized, broad-leafed plants create plenty of contrast in this small space. Layering plants in different sizes keeps the limited planting here dynamic, while the white stepping stone pavers also add texture.

modern monochrome tropical garden
Source: Design Milk

9. Sweet spots

Adding benches or other seating in secluded corners is a simple way to add tranquil tropical charm. Below, a garden in North Queensland with a “detailed mosaic of flora” featuring heliconias, cordylines and beehive gingers. The battered white bench provides the perfect place to soak up the ambience.

bench nestled in tropical garden
Source: Our Australian Gardens

10. Splashes of colour

Go troppo with exotic plants whose foliage comes in vivid colours. Rainbow-hued leaf plants look gorgeous when packed tightly amongst glossy dark green ones.  Aim to grow dense, luscious walls of over-sized foliage in clashing colours like orange and pink: While your wall is still establishing itself, you may like to add in a bamboo or reed screen as filler or plant a fast-growing vine up on a trellis behind it.

colourful foliage
Source: Ashley Winn Design

11. Raw materials

Pale, natural-looking timber like this recycled tallowood decking contrasts beautifully with tropical plants. The curved, cantilevered bench seat is also made of the same wood. Evergreen, low-maintenance plants were chosen for these layered raised garden beds, with a mix of bromeliads, philodendrons, heliconias and sanseveria.

timber decking in tropical garden
Source: Homes To Love

Get some ideas on raised garden beds design, or find an expert in planter boxes to help you get the design just right.

12. Tropical pond

Garden ponds suit the tropical aesthetic really well. Keep the materials natural, even if you just use an interior finish that has a natural effect look. However, adding some shimmer to the finish always brings a dash of tropical mystique!

tropical pond
Source: Redecoration Room

13. Tranquil swing

The denser the planting, the more jungle-like the effect. The density itself becomes the feature and keeps all angles of the garden looking exciting. You can either plant your garden very densely from the start or leave room for plants to expand into the space over time. And why not install a swing for carefree, laidback vibes?

tranquil swing in tropical garden
Source: Casa Tres Chic

14. Paths and bridges

Add a focal point with a little timber bridge over your pool or pond. Laying a path of natural stepping stones is also an easy tropical DIY. Paths and bridges speak subtly of journeys and exploring and help increase the drama of your garden.

wooden bridge tropical garden ideas
Source: Pinterest

15. Colour inspo

When you’re planning your tropical planting, aim to create stunning dense walls of foliage interspersed with bright flowers like hibiscus, birds of paradise, canna lillies and frangipani.

The planting below isn’t actually an outdoor tropical garden but in fact an arrangement in the retail store window of a Kate Spade shop in London. But it’s a great example of the warmth and contrast you get by adding an assortment of tropical blooms into the lush green foliage mix.

kate spade retail window london
Source: Pinterest

16. Great heights

Choose plants for your tropical garden which have an exaggerated size or unusually shaped foliage for maximum impact. Here, towering palms create a showy backdrop for simpler plantings below. This cascading mix of luscious palms—cycads, king, queen and pygmy dates—looks especially authentic.

great heights
Source: Pinterest

17. Native tropical vibes

For a coastal tropical look, paint from a palette of natural tones that evoke our native rainforest plants (even if they are not!). This little garden blends magnolia, dracaena and cordylines in a raised planter that has been designed to act as a screen from neighbouring homes. I love the floating timber garden bench and the natural split stone floor as well.

tropical courtyard
Source: Adam Robinson Design

18. Light the way

Make your tropical garden really inviting by lighting the way along a path with traditional looking lanterns. Authentic Polynesian-style barkcloth wrapped lanterns work well but any kind of rustic looking lantern will play the part. I like the use of natural pavers for this stone path, with its gentle steps guiding you along under the vibrant green canopy.

lanterns
Source: Pinterest

19. Tropical poolscape

Tropical garden design favours pools that have a more natural aesthetic rather bright aqua Olympic Pool feels. Selecting tiles, paving and coping materials which are made of natural stone is a good way to achieve this. Exposed aggregate paving also has that natural pebbly beach look.

Your tropical garden planting should grow so that it impinges on the pool space itself, for atmospheric reflections and that all-important jungle canopy effect. Garden umbrellas in natural materials and colours, comfy sun loungers and a stone statue complete the look here.

tropical poolscape
Source: Grndoor Design

Here are a bunch of other pool landscaping ideas that will work with your backyard oasis.

20. Green screens

Vigorously growing tropical plants can help conceal walls and fences and give the illusion of having a larger garden space extending beyond your borders. Even when you are planting with density in mind, you’ll want to keep things a bit neater around the seating.

So, perhaps consider enlisting the help of an experienced gardener who can help you keep your urban jungle garden tidy up. I’d love to chill on this relaxing timber bench snuggled into densely planted heliconias.

relaxing bench in tropical garden design
Source: Go Expert Design

21. Heaven scent

This tropical pool zone is studded with dwarf and larger palms as well as lemon trees planted around cream limestone pavers. I love the idea of planting with fragrance in mind—lemon trees have a sweet, light scent but if you struggle to grow citrus trees, you could also add lemon-scented herbs to your garden, like lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon balm and lemon mint!

dwarf palm trees and lemon trees
Source: Home Beautiful

22. Woven decor

If you have a water feature in your tropical garden, why not float some little woven decorations like these? Popular for use in tropical-styled weddings, little woven decorative elements are also perfect for everyday tropical charm.

Whether you source authentic garden decor from an Asian garden supplier or perhaps just copy the look and DIY some pieces using easy-to-find craft materials and foliage from your garden—it’s an easy way to add interest and tropical flavours.

woven decor for tropical garden design
Source: Imajgallery

Whether a small waterfall or pond, a water feature is always another way to make your tropical garden complete. Even if you can only add a simple concrete water bowl, you’ll have an instantly cooling focal point that looks beautiful filled with floating aquatic plants like lotus flowers or water lillies.

23. Tiki torches

While their relentless appearance on Survivor may have dimmed their appeal a little, traditional island-style garden torches do suit the tropical garden aesthetic perfectly.

tiki torches
Source: Pinterest

But if you’re in search of tropical landscape lighting ideas other than torches or lanterns, why not have a chat with a local expert in landscape lighting.

24. Tropical green wall

If order and neatness in the garden is more your cup of tea, you can still enjoy a lush tropical planting arranged into a defined space, like the circular green walls below. These vertical containers are filled with low-maintenance plants like small parlour palms and Ctenanthe (aka the never plant) which has gorgeously coloured variegated foliage. It’s a great way to spruce up your privacy fence.

tropical green wall

Source: Homes To Love

25. Tropical deck

Decks are perfect for relaxed outdoor living and entertaining and by reducing the amount of lawn in your yard space, make garden maintenance that much easier. A natural timber deck has plenty of tropical vibes, and the linear order of decking contrasts well with the unruly, riotous aesthetic of a dense tropical planting. For loads more suggestions on how to design a stunning decking area for your garden, you can also see our article on decking ideas for your garden and/or pool.

tropical deck
Source: Homes To Love

26. Meditation pavilion

A little thatched wooden hut or a pergola that can be styled as a meditation pavilion will give your tropical garden design all the holiday feels. It doesn’t need to be an elaborate or expensive structure—in fact, the simpler and more rustic, the more Zen. Just add some sheer white curtains and your comfiest garden furniture for an instant tropical-style outdoor living room.

meditation pavilion
Source: Pinterest

27. Tropical decorative items

Enhance your tropical garden aesthetic with traditional decor from tropical destinations, such as Balinese penjor. Lining the streets of Bali outside homes and establishments, these long bamboo poles droop down holding little cage-like structures at the ends and are often decorated with coconut leaves.

Balinese penjor
Source: Imajgallery

Other tropical garden decoration ideas, include items made from natural materials like stone or wood and may take the form of paths, benches, sculptures and carvings, firepits, garden furniture and even little thatched huts.

These features break up the plants and create atmosphere while bringing your outdoor entertaining to life. Adding lanterns or torches is also a popular way to amp up night-time drama.

28. Carved wooden elements

Traditional wooden carvings add little bursts of interest and uniqueness to your garden and set the tone. Here, a carved door signals tropical style, amplified by the sprawling frangipani. Natural stepping stones in the lawn add to the beach house feels.

carved wooden elements
Source: Green Earth Enterprises on Instagram

29. Green room

Darker timbers look especially appealing in a tropical garden design and when wet, they give off steamy monsoonal vibes. Here, little timber lanterns punctuating the foliage also add Oriental flavour. And how about the table setting tucked into the greenery? Such a perfect spot for an intimate al fresco dinner.

dark timber
Source: Pinterest

30. Tropical containers

Aside from appealing to those of us who favour an organised, neat aesthetic, keeping tropical plants in containers just gives you more flexibility—you can move them according to your changing mood or the season. Here, beautiful Giant Birds of Paradise create a jungle aspect for this window and doorway.

tropical container
Source: Adam Robinson Design

31. Bougainvillea

Fast-growing, drought-tolerant tropical vine bougainvillea is always a brilliant addition to any garden, with its intensely coloured flowers saturating a space in rich ripe colour. Standalone as a statement plant and allow to creep up your house exterior (they can reach heights of 30m!). There are actually around 250 species of bougainvillea in a range of colours from magenta to white, so you’re sure to find a variety that suits your home and garden aesthetic.

bougainvillea
Source: Jardi Partage

32. Stone deities

You can’t go wrong with a statue of Buddha or another deity as they’ll always bring instant tropical garden vibes. If you’re worried about being cliched, don’t be! The trick is simply finding one with an appropriately serene and wise expression rather than something cartoonish. I like the look of this guy:

stone deities tropical garden ideas
Source: Pinterest

33. Tropical outdoor shower

If your home is full of water babies, installing an outdoor shower is a practical and pleasing addition to your tropical garden design.  I love the look of plants juxtaposed against black timber and it’s another tried and true colour combo when it comes to tropical garden designs. Matte black wood just contrasts so well with glossy green leaves and will also retain the heat better than lighter coloured timbers.

tropical garden design with outdoor shower
Source: The Local Project

34. Rainforest frame

It certainly helps create an effortless tropical vibe when your house is situated on the edge of a national park, like this one edging the rainforest in Noosa. But you can emulate this look by surrounding your home with densely planted palms and ferns to create tapestries of flourishing foliage. I love the faded timber walkways here as well.

rainforest frame
Source: Homes To Love

35. A touch of the tropics

Even if you don’t have the space for a sprawling jungle aesthetic, you can still bring the relaxing flavour of the tropics to your patio or sunroom with the addition of a few large potted tropical plants, plenty of woven and wooden décor and bright white paint. How gorgeous is this minimalist tropical setting on the deck of Durham House, a boutique hotel in Brisbane?

minimalist tropical garden on patio
Source: Durham House

Tips for mimicking tropical conditions

With the exception of frost-prone regions where tropical plants just won’t grow, you can achieve a tropical aesthetic even in cooler areas provided you follow some simple guidelines.

  • Ensure you are planting into nutrient-rich, well-draining soil—prep the ground well by layering compost, leaf litter, garden clippings and thick mulch.
  • Aim to recreate the microclimate of a jungle or rainforest, where plants grow very densely in a way that encourages humidity.
  • Layer them so that more vulnerable plants are protected by a canopy of hardier, more wind tolerant ones.
  • If possible incorporate physical structures for added shelter—consider green shade cloth, or planting near stone or brick walls as this helps retain heat as well.
  • Finally, expect to spend a little time on maintenance, regularly feeding with mulch and seaweed spray and pruning rampantly growing plants. (If you’re time-poor, you can easily get some local help with garden maintenance.)

So there’s my pick of sultry, steamy green sanctuaries that have all the holiday feels of an equatorial oasis. I’m ready to put on my lei, pull out my sun lounger and fix myself a rum tiki—care to join me? Which tropical garden design transports you to your favourite holiday island? Let me know in the comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gianna

I'm an interior design writer living on the mid-north coast of NSW with my two kids and three cats.

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