Tropical Landscaping with Emphasis
on Palm Trees, Cycads and Companion Plants
With New Information on Water Conservation
Creating a beautiful garden is
the goal of many, and there are multiple garden themes one may follow to
landscape the garden. Which landscape design or theme you select
depends on your tastes. Some people prefer a formal, symmetrical
garden with emphasis on flowering plants like roses and annuals. Some
like the alpine look of Pines, Fir and Rhododendrons. Others prefer an
arid desert type of landscape. Many (if they could), would choose a
lush tropical landscape garden. All garden-themes have their own appeal. Below is a discourse on the creation and design of a tropical
to semi-tropical landscape with an emphasis on palm trees, cycads and
tropical companion plants. And, with recent water
restrictions in California, I've added comments on how to have a
tropical garden and still conserve water.
We are not going to discuss structure or
hardscape, but rather the plants, with some emphasis
on the species one might choose for a great tropical
landscape. But, first one must come up with
a concept of what they are trying to create. And, in doing this, there are many things to consider. The
plants you select and how you place them is very
We will be showing you photographs of gardens
to give you ideas about what you could do in your
A driveway leading into a lush tropical
garden (Photo BGL).
Usage of palms and cycads in the design.
There are a few guiding principals which I
would like the readers to consider as they
review this article and pursue their landscape
Decide what type of landscape
design you want to create (If you
like tropical landscaping, this article very
much applies to you).
Plan ahead and select your plants wisely;
decide which species will give you the
desired landscape design you seek.
Don’t fall into the trap of planting
"available species" and not picking the
species you really want. With a little
work you can find unusual and desirable
species. Don't let your gardener steer
you to common plants.
Decide on the general design and
density of planting that you'd
prefer for your garden.
Given reasonable growing
conditions, realize that anyone can create a
beautiful tropical garden, but
species chosen must be able to survive in
Remember to plan for different
layers of plants in your garden and
consider canopy-forming species for your
Use plantings to accentuate and
beautify the hardscape when you
landscape the garden.
Find solutions for those “difficult
areas” to landscape as part of your garden
Place individual plants
Apply good culture to your tropical
Be patient and time will reward your
Tropical landscape complimented by a stone
Taller species of palms in the rear with
shorter species in the foreground (photo
Unusual palms & cycads at a hotel
adjacent to a lawn area
An assortment of palms around a lawn
Water feature accent in a tropical
Beach deck and palapa by G.B.
Your Locality & Growing Conditions
If you like the looks of a tropical garden, you must
take a realistic look at is your local
growing conditions. How cold do you get?
Is it extremely dry? It’s very difficult to
create an outdoor tropical garden if you live in the
cold central areas of the United States or in a
mountainous area that sees long cold winters.
Likewise, hot and dry areas present their own
problems with your garden landscape design.
There are articles elsewhere at this Site that deal
with such issues.
Regarding cold tolerance, always consider how cold
any given species can tolerate. This
article is aimed at conditions one might see in
Southern California with it’s mild climate.
But, concepts below are applicable to other
areas whether you live in South Texas, Florida,
Hawaii or far into the Tropics.
We will show a few pictures from areas
outside Southern California. The only
difference in design is which species you select for
growing in your garden. One way or another,
there is a way you can do tropical landscaping in
Palms trunks along a
garden's edge (photo BGL).
An example of different layers of height in
Most people start with their hardscape design
and installation. This means you put in the
pool and decks before you plant.
is not absolutely necessary, but is the most common
practice. But, planning ahead for your
plantings is critical.
Often a landscape designer or architect is hired to
come up with a basic plan regarding the structural
aspects of your garden. His or her main
contributions will include the design of features
like a pool, fountains, walls, walkways, decks,
water features, irrigation, etc. And, such an
architect might select and specify species of plants
for you. If you know that you want a tropical
garden, it is best for you to select a professional
who has experience with the tropical types of plants
that you like. Designers and architects may
have their own personal preferences that they
recommend and these might not match your goals.
Or, they might have limited knowledge about palms
and cycads. So, either hire a designer with
experience with these plants or do
research on your own. And,
that beautiful species are utilized in your plans.
Often commonly available plants like Queen Palms,
Pigmy Dates and Sago Palms are all that is called
for to lower costs and because these might
be the only species a designer knows.
Demand otherwise or buy your own plants and have
them installed after you select them.
Once you’ve signed for a contractor to
provide and plant the common species, it’s often
difficult or expensive to alter the plants when the
day comes for installation of the softscape
material. So, plan ahead and you'll get that
tropical garden that you want.
cycads at the base of taller palms trees.
An assortment of palms planted right up to
Now, let’s jump
forward and assume that your basic hardscape is
done. Perhaps you bought a house with a
pool, deck and sprinklers. Lets say these
items are there but everything looks sort of
plain and “empty” with no nice plants. Or,
perhaps you hired someone to install the
hardscape and now you are ready to plant.
Or, it's just a "backyard" that you've never
landscaped. It doesn't matter. It’s what you do with it now that makes all the
difference in the world. It’s the plants
you select and how you plant them that will
determine the eventual beauty of your landscape.
The exact same yard with the same hardscape can
either become gorgeous or remain boring just
based on the plants that are selected and put
into the yard.
So often people spend a small fortune on
the hardscape and then save money at the tail
end their project by skimping on the plants.
This is quite a mistake because the plants are
what really makes the landscape beautiful and are
(typically) a small fraction of the overall cost
of the project. My point here is
to use the same diligence in selecting your
plants as you did to select the beautiful tile
around your pool. You really can
turn a boring yard into a tropical paradise with
plant material and basic horticultural care.
And, you can make that landscape project “look
like a million bucks” with the right selection
With these things in mind, hopefully by now I've at
least put the idea that anyone can
improve the looks of their yard by just putting a
little effort into what they are doing and by
selecting the right material to plant. So,
let’s begin talking about specific topics and give
you ideas of how you can change your “yard” into a
unique and beautiful “garden”.
Density of Planting In the Garden,
How far apart does one spaces the plants?
Major variables in planting out the garden include:
1) Selection of species to plant
2) Creation of vertical height to the garden (a
variable of the species you select)
3) Placement of specimens and
4) Density of planting (discussed below)
Minimalist Approach with Just A Few Tropical Plants
Let’s first talk about density of planting.
There are a lot of approaches to density. One
might want a very minimalist type of garden with a
few plants here or there. Or, one might only
want only one big palm tree in front of the house.
It’s really a matter of personal preference.
Minimalist gardens often have expansive areas of
lawn or simple ground cover over these areas.
If you go this route, consider plants that get large
and are stately. Certain
Jubaea, and others satisfy this situation.
But, be aware that one huge plant in the center of
the yard can be a bit boring. In contrast to
this, one can do a central planting of a larger
species and then complement this with perimeter
plantings closer to the house or fence. And,
one can put companion plants like
Philodendron, Alocasia, etc. near the base
of the larger plants to add interest. It is
quite common to see homeowners pay dearly to crane
in a few big Canary Island Palms. But, without
additional plants to offset the magnitude of the big
Canaries, the yard looks out of balance and is not
really appealing. So, be careful if you just
plan to put in "one big palm".
Nice pathways are good for viewing the garden.
Lightly Planted Tropical Gardens
This approach is commonly seen in our areas of
Southern California. This includes some plants
next to the house and driveway with scattered plants
elsewhere, typically along the fence or perimeter of
the yard. To most eyes, such gardens are more
appealing than the “minimalist” garden discussed
above. With the right choice of species, this
approach can be appealing and not overwhelming to
the homeowner. It would be considered easy
maintenance and preserves space for a lawn or other
features. One must still choose interesting
species to add character to the yard. If one
has deck areas, tropical plants can be added to
A dramatic Brahea armata in flower in the
More Densely Planted Tropical Gardens
Now imagine a garden that is planted either medium
or heavy in terms of density of plants.
designed like a botanical garden with more emphasis
on the plants than the lawn and utilizing a good
variety of species. Often lawn areas are
minimal (reserved for accent or viewing) or
eliminated altogether. One might imagine that
such gardens are more maintenance, but when you
eliminate the need for mowing and edging, less
maintenance may result. Such gardens do not
have to be “a jungle”. One just remembers that
the ultimate size that a palm "will" become as
opposed to the size it is when first planted.
Palms, when young, may look nice crowded together
but with time will compete with each other and
overlap. Remember, ultimate size is a
very predictable thing with palms and cycads.
Thus, you space accordingly. Also,
remember that taller palms grow vertically and in
time, the crown of the plant is overhead.
Therefore, two plants five feet apart are only
touching above, but give plenty of distance between
each other on the ground. Such a garden, in
time, will offer lots of space for miniature plants
and companion plants. Such gardens tend to
remind one of a tropical island like Hawaii and are
very aesthetic. Remember, on the floor of a
tropical rain forest, there's lots of room to walk
around. It's in the overhead canopy that
things are a bit more crowded.
The Jungle Look
Many people just want a "whole bunch of tropical
plants everywhere". It makes them
think they are in the tropics while in their own
garden. You might be one of those
people who prefers the "jungle look" with very dense
plantings in your tropical landscape theme garden. This can be very appealing, but is
overwhelming for others. This style gives one
large trunks next to the walkway and the definite
feeling of being in the rain forest. As plants
grow overhead, ground levels open up for planting
with understory companion plants and shady loving
color. If you plan this type of garden, review
ultimate size projections for the species utilized
so you are not taken by surprise later.
Above you'll see fairly lush gardens
with nice deck and railings
Colorful plants in garden by G.A.
Pool and tropical plants by G.A.
An open patio looking out to a tropical
Eventual Height of the Garden
Now let’s discuss the ultimate height of the
garden. Of course, culture has something to do
with this but it is more determined by the species
one puts into the garden. A basic principal of
tropical gardens is the canopy. This includes
crowns of plants that are overhead. With
palms, typically “high” canopy would be above thirty
to forty feet or above. “Mid” canopy would be
fifteen to thirty feet. Some tropical hardwood
trees produce tops of canopies that are well over
one hundred feet. Canopy offers the homeowner
protection from cold, cooler summer temperatures,
and dappled light near the ground for growing more
shade-loving, smaller species. Not only
is such filtered light appealing, but it also gives
the feeling of being in a tropical rain forest.
Canopy forming genera might include species of
Ravenea and various other palms.
Under the canopy in the filtered light, there are
many species of palms and cycads and smaller
companion plants that one can utilize.
Included would be
Licuala, and many other exciting smaller
plants. And, between the understory plants and the
upper canopy rise the mid-story species. Such
plants might include
Chambeyronia, and lots of other beautiful
palms. In time, these three layers of
understory plants, mid-canopy and upper canopy are
quite stunning and very aesthetic. One looks
at the ground and it’s beautiful smaller plants,
then looks up a bit to see the middle layers of
plantings and is immediately drawn upward to the
overhead taller plants. It’s a really thrill
to see such a garden. It’s beyond the scope of
this article to include all the species that would
qualify for each layer of this type of garden ( a
few have been given above), but there are many
choices of palms and cycads to utilize.
A little retreat in the rain forest.
A very densely planted tropical landscape garden (photo BGL).
Beautiful palm trees with colorful trunks
and crown shafts (photo BGL).
Dypsis lutescens, the Areca Palm.
This is a medium sized palm tree.
Vary the Species and Utilize Unusual Plants
Another important factor is creating a great
that shows diversity and something “different” at
every point of the garden. Here we are talking
about different shapes of leaves, different trunks,
different colors, and a whole mixture of plants that
gives interest to the garden. Most people have
seen the garden where there’s just a whole bunch of
Queen Palms, nothing else. You might admire
that someone got a very good deal on Queen Palms,
but the overall appeal of the garden is lacking.
It’s just repetitive and boring.
over 3000 species of palms and most are quite
different. There are nearly 300 species of
cycads. Some palms are huge, while others are
tiny. Some have fan leaves. Others have
pinnate (feather) leaves. Some sucker (have
additional trunks from the base), while others are
“single trunked”. Some have “crown shafts”
(the slick trunk below the crown), while others have
fibrous or hairy trunks. Some palms have blue
leaves while others, especially species from
Madagascar, offer all colors of the rainbow in their
upper trunks and stems. Still other species
have beautiful burgundy-red newly emerging leaves.
The same is true with cycads. All these
differences add a mystique to the garden. The
variety of species utilized adds aesthetics to the
garden. And, this variety is fun! It is
highly advisable that you select from the diverse
palate of species that Nature has offered to you.
to left with Cyphoephoenix on right above.
Planting and Layout of Landscape
Additionally important is exactly where to plant
each individual plant and how to lay out the
different species. Ultimately,
it's always a matter of personal taste.
basic approach is to put larger plants toward the
back and have the garden come down in height
(smaller species) as it approaches you and the
walkway. This allows you to see “everything at
once”. But, scattering the big with the little
(mixing it up) does have its advantages. In a
way, it is more natural. Imagine walking
through the garden and a huge trunk is right next to
the walkway. And, you walk by and slap it like
a watermelon, looking overhead to the canopy.
Another rule is to avoid suckering plants that will
get large right next to a walkway, a deck, a
driveway, etc. These suckering plants block
your view of the rest of the garden. You can
see past a vertical trunk, but not through a bushy
plant. Also, avoid putting spiny or “pokey”
plants where they might hurt someone on a path.
Remember not to block a cherished view with your
plantings; nor block the view of your neighbors.
Also, carefully select plant species that will complement
Cycads near a tumbling
waterfall are quite striking.
following a long curvy driveway are a classic design
idea. Some palms can be “trained” to lean out
over a pool. If you have large rocks on your
property, take advantage of them by planting palms
and cycads amongst or between the boulders.
Remember to not plant taller species below overhead
cables and wires. Also, random planting not
utilizing a regular plot is more natural appearing.
A shady walkway leading through the garden
Another shady understory area
Conservation and the Tropical Garden
Yes, it is possible to have a lush tropical
appearing garden and yet conserve water. It's
all about using techniques to save water as well as
picking the right species to grow. California
has recently implemented water restrictions and many
are panicked. I'd advise that the enthusiast
not change their dream garden but rather plan it out
properly and select species that don't demand as
much water. It can be done.
Here is a link to an article I've written on just
Water Conservation with Palms
Things to Avoid
Avoid a monotonous, repetitive garden. It is
really true that a garden with lots of diversity is
more appealing and interesting. I'd highly
recommend that you seek out this diversity when you
select your planting material. And, a good
specialty nursery (such as Jungle Music Palms and
Cycads) can typically provide you with such
material. "Basement-bargain" plants probably
won't give that award winning look to your creation.
But, you still must select species that you actually
like. It might take a bit of work, but it can
be done. It is best to select well-grown, high
quality material, preferably grown in your area.
Regarding planting, avoid at all costs the "grid" or
"checkerboard" approach to landscape. This is
where plants (often the same species) are planted in
lines, all equal distance from each other, all in a
row. Such plantings can be appealing if it is
done along a long driveway or parkway. But, be
careful. It can look very contrived and
boring. In the garden, if you plant in perfect
rows and columns, the end result will not be
appealing. Instead, utilize irregular
plantings, groupings, or staggering of species.
Another thing to remember is not to plant a species
that will get huge right up against the house.
Examples would be putting a
right next to any structure.
Also, remember not to put taller species under the
eaves of the house. Avoid spiny plants near
the front sidewalk. And finally, do not use
too many of the same species. Everyone has
seen the yard that has nothing but Queen Palms.
Yes, this is boring, but the same undesirable effect
can result from any species. Vary your
plantings with different species, sizes, and
A newer garden on left with cycads; to right a large
Every garden has a few areas that seem to perplex
the garden "designer". Examples might include
the narrow “slot” between two houses, often with
total shade. Or, there’s that ugly area
harboring the pool equipment or hiding supplies. Or, that low
fence where the neighbors peer over to see you in
the spa. Or, that ugly apartment building next
door that looks into your yard.
us at the nursery, solving such problems is a daily
affair. And, there are particular plants for
every situation. There are specific species
that thrive in the narrow slot on the north side of
the house; others are ideal for hiding the unwanted
neighbor or the pool equipment. Still others
give privacy to a bedroom window or an ugly wall.
Such plant barriers do solve these problems are are
a much more attractive than leaving things as they
were. And, when done, one forgets about the
problems and looks at amazing garden.
An array of tropical plants in a narrow
A collection of cycads under a large old
offer an alternative to palms for those seeking rare
tropical plants that don’t get too tall. They
can be an important part of tropical landscaping.
And, this group of plants is equally as exciting as
palms and have a history all their own.
are “Jurassic” plants that have shown little
evolution since the time of the dinosaurs.
They are quite primitive and at the same time
amazingly unique. They come is all shapes,
colors, and sizes. They are among the most
coveted and rare plants on this planet. Some
almost get large enough in time that you would think
they are a palm tree. A common
misunderstanding is that the Sago Palm is a palm; it
is actually a cycad and the term is a misnomer.
The Sago Palm is quite commonly used in landscape
Did you know that there are
hundreds of other types of cycads? And, each
species is unique in its size and appearance.
Their adult sizes ranges from under a foot to over
fifty feet tall. Some are spiny; others are
smooth. Some are blue ad others green.
And, some prefer shade and have the most tropical
leaves of any plants. And, they
are each different from the other. All are
wonderful for the garden and look great under a
larger palm or against a wall or structure.
Utilizing cycads gives a real touch of "class" to
Older cycads accentuating a garden
The leaves of a green Cycas are quite
Cycads around a large Chilean
Cycad in garden
The Companion Plants
Add Color, Diversity and
Finally, what about all the other “companion plants”
that one can add to the garden to create a tropical
landscape. Companion plants are
typically smaller plants of various types that add
diversity, color and interest to the garden,
especially on the floor of the garden.
These include things such as Ferns,
Cycads, Bromeliads, Alocasia, Calocasia,
Philodendrons, Anthuriums, Crotons, Ti’s,
Impatience, Begonia, and a whole myriad of other
colorful and delightful types of plants. What
such plantings do is ‘complete” the garden. A
well designed garden with proper placement of
species with nothing but dirt showing between the
plants just doesn’t look right. One could
plant a shade-loving lawn, but this creates a lot of
unwanted maintenance. Companion plants usually
are not high-maintenance. And, the color these
plants add to the garden is fantastic. Below
I've shown some items you could incorporate into
your design. For a comprehensive
article on tropical companion plants,
On left at top, two Pandanus specimens are quite striking
in the garden. Second photo shows
Alocasia sedenii followed by
Ligularia in blossom. The fourth photo
shows Ti's at the nursery, followed by one
in a large pot. The next picture is a color
Croton. The last two photos above
include red Bromeliads and an old Anthurium
A Few More Ideas...
There are a few more things that we should mention
regarding garden design. The first is to take
advantage of what your locality and yard provide to
you. If you live in a very hot locality,
select species that thrive in the heat. Or, if
you are living on a slope going down, select species
that are aesthetic to view from above. Cycads
would be a great example of this. Or perhaps
you have dense shade from a neighbor's tall trees.
There are species of palms that thrive in the shade.
If you are lucky enough to have large boulders on
your property, take advantage of them. They
hold heat and increase the soil temperatures.
This can assist in growing many species and cycads
love to be planted amongst boulders. All these
things help with your tropical landscape design.
Also, consider creating mounds for some of your
plantings. Many species like being elevated.
This can also be a solution for getting away from
overly wet soil conditions. If moisture in the
soil is a problem, there are species of palms that
love wet soil. Another point is about
walkways. These provide access for viewing your
garden. Try to make them wide enough for easy
passage and don't be afraid to give them a few bends
and turns. Curvy walkways fit nicely into a
tropical garden. Adjacent to the walkways is a
great place to plant colorful companion plants.
Pathways are an important part of the garden design.
A final point about tropical garden landscape is to
remember that diversity of shapes and sizes, a
variety of colors, changes in texture, and utilizing
unusual plant qualities adds to the fun and charm of
the garden. A new red leaf, a new colorful
cycad cone, or broad fan leaves add a final touch
that leaves a memorable picture for the viewer of
your tropically landscaped garden.
Water Conservation and a Tropical Garden
With water restrictions in some parts of the country,
I've written an article on how the plant enthusiast
can have a tropical garden and conserve water.
Yes, you can do both - Not use much water and yet have
a lush, tropical appearing garden. To learn more
on how to do this,
Read Water Conservation and the Tropical Garden
In summary, there are lot of things to consider
when creating a tropical garden. But, tropical
landscape is not difficult. And, anyone can do
it. It just takes some planning and selection
of the right species to plant and a good landscape
design. At Jungle Music Palms and Cycads, we
would love to help you landscape your garden and
attain your dreams, whether you're just getting
started or adding a few final plants. We are a
tropical plant nursery offering palms, cycads, and
other tropical trees. And, we feel confident you
will love what you create and before too long be
encouraging others to do the same.
A colorful Bromeliad accenting a water
feature and a tropical breezeway patio garden.