New 'blank slate' tropicalesque front yard ideas?

lisa99(8 Dallas)June 16, 2003

After ripping out everything in my backyard and switching to palms/bananas/ee and hibiscus I'm ready to start on the front yard, but I don't really know where to begin.

I've bought several books on tropical landscaping and have seen suggestions on where to buy plans for borders, but so far none of the ideas have inspired me.

So to my question... if you had a blank slate and a front yard that is 60'wide and 35'deep w/a front walk snaking up the middle, what would be in your "tropical looking" front yard? (as background.. single-story brick ranch house, zone 8 - Dallas, fairly alkaline soil [7.3] and literally nothing in the yard right now, just soil ready for planting.)

Thanks for any tips!


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tamivileine(z8b OS,MS, US)

Don't know if you have this book, but it was a great help to me:

THE EXOTIC GARDEN, Richard Iversen

This book covers borders, beds, whatever. And has suggestions for not only 'victorian' traditional layouts, but also has some very nice more modern gardens. also has great tips for how to overwinter, and when to plant, it's an awesome resource.

Between that book and Robert Lee Riffle (who does subscribe to Garden Web!)'s great book THE TROPICAL LOOK, I got what I wanted, and started out as a novice (well, I still am, but I learned some stuff!)

right off the bat, I'd suggest:
draw a layout of your yard and design on paper first.

Learn the types of plants you want to put in. What are the conditions they like? What conditions does your yard offer? (ex. sun, shade, soggy, dry, etc.)
Arrange similar colors together. (ex. red/yelo/orange bed, blue/purple/white/pink bed) the kewl thing about tropicals is that you can plant for colorful foliage and flowers be damned. You can contrast colors and/or have similar colors with very different leaf shapes for contrast.
Plant tall 'architectural' plants to the back or center, then plant smaller and smaller from then outward.

Iversen is good for design, Riffle is good for learning the type of plants which work for your area.

sea ya

    Bookmark   June 16, 2003 at 5:25PM
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lisa99(8 Dallas)

Thanks! I'm heading to the bookstore right now

    Bookmark   June 16, 2003 at 7:17PM
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safariofthemind(z7b NC)

My one suggestion is to think about the "bones" first, that is where your paths and trees will be and where the sun is coming from so you can site your sitting area. Then decide if you want a "grassland", "savanah" or "jungle".

If you decide on a grassland, the tropicals you'll want will be short and you can emphasize things like Crinums, Hippeastrums, grasses, etc. etc.

If you decide on a savanah, you'll want short trees and a mixture of sun/part sun/shade plants. You can use the bananas and the EE's in sun too if you can get them enough water. Otherwise, large Agaves and trees like Henry Lauder's walking stick, fig trees and other contorted/large leaved trees will grow great. I'd try to create "rooms" that you walk into using serpentine paths.

If you go for the jungle look, then vines and trees take preeeminence. Fast growers and bushy plants. You can also use bedding plants like impatiens to great effect in a setting like this. Probably the best thing you could do for this look is to visit the Sierra Madre in Mexico and take some good pics for ideas.

Another good book is The Tropical Garden by William Warren.

Good luck. This sounds like a fun project.


    Bookmark   June 16, 2003 at 11:49PM
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lisa99(8 Dallas)

Thanks for the great tips. Now that you've pointed it out, I guess the bones are really what I've been agonizing over. I want a lush look, so have an idea of the plants, but am struggling over where to place the beds, should they be mounded or not [we have terrible clay soil], and most importantly how do I do a tasteful design that's not "over the top". I'm in a fairly conservative neighborhood in Plano TX and am trying not to be the "weird house on the block!"


    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 9:47AM
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Lisa, I agree with Safariofthemind, although you want it done yesterday, it is best to get hardscapes down first. And don't make the same mistake I did. Include evergreens! Now after 2 years of putting tropicals in my yard, I find wintertime leaves me wanting.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 9:59AM
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Lisa, actually I learned from one of our published resident experts here, Field Roebuck, our soils are anything but terrible. Our blackland prarie clay soil is actually the second most fertile land in the world, from accounts I've read. Many nutrients and micronutrients, usually a lack of organic material is all that's missing, and a lack of nitrogen. In any event, mix compost with your clay before planting.

As for the tropical look, glad to see many peope are into it! I went whole hog into OGRs over the last 3 years, but have mixed in several tropicalesque plants, and overwintered 3 bouganvilleas and a hibiscus and several sago palms and a Chinese palm. Have a few more this year, and added a couple of Mexican fan palms. They will need wrapping in sub 32 degree weather, as I understand it. I also ordered several gingers, as roots, which came up, and 4 crinum lillies. I guess I'll find out how they take our summers and winters this year!

The tall in back, medium in between, and short in front may sound common sensical, but is very good advise. And I have 'overplanted" in some areas, but I like having to find new homes for perrenials and other plants, and enjoying the full look that comes with dense planting.

Anyway, good luck on your new adventure! Keep us updated on your progress.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 11:47AM
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lisa99(8 Dallas)

Randy, good luck on your palms. In the backyard I have a pindo, california fan palms, chinese fans, and a windmill. One of the california fans is about 8 years old, but the rest went into the ground last fall and all of them made it through the early spring freeze with no wrapping (although I did lose the leaves on my sago). There is a list of very cold hardy palms on the internet at The needle palm can go to -20!

And thanks for the tips on the soil. I've had my soil tested and there is no measurable presence of nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium. Also, the drainage rate in the clay is awful, so I want to make sure the heavy water user's roots don't rot.


    Bookmark   June 17, 2003 at 1:02PM
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Lisa, I'm very close to you (Far north Carrollton) and can tell you that you are not the only one interested in this. I've actually spun a business here doing tropicalesque landscaping (mainly in backyards, pool settings, etc). I agree that the "bones" are critical. You need an evergreen foundation and then build the tropical effect around that. Otherwise, you will definitely be that "wierd house". Drive around some of the high-end neighborhoods in and around Willowbend and up in Frisco and you will see many mediaterranean styles homes with tropicalesque landscapes. They are building the foundation and then using windmill palms (Trachys) and Sabal Texanas, combined with yuccas, multi-trunked crepe myrtles,ornamental grasses, and other plants that look good in a tropical setting for great effect. Email me directly and I can point you to some specific neighborhoods.


    Bookmark   June 18, 2003 at 4:49PM
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lisa99(8 Dallas)

Thanks Eric. Would love to know the specific neighborhoods, but I don't see an email address to mail to you!

    Bookmark   June 18, 2003 at 5:51PM
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Lisa, use I think you will like some of the things I mentioned that are being done. Should give you some good ideas.


    Bookmark   June 22, 2003 at 12:25AM
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greendogart(Central Fl z9)

I agree with above suggestion, start with the bare bones. I have a Drake Elm in my back yard. This medium size, weepy looking, tree with small leaves is perfect for a ranch style (I have one also) and provides shade for some of the shade loving plants that I love. It looses its leaves for a short time just before Spring but isn't messy. I believe you'd consider it a fast grower. We paid about $100 10 years ago, and for that price then, it was large enough to provide some shade for our dog that preferred being outside. In the sunbelt I believe for a tropical look you need some cool shade. I like looking at the landscapes in magazines like Veranda or Florida Style (name?). They make me want to head for the yard and start digging. Have fun!!!!

    Bookmark   June 23, 2003 at 9:44PM
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BrianB(9 N CA)

There are several very hardy palms. Butia, Trachycarpus, Serenoa, Sabal, Washingtonia, Jubea, Parajubea torallyi and more. Check the International Palm Society website. You can also plant various hardy Bananas such as Musa basjoo, M. sikkimensis (I have seeds of this one and plants too), Musella and so on.
Althea (Rose of Sharon) is a hardy type of hibuscus.
Many vines look tropical. Try Passiflora "Incense", Bignonia, Arstilochia (Dutchman's pipe), Mandavillea laxa (Chilean Jasmine), and so on.
Use larges leafed plants like Taro, Elephant Ears.
Heliconia schiediana is very hardy and so it seems is H. bourgiana.
I'd kill for a cutting or two of Plumeria "Sierra Madre" but Stokes no longer can get it and the owner of the parent tree in Vista CA has had gopher trouble. So if you have this Plumeria I'll trade very rare plants or pay you for it.
Contact me for more info or if you have things to trade suitable for zone 9 (northern California).
I'm also looking for Zephrantes species from Mexico and also the Z. Atamasco native to our own Dixie.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2004 at 4:05AM
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lholton2(z8 TX)

I, too am in Dallas. Looking to buy a house. Am staying with my daughter now here. She and I both are into the tropical thing. I love palms and want to incorporate them into my yard. Am looking for a home with a yard to work in and pool and room for a pond. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Lynn

    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 3:39PM
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I did a similar thing with my yard. I killed all the grass that wasn't dead already, and planted tropicals.
Here are a few pictures of the transformation:

And a few more tropicals:

It might give you some ideas.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2006 at 7:29PM
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