Some chilly day, when the wind is particularly harsh and the sun is buried deep in the clouds, take a moment and picture this: You’re reclining amid colorful, fragrant blooms as dappled sunlight drips down between the spindly leaves of lush, green palms. You can almost hear the sea breeze as you sip from your refreshingly exotic drink (complete with umbrella, please). Only you’re not on some tropical beach – it’s your own backyard paradise!

Tropical retreat

Who needs Hawaii when you can lounge pondside in your own backyard tropical retreat?!

Photo Credit: Donna W. Moramarco

Fan palms

Fan palms grow well in containers, but if you live in a warm climate, plant them outside – they can reach 15 feet tall!

Photo Credit: John Donley


Hibiscus flowers come in a range of sizes and colors, and they can be planted in pots or in the ground.

Photo Credit: John Donley

Trumpet flowers

If you live in cooler regions, your angel’s trumpet will need to be brought inside during cold weather – but its beautiful blooms make it worth the trouble.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Yes, it’s all too easy to hear the call of the tropics during the blustery days of winter, but you don’t have to board an airplane to get there. With a little planning and some digging in the dirt, that paradise is only as far away as the first warm days of the year.

“Planning” is the key word in taking your first step toward realizing your tropical backyard getaway. Grab your notebook and a pencil and have a look at your back yard. Now let your imagination run wild. Think about the space you want to devote to your own personal oasis. Will it take up the entire yard, or should you choose a special spot – a quiet corner, perhaps? You only need a rough sketch of the area to efficiently plan your space.

Next, think about your focal point – and I’m talking furniture here. Every good getaway has a place to relax, right? So think about how you’ll be most comfortable in your tropical retreat. Maybe what you need is a pair of weathered Adirondack chairs or a couple of brightly colored, cushioned lounge chairs with a small table in between (for putting down that half-finished romance novel while you snooze). Do you eat al fresco with the family all summer long? Then maybe you need a cozy outdoor dining table and chairs. Whatever you choose as your focal point, it should be something that evokes the tropics for you.

Now it’s time to think about the plants for your personal escape. Nothing says “summer vacation” louder than palm trees, and there are so many varieties you can choose! There’s bound to be one or two that grow in your area – even if it’s a houseplant or a big banana tree that’s planted as an annual. Many palms can be grown in containers so you can bring them indoors when the weather heads south. (And then you can have that taste of the tropics inside for winter!) Consider sago palm (Cycas revoluta), windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) and umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius). There are also particular species that can grow in chillier climates – like the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) and European fan palm (also known as Mediterranean fan palm; Chamaerops humilis).

Be sure to match the palms’ sunlight requirements with the kind of sun you’ll find in your tropical getaway. Remember, sun requirements can run the gamut from full sun to shade, and if you have to move your plants inside for winter, you need to make sure these light requirements are still met if you want your plants to live to the next season. Use a good palm fertilizer with manganese and magnesium during the growing season to keep your plants happy and lush.

And of course you simply can’t create a tropical oasis without colorful flowers, so let’s move on to the big bloomers! Hibiscus is probably the ultimate tropical flowering plant. (After all, it’s the state flower of Hawaii and the national flower of Malaysia.) There are literally thousands of varieties, and the blooms come in just about any glorious color and size – with some reaching 12 inches wide! An added bonus: You can grow healthy Hibiscus in the ground or in pots, so regardless of your climate, you can definitely incorporate these beauties into your backyard retreat. (Some varieties will keep blooming as a houseplant long after summer’s gone, brightening up those long, dreary winters!)

Looking for some other tropical ideas? Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia aurea) is an exotic favorite, with its large, trumpet-shaped blooms and a fragrance that will bring birds, butterflies and bees into your garden. Or try Heliconia, which produce brilliant ornamental flowers and are easy to grow; gingers, with their wonderful fragrances; bananas, known for their huge leaves; and bromeliads, the most popular of which is the pineapple. Or give Plumeria – also known as the lei flower – a try. It can be grown either in the ground in warmer climates or in containers filled with coarse, well-draining potting soil in cooler climates. (Hey, who needs Hawaii when you can make your own lei at home? What could be more tropical than that?!)

As you look for tropical plants at your local nursery, keep a few things in mind: If you live in a warm climate (zones 9 and 10), you can plant almost anything in the ground. For cooler climates, containers are a great option. Be sure to look for lightweight containers so that you can easily move them indoors when cold weather comes. If you live in a cool climate and are set on planting your tropicals in the ground, just think of the plants as annuals and enjoy them as long as they last. Then next spring you can experiment with a new round of beauties to see which you like best.

Finally, here are a few tips on caring for your tropicals: If you’re going with mostly containerized plants, mix 4 parts potting soil to 1 part perlite (as a general rule). When it comes to watering these tender lovelies, be sure to use tepid water so that you don’t shock the roots. And don’t forget to fertilize appropriately during the growing season.

With a little research and a willingness to get down into the dirt, you’ll be able to grow that piece of paradise – right in your own back yard! Now, about that drink with the umbrella in it…