We asked Miami landscape architect Raymond Jungles, who’s known for this lush, low-fuss gardens, to share his secrets for turning any yard into a tropical retreat.
“I would rather the edge of my property look like the edge of the woods than look at someone else’s property or a wall,” says Raymond. From towering shade trees to midsize shrubs to low-lying ground cover, using different-size plants creates textured layers. Here’s one of Raymond’s favorite combinations: a low layer of deep-purple ground cover that won’t exceed 12 inches tall, a medium layer of flaming orange bromeliads and feathery green cycads, and an uppermost canopy of palms. “I like a garden that, if not tended, still looks good―almost like nature took over,” he says.
Whether you turn a decorative pot into a fountain or have the space to create a larger garden with a waterfall, a water feature is a dramatic touch that provides tranquility and drowns out city noises.
“When I’m designing a garden on Nevis or Mustique or Antigua, I use the island’s natural stone,” says Raymond. “In Florida, it’s limestone or key stone, which has a lot of coral reef in it.” If stone is not readily available or too costly, a similar textured finish can result from sprinkling coarse rock salt over wet concrete and pressing it into the surface. In place of ground cover or between pavers and stones, use black river rock, a common element in tropical landscapes.
Bright-pink bougainvillea is always good for adding bursts of color to a predominantly green garden. Teak benches, like those found in the gardens of Bali, add old-world tropical charm. Though native to the tropics, bougainvillea, passion flower, and golden trumpet can be planted as annuals in temperate-zone gardens and will thrive with lots of sunshine.
“You can’t have too much,” Raymond says. “It has a calming, cooling effect, especially in tropical climates, where the sun is so hot.” To make your space visually more interesting, use various shades of green and create texture by mixing leaves in different sizes and shapes, such as low-lying, fernlike palms with the large, broad leaves of philodendrons.
Exotic and striking, orchids instantly transport a garden to the tropics, where they often grow on the sides of trees, their roots drawing nutrients from the bark. Hang them in baskets from tree branches, and tuck potted orchids among green foliage.
“I feel our gardens are a success when they create a natural habitat that brings wildlife into that space,” says Raymond. In sunny, open areas, purple Mexican salvia and yellow bulbine create a colorful habitat that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
Slow-growing trees, like Florida silver palms, or bromeliads, with their spiked leaves and extremely long-lasting blooms, become a striking focal point on a patio, terrace, or balcony. “When selecting containers, I prefer simple, clean forms over ornamentation,” says Raymond. “I also like unusual old pots that have an interesting patina.” Shady options: “Triangle palms are sculptural, and take low light conditions surprisingly well,” Raymond says. “Pair them with bromeliads with a similar silver/blue color, such as tillandsia and Aechmea fasciata. Nestle the bromeliads into a bed of dark gray river rock of various sizes.”
Reminiscent of lush jungles and rain forests, immense leaves add drama and a distinctively tropical tone to a garden. In temperate zones, some of the hardier large- leaf species include elephant ears, philodendrons, and gunnera. Ligularia and hostas are best for smaller spaces because they won’t dominate the surrounding plants.
Flowers are not the only source of color in a tropical garden. Foliage, with its brilliant array of hues and leaf shapes, adds variety in a more permanent form, because it doesn’t rely on bloom cycles. Pink, red, yellow, chartreuse, and purple leaves are especially effective for bringing color to shade gardens.