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Holiday at Home

When summer temperatures soar, I get a little thrill out of heading out to my back yard. That's because I've a gorgeous subtropical garden that boasts cooling foliage, running water and bright colour. Instantly, I'm on holiday – my spirit is refreshed and I'm thinking: why travel abroad when I can have my island paradise at home?

In creating a subtropical garden, the idea is to create stimulating places. Think about the design of your outdoor space; a balcony, window box, courtyard or garden – and imagine how you might work in some elements from holiday destinations such as Thailand, Bali, or the Phillipines. Think pavilions, pools, fountains and paving with bold luxurious plantings, contrasting textures, shapes, shadows and a wonderful play of light and shadow.

The front garden is for others to enjoy. It should provide an attractive outlook from the house and a vibrant and welcoming presence from the street. Verandas that overlook the garden provide an opportunity to bring the garden inside with unobstructed views. For vitality, prosperity and auspicious opportunities, feng shui practice suggests you introduce a pond, birdbath or fountain in the front garden. Create an area for water to trickle and dance, refracting light and creating sparkle.

Out the front, plant low-growing plantings such as rhoeo, Clivea, Philodendron 'Xanadu' and New Guinea impatiens to encourage your guests to wander through your garden, making their way to the taller, more dramatic plantings such as canna lily, flax and gingers at the back of the display. There are few things with more of a holiday feel than a frangipani, nestled against a warm brick wall, putting its best face to the street for all to enjoy. What's more, a frangipani growing at your garden gate will welcome you home with its fragrance. Clever feng shui practice will see you display your street number clearly on your house and letterbox to enhance the flow of prosperity into your home.

The back garden, unlike your front garden, is a private realm for you and your close friends to enjoy. It should be carefully planned for the ultimate in relaxation with space allocated for entertaining and practicalities. In large gardens, the subtropical style allows sweeping beds with abundant flower and foliage and wide expanses of lush lawn. Where space permits, an outdoor pavilion will give special focus while a sculpture, hammock or garden seat will offer visual stimulation.

Palms create the roof of your garden and although many palms are despised for their tatty appearance, there are many truly beautiful palms that are well behaved in a garden setting. They don't overgrow their position, drop fruit or hang onto old fronds. Choosing a good palm will make or break your subtropical garden. Bangalow and Alexandra palms, Archontophoenix spp., establish quickly while Golden cane palms, Dupsis lutescens, don't tend to overshadow other plants in your garden. Chinese Fan Palm, Trachecarpus fortunei is a truly exquisite palm - tolerant of poor soils, long-lived and short growing. The unique triangle palm, Dypsis decaryi, will provide interesting form and protect the rest of the garden from strong and drying winds.

Of the foliage plants, one of the most reliable, easy-care and versatile is the cordyline. Cordylines are natives in most parts of the world where the climate is good for holidaying. You find them growing wild in South-east Asia, South America, Mauritius and the Pacific islands. In New Guinea, the plants are called 'ti' and hold a central place in the culture. There's also one native to New Zealand, which doesn't mind cold weather, and there are eight species native to Australia. While these natives are garden plants with handsome fountains of foliage, they are all green, and the real thrill of the cordyline is colour – we're talking variation and variegations of red, pink, yellow, orange, cream, black and green.

Ctenanthe, sometimes called prayer plant, because of the way the leaves fold up in strong sun, is a foliage plants that's best in shade. There are a number of different forms available. Look for leaves with purple undersides and silvery-green tops to contrast with burgundy cordylines. The beautifully patterned leaves of Calatheas need a sheltered spot where hot sun can't reach them, and nor can frosts, and where the soil doesn't dry out. Crotons, in brilliant reds, yellows and oranges, are best left for tropical regions.

Some tried and true foliage favourites are quite common garden plants. But even common plants can make a splash with their bold leaves. Philodendron, Monstera, clivea, New Zealand flax and tree ferns give a tropical look no matter what the climate. Philodendron 'Xanadu' – is a very hardy plant for full sun or full shade. The glossy, dark-green, divided leaf provides a good understorey for taller-growing cordylines and an excellent border plant for along pathways. Cannas are grown for their lovely leaves as well as their flowers, and contrasting leaf colour and bold flower colour causes great summer interest. Contrast bold red flowers with cool blue salvias for a knockout late summer combination

New Guinea impatiens are for when you just have to have flowers, these plants have the right subtropical looks, as well as an ability to flower in part-shade. Hibiscus, frangipani, bromeliads and bananas are plants not to be forgotten and are very easy to grow. Red tower ginger, Costus barbatus, is a favourite for a splash of red, while clumps of shell ginger and justicia will flower for long lengths of time.

Design notes Want a subtropical holiday feel in your backyard? Here are six simple design ideas to get the look.

Water bowl Water, the essence of life, is soothing. A brightly glazed bowl full of water with pebbles, fish and foliage will become an eye-catching addition to your garden or balcony.Buddha

A contemplative Buddha statue, no matter what your religion, seems to add a sense of peace and reflection. Choose one and place it within the garden for the best effect.

Spot for a seat A hammock or deck chair will tempt you to sit down and survey your handiwork. Subtropical gardens are all about enjoyment, not exertion!

Outdoor shower If you live near the beach, an outdoor shower will become an invaluable asset to wash the sand off your toes. But no matter where you live, you'll love cooling off with one of these.

Pergola Glorious shade is a high priority during summer and this curved reed shade structure, from the House of Bamboo, has a great tropical look.

Fish for luck Gold fish are auspicious and bring prosperity to your garden when you add a few to the pond or water bowl. They also help to keep the mozzie larvae down.

Gardening in the tropics

Gardening in the tropics and subtropics requires a different approach from cool-climate gardening. Rarely do you have to dig, just build up the soil layer by layer with compost, shredded prunings, fallen leaves, garden clippings and mulch. To maintain your design you will need a good pair of secateurs and a shredder to prune dead-head and tidy. Early morning is the best time to garden, before the heat and humidity build up.

Text: Linda Ross

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Author: Linda Ross