Copyright Natural Habitats 2016

‘Touch of the Tropics’

‘Touch of the Tropics’

4x4aMark is just back from a trip to Port Douglas in tropical north Queensland, where he was captivated by the garden of the Nautilus Restaurant. There tapering palm trunks suggest structural columns in an outdoor room with pendant lights on fine wire like stars above. “The ambience was surreal.”

Mark is not a man who’s easily impressed. He calls most Pacific Island resorts “formulaic”, albeit in a haphazard manner. “In those places you could drop a load of plants off the back of the truck into the sand and they’d grow.” For Kiwi gardens, he likes to have a better vision – delivering the qualities of a resort by working within the paradoxical ethos of controlled chaos.


According to Mark, there are three steps to a tropical heaven. First, outline the “nodes” of the garden. These are major elements such as a lawn, pool and patio that have a defined shape.Then, create the “internodes”: the pathways, boardwalks and bridges that link the nodes. Finally, create a blanket of green – a dense palette of planting that immerses these parts in the natural environment. “There shouldn’t be any forgotten bits and pieces of the garden left over,” he says.

Mark mimics the vertical structure of a forest in his verdant tropical tapestry. He starts with a high canopy and adds several strata of sub-canopy using bushes, shrubs and ground covers, building up the dense canvas layer by layer.


The golden rule is not to choose plants that betray the illusion. “It only takes one,” warns Mark. Even a neighbour’s tree poking over the fence can shatter the effect. So it takes some finesse.

Palms, of course, are the postcard-perfect icon of the tropics and there are at least 100 species commercially available here. From slow-growing nikau to the beautiful kentia and primitive beauty of the cycad (a relative of the palm), that’s a lot of choice. As with flower arranging, it’s important to select palms in the right combination. Aim for a variety of height, texture, leaf size and colour. Some palms like the wet, others don’t; some are solitary types; others, such as the bangalow, are gregarious growers that simply “don’t look right” planted on their own.

The linearity of tall palms such as kentia, sentry palm, king palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) and the Lord Howe mountain palm (Hedyscepe canterburyana) should be offset by trees with spreading arches for shade, such as flame trees, albizia and jacaranda, which also have colourful blooms.

On the secondary layer, small trees or larger shrubs that reach 5-7 metres in height create depth. “In the tropics there are hundreds of cane palms that could serve this purpose.” Here, it’s more difficult. Mark tends to use palms such as the sugar cane palm (Dypsis baronii) or Chamaedorea.“I love that you can see through palms,” he says. “That way you maintain view lines.”

For the same reason, “human height” shrubs should be close and companionable but not too densely planted. Heliconia, Canna ‘Panache’ and some hibiscus provide vivid colour accents.
At ground level, mass plantings of strap-leaved mondo grass, liriope, rain lilies and clivia, combined with bromeliads or tropical gardenia, will do the trick.


Night-time is the right time for the tropical garden – capture the casual ambience of the Islands with the exotic element of fire. Torches can trim a pathway and a fire pit can be installed as a central feature in the gathering zone. Use moody lighting to highlight the textural triumph of a well-placed palm.

Water is important in an ornamental sense; the trickle of a fountain or rock pool soothes the senses. In keeping with the theme, perhaps make a water feature in a kava bowl.


Here is Mark’s pick of the designers who create tropical gardens:

Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx, a world-famous landscape designer, was a modernist who became king of the tropics with his interpretation of the style. Succulents, yuccas and bromeliads were top players in his plant palette.

Raymond Jungles is a US landscape designer who is a master of the resort style and became popular for his work at Miami residences in the 80s and 90s.