Here we discuss how palm trees, cycads and subtropical plants may be used to landscape your garden. What follows is a collection of advice and outdoor landscaping ideas. This isn’t however a substitute for a good outdoor landscape designer. That said, you’d be amazed what can be achieved with a little commonsense and some determination.
Planning your garden
Before buying a single plant start by planning. On a sunny spring day it’s all too easy to dig a few holes, plant a handful of plants from the local garden centre and then sit back with a glass of wine... and watch them struggle to be more than just a few plants dotted about the garden. Landscaping is about using plants and other materials to create an overall look and feel to a space. It need not be expensive or complicated but it does call for a little planning.
Begin by thinking carefully about the climate and local requirements. How cold, dry, sunny, windy or wet does it get? How much space do you have? Are there views you’d like to protect (or block out)? Is the area somewhat isolated or subject to heavy foot traffic? Does the garden need to be child or dog friendly?
Consider also how much effort you wish to expend both to create and maintain your garden. Remember, a beautiful garden may not require a lot of effort to keep it looking good. Palms and sub-tropical plants are rather wonderful for being low maintenance. The London garden we created took one day each spring to tidy up, half a day each autumn to prepare for winter and about 15 minutes weeding a month. After that not a lawn to mow nor plant to trim for the entire summer.
Equally, think carefully about how much you wish to spend on the garden. Whilst it would be easy to spend $10,000 (or even $50,000) landscaping a suburban garden it’s also possible to achieve an attractive garden for much less. Moreover, there’s no reason why one needs to start from scratch. You may wish to simply tidy up a portion of your garden and work around existing structures and plants.
Having carefully considered the climate, your local requirements, effort and costs it’s time to move to the fun part – deciding what sort of garden you want. Think carefully about how densely you wish to do the planting. Do you want something minimalist, well planted or a veritable jungle? Take some time to do this – it’s going to be a permanent feature of your garden and will influence everything you buy. Browse the internet, look through gardening and landscaping books and visit botanical gardens as well as different suburbs and towns for inspiration.
Next, roughly measure your garden and sketch out a representation of your landscape design on graph paper. You needn’t be too precise – it’s to help you get your ideas down as much as anything. Make a dozen or more copies as you’ll want to change and refine your ideas. Walk around outside and picture yourself in your new landscaped garden. Sit down, relax and visualise the paths, retaining wall, patio or pool. Get a picture in your mind’s eye and roughly jot it down. Walk about and see your creation from different angles. Use string or a garden hose to mark out the contours of the path, place stakes in the ground to signify where the larger plants will go. Stop and relook at some of the inspiring photographs you found in books or online. Incorporate them into your design. When you’re happy mark this out on the graph paper. Take a break and come back to this later. Over a week or two ideas will start to flow. You’ll be more attuned to how you want your garden to look and without forcing it ideas will find their way into your conscious. Keep jotting them down, sketching pictures and refining your plan.
When you’re done mark out the plan with string and stakes then take a friend or two for a walk through your virtual creation. You’re looking for critiques and suggestions, not praise. They can’t see your creation (although showing them your diagrams and inspirations may help) but they’ll be able to point out the pitfalls. Keep iterating until you feel confident that there are no obvious flaws and you’re certain in what you’re doing. At this point you may wish to speak to an expert if your plan involves serious work (pools, decking, retaining walls etc.).
Now the fun bit begins. Selecting the plants. You’ll need to make at least two passes at this; the first time identifying general principles (e.g. ‘large palm here, flowering plants there...’) and then refine by identifying specific species. In doing this start with the largest plants; trees, large palms, bamboos etc. These will form both the canopy (protecting other plants) and the backbone of the garden. Think about what existing plants you can use as well as sourcing large or quick growing ones. Establishing a canopy and wind protection is critical to the creation of a successful garden. Mark these on the landscape design and in doing so think about their eventual height and spread as well as the shadow they’ll cast. Continue this approach for medium sized and smaller plants. Now start to identify the species themselves. When it comes to palms – and since many garden centres are not expert here – do give extra consideration to both requirements (sun, shade, water etc.) and practicalities (in particular eventual size and the presence of spines or thorns). We can advise on the right palm for most locations.
Speaking of palm trees, some thoughts you may wish to consider:
Use palm species that are in keeping with the look you’re seeking. Each species says something different to the observer so keeping the right balance and avoiding species that clash is important.
Plant some palm species in clusters. Archontophoenix alexandrae, single trunked Chamaedoreas, Howea forsteriana, Euterpe edulis and Phoenix roebelenii in particular look good planted in clumps of three or five.
Use different types of palm trees. Plant dwarf species as well as tall palms. Don’t just plant feather-leaf palms but include also fan palms and fishtails for variety.
Plant unusual (or at least not completely common) palm species. There’s nothing wrong with Queen Palms and Kentias. Nothing at all. But a garden composed of the ten most common species alone isn’t going to show off your originality.
Avoid planting undersized and bargain palms from major retailers. Something that’s stringy and greenhouse grown won’t last beyond the first storm.
Don’t just plant palm trees – variety – trees, bushes, flowers, garden ornaments all add to the appeal of a garden.
Don’t create a Noah’s Ark (or half of one) by planting one of each palm species. Such efforts look more like botanical gardens than a thing of beauty. That’s not to say one shouldn’t try to combine many species – just do it tastefully.
Preparing and Planting
Now you’re ready to begin the real work of preparing the ground and planting. We’re not going to attempt to provide advice here on how to go about contouring your land, creating raised beds or building a decking but do recommend seeking expert advice. However, having reached the point where you’re ready to plant here are a few pointers.
Have a read of our section on how to plant palms.
Prepare the soil with whatever additives are necessary for good growth. Digging in peat or rotary-hoeing the soil is best done before any planting.
Do what you can to eradicate any weeds. This may mean weeding repeatedly over several months prior to planting or simply applying weed killer on a regular basis throughout the design phase.
As with the design, begin first with the canopy plants. Large palms and trees will need to be manhandled into place and as such are best moved when there’s sufficient space.
Stake up large plants until they’re able to support themselves in strong winds.
Now work down through the mid-sized and smaller plants finishing with small bedding plants.
At this point you may wish to install an irrigation system before the plants get too large to work around.
When the planting is complete lay out newspaper on the ground around five sheets thick. Cover with mulch and – according to tastes and your design – bark, sand, scoria or gravel. This will help to keep weeding to a minimum. In fact by simply adding new bark (and corrective fertiliser) each spring you’ll have little weeding to worry about.