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Inspired By A Tropical Getaway

A recent road trip up to the ever warm and wonderful Gold Coast inspired me to write about how travel can serve as inspiration when designing our own patches of tropical paradise.

For plant nutters like myself, getting to see a whole new pallet of subtropical plants that we just don't get to see growing down in Melbourne was a real treat - African Tulip trees, Goldenrains, Boatlillies... Even the invasive Rose Natal Grasses growing at roadsides en-masse were stunning, while the Philodendron xandus the Coburg millennial types go nuts for as indoor plants seemed to be the go-to shade tolerant landscaping shrub used everywhere north.

Not everyone is a plantophile like me though; planting gardens in an attempt to showcase favourite variety of plants for the sake of it. Most Australians love their gardens for more practical reasons: Entertaining guests during Summer, relaxing in quiet solitude, and creating a pleasing, harmonious vista to see from the kitchen and living room. For all of these, how our gardens make us feel both consciously and unconsciously is just as important as how they look.

North of Coff's Harbour, we felt a real sense of being in the tropics. I know, I know, technically we were only on the border of the subtropical climate zone, but for this Melbournian the sunshine, banana plantations, and cool sea breeze in the middle of May felt a bit like paradise.

In terms of emotions, we felt relaxed, replenished, and care free - like being on holiday, despite actually being on a tight schedule involving 36 hours of driving in four days. The mild weather, the abundance of lush green foliage, and the stunning blues of the ocean and the clear day time sky created these feelings in us subconsciously, and should be remembered for future designs desiring to recreate these emotions.

In terms of our senses, both the native and exotic plants were vastly different to what we are used to down south too. The native Waterhousia Lilly Pillies and roadside Banksias all seemed more luscious than the harsh, rugged, and muted palette of Victoria's natives, while the delicate double flowers and rosy scents of our favourite European flowers used in Victoria was replaced with unapologetically bold flowers with full colour saturation, pungent aromas of Jasmine, all against backdrops of glossy green, red, white, and deep blackish-purple foliage.

Recreating the sensory experience from our (sub)tropical getaway is easy enough, just use lookalike (and smellalike) plants suitable to our climate extremes in Melbourne, suitable for the style of garden you are going for.

We have a range of palms suited to our climate that help recreate a sense of being further north, along with bold foliage plants like Phormiums, Bromeliads, Yukkas, and Agaves that all do well in our climate. Waterhousia Lilly Pillies and Murrayas make great trees and hedges, Tropical Hibiscus and Bougainvillea have bold, tropical looking flowers, while Gardenias, Star Jasmines, and Choisyas all replicate the stunning Jasmine scent of our favourite tropical getaway locations.

We can also add a lushness to both shady and sunny locations with Cordylines, Liriopes, and Mondo grasses, while Philodendron xandus and Monsteras will actually survive and even thrive in our climate with suitable irrigation (think humidifying micro-sprayers) and adequate cold air drainage for frost protection. Finally, shady areas can also be planted with all manner of ferns to really add a lusciousness to our faux tropical gardens, just ensure they are protected from the harsher, drier sun of Melbourne's Summers.

Recreating the emotions of the trip is a slightly more difficult task, as we can't control the climate and just don't have the same mild winters, sunshine, and sea breezes that make these holiday destinations paradise, but we can get creative in recreating various coastal and tropical design styles to remind ourselves of our getaways to paradise, and if we're really clever, trick our brains into those same feel good feelings associated with our vacation memories. (A handy hint - use scents associated with your tropical getaway - our brains form very strong memory associations with our sense of smell).

Tropical gardens in general rely on hardwood (usually darker, reddish brown Merbau for Balinese and contemporary landscapes) furniture and structures, and bold, glossy foliage. Fan, palm, sword, and strap shaped leaves are ideal in recreating that tropical feel, while bold, full saturation flowers like those from Hibiscus and Bougainvillea add those bright tropical splashes of colour.

Rainforest gardens are all about recreating the 7 layers of the forest, from the emergent and canopy layers right down to the herbaceous and ground cover layers often crammed into congested planting zones, choosing bold, tropical looking foliage to bring colour and texture to these busy garden-scapes.

Balinese gardens on the other hand are identifiable from their minimalist dark timber furniture (bonus points for using thatch or bamboo roofing/screening/fencing), water (be that from a pool or water feature), and more cultivated, minimalist, but still tropical feeling plants.

These gardens also lend themselves to pot plants, with Streletzias "bird of paradise" and Gardenias both performing excellently in the sun, while Philodendron xandu, Monsteras, Mother-in-laws-tongue, and Rubber plant all do well in the shade. Climbing tropical plants trained to grow up timber can look stunning spilling out from pots and troughs as well, and let's not forget the luscious Liriopes and Ophipogon grasses that perform in both sun and shade.

Coastal gardens are an entirely different kettle of fish, but consider the materials and plants common to coastal areas. Lighter, unstained and weathered timber decking, pergolas, and boardwalks, Boho style furniture and decorations, light coloured mulch and topping materials (think light bark mulch, pebbles, and granitic sand), and salt tolerant, "beachy" plants.

Salt tolerant plants are usually given away by special design features such as silver, furry, or waxy foliage - think Lavender, Rosemary, Osteosperms, various succulents, and Paper Daisies for low growing plants, native grasses such as Lomandras and Tussock grasses, and finally Chilean Pines, Cabbage Palms, Evergreen Magnolias, and various Eucalyptus for tall trees. Lemongrass and Sandalwood scents near a pool or thatch roof bar can work wonders to evoke pleasant memories and emotions from your previous holidays, while the creamy white of aromatic Jasmine and Frangipani flowers amidst a backdrop of Streletzias, Philodendrons, and Mondo grasses can make it difficult to remember we aren't on holiday anymore.

All in all, the take away is simple. If you're after a garden that reminds you of a favourite tropical vacation, think thoroughly about what exactly made your experience so enjoyable, and replicate as many of these elements as you can. It's obviously quite important to use tropical or beachy looking plants and materials that suit your local climate, but think also about the emotions, aromas, and activities of your favourite vacation memories too. And remember to take notes next time you're on vacation. Take in the sights, sounds, and smells, while thinking about what is creating the pleasant feelings of relaxation and rejuvenation in you to replicate in your garden. Happy travelling!

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