Gardening in the Tropics

By B.S.
Gardening, horticulture or yard-work, as I call it, is considered to be a menial task by many. Others however, believe it to be a comforting and enjoyable leisure time pursuit. It’s difficult to imagine that something as innocuous as gardening can be so personally divisive. But it is. Whether one loves it or hates it, doubtless hinges on of all things, the colour of one’s thumb: green – for those whose open-air interests extend to the growing of greenery, or red – green’s polar opposite on the color spectrum, for those who prefer their outdoor activities to be limited to only lounging on a poolside lounger. Regardless of which camp you are aligned with, the amount of discord allowed to grow in one’s garden can be managed by a landscape design that’s been carefully pruned to meet personal likes, dislikes, and lifestyle.
Whilst visualizing the physical and aesthetic manifestation of your own private Garden of Eden, please allow the following seeds of information to germinate in your subconscious. They just might help you cultivate a final design that strikes the perfect balance between magnificence and maintenance.
Design & Function
In most cases, outdoor gardens are the last area of the home to receive design attention. But by no means should they receive any less consideration than any aspect of the interior. By carefully selecting shapely shrubbery, strategically plotting the placement of shade trees, and intelligently factoring in the flow of flowers, footpaths and fountains to a garden’s blueprint, in the long term, you just might:
  • Enhance your dwelling’s curb appeal
  • Compliment your home’s architectural style
  • Add color, texture and fragrance to your living space
  • Increase the property’s overall value
  • Create an outdoor living space that you actually want to be in
If you’re starting from scratch or doing a complete makeover, the golden rule in terms of creating a successful garden is knowing exactly what you want … and precisely what you don’t want. If you’re unsure, surf the internet for inspiration or consult with a professional landscape designer. Because plant life grows far more rapidly in the tropics, it’s also wise to discern the best location in which to place the flora and fauna you desire. This is often more easily accomplished by first determining where you don’t want the flowers and plants to be.
Front & Back Garden
The front and back gardens are always considered as separate design entities as they serve two distinctly different purposes. Curb appeal is the primary function of the front garden it is  responsible for the first impression any visitor will have of your property. As such, it should be inviting, immaculately manicured, well thought out and its design should be compatible with the style of the home. The back garden is generally employed as an area for pets, a play space for children or a setting in which one can relax, entertain or grow things. Therefore, swimming pools, barbeques, patios, dog runs, vegetable gardens, and playgrounds all feature into a superlative back garden design.
High & Low Maintenance
In a great garden one must contend with the ying and yang of high maintenance versus low maintenance. The key to a low maintenance garden is simplicity and actually planning (ahead of time) for it to be so. Experts claim that piecing a garden design together bit by bit is a sure recipe for disaster. It also pretty much guarantees that the garden will be more costly, less efficient, and more difficult to sustain. If doing less in the garden is your idea of nirvana, eliminate time consuming water features like fountains; replace flower beds with shrubs or succulents, double the width of pathways, and simplify things by substituting grass for gravel or a calming Zen rock garden. Conversely, if pottering around in the garden provides pleasure, consider installing a koi pond; dedicate a planter or two specifically to exotic tropical flowers, or for the growing of your favorite vegetables.
Shade & Shrubbery
Large shade trees and high hedges can be an excellent first line of defense when it comes to shading the sunny side of any residence. Some attention however, must be given as to how these leafy sun blockers are situated. Something called ‘solar orientation’ is how the sun’s heat directly affects a fixed geographic location. Here in Pattaya a north facing room is exposed to the maximum amount of solar radiation between the months of May and August when the average temperature is 2C higher. A southern facing window receives its maximum amount of solar radiation during the cooler season which takes place annually between November and February. Therefore, selecting between the two compass points should be based on which side of your structure will benefit the greatest from the cooling effect that a tree’s shade will provide. If your only options are to the east or west, the western facing façade is roughly 3C warmer than its eastern counterpart all year long. That’s because as the sets, it shines directly in through your windows more than a rising sun does. Attractive shade alternatives to planting large trees include installing awnings and louvered or latticed panels.
Pests & Wildlife
Any tropical garden is capable of attracting the usual suspects in respect to pests and wildlife. Unless your garden borders the Serengeti Plain or is allowed to grow so unkempt that it becomes a veritable jungle, you need not be too concerned. Most gardens will however, become the habitat to a wide variety of herpetons, which is the Greek word for a “creeping animal”. To you and me this means snakes, toads and lizards. Most of Thailand’s garden snakes are harmless, but one does need to watch out for the deadly green tree viper and the venomous cobra. Large pythons however, are not an uncommon sight. If encountered, after first hiding the toddlers and small pets, a swift call to the authorities or the housing estates security staff will see the scaly intruder carried away – hopefully not to a cooking pot! If your garden does contain dense foliage, make as much noise as possible when approaching, and your shy herpeton neighbors will usually slither off in the opposite direction. By the way, shoes left outdoors at night should be checked before wearing as they make an excellent shelter for small snakes, venomous insects and other creatures that you probably don’t want near your toes.
Pools & Ponds
Water is the garden’s ultimate wow factor. Not the kind that dribbles out of a spigot but the type that flows, falls, cascades, spouts or streams. Collectively known as “water features”, the form in which they appear can vary from fountains, cascades, ponds, pools, streams, and waterfalls. In scale, these water features can range in size from a miniature fountain bubbling away near one’s porch to a billboard sized replica of Victoria Falls. Today, most manmade water features are fully self-contained, recycling its water from a hidden reservoir via a pump. Water features can be a high maintenance addition, and a bit expensive to operate. Their benefits however, include, increased property value, reduced noise pollution, and improved air quality. 
Next to the air conditioner, the number one crowd pleaser in the tropics is by far the swimming pool. Be it ever so humble and modest or grandiose and unrestrained, there is no better way to cool off than splashing about in a pool filled with clear sparkling water. Tropical pool designs often mimic Mother Nature by incorporating bogus boulders, forged waterfalls, counterfeit cascades and phony fountains to increase the illusion of the pool being situated in a mock rainforest environment. To further fool swimmers into believing they are wading or paddling through tropical turquoise island waters, interior pool finishes and tiles can be tinted to represent anything from sandy beach soil to the deepest of this planet’s blue oceans.
Manmade Features & Finishing Touches
If time is to be spent in the garden a shady sanctuary from the unforgiving tropical sun is a must. These can range from simple awnings, to lattice topped pergolas or arbors, to completely covered verandas, to full blown patios with screened sides and a ceiling fan to ensure that there’s always a breeze. Then of course, there’s the Thai style Sala, under which a weary traveler traditionally took refuge from the intense rain and sun, which are so common in the tropics. Whether it’s situated under the shade or positioned poolside, stylish tropical décor on which to repose will add a degree of comfort and elegance to your garden retreat. Consider all weather daybeds, deck chairs, sun beds, dining and side tables, and garden benches made from materials such as teak and rattan. If you feel that less is more, well there’s always the tried and true hammock, just make sure that the trees from which it’s hung are strong enough!
If creating a utopia for the urchins is your desire, playgrounds, swing sets and kiddie pools or anything else that a family might enjoy are worthwhile additions. Then again, if your back garden is to be the dog’s domain, avoid flower beds and delicate fauna. Stick with study plants that can withstand the antics of a canine and create a spacious lawn on which it can romp. A covered space or a cool shady spot, or even a shallow pooch pool where Fido can cool down after all that romping is also a necessity. Ensure that fences are high enough so that they can’t be leapt over and deep enough to prevent an escape by digging.
Many homeowners overlook the small finishing touches that truly complete the back garden. Such things as barbeque grills, outdoor showers, colorful flood lights, electronic bug zappers, garden sculptures and fire pits, when carefully selected and artfully placed are often what determines whether a tropical garden is merely average or entirely awesome.