Marylee Pangman
While your tropical garden won’t look quite like this, it can have elements of island-style beauty. Credit: Marylee Pangman

I was very fortunate in 2013. Not only was I able to finally marry my partner of 20 years; we were able to spend our honeymoon, including the holidays, on Kauai, in Hawaii. We enjoyed every minute of our time on the island.

As I tried to write this column from my lanai (porch)—looking out at a tropical natural garden and the distant ocean, as I listened to the birds and the waves crashing—I thought about how to bring a touch of the tropics back home to the desert.

Freezing nights are rare in the Coachella Valley, so we are able to stretch our plant choices a little further than those in many other desert areas—as long as we can provide most of our plants with heavily filtered sun or afternoon shade.

The south side of my home, with an 8-foot-wide side yard, is shaded by my neighbors’ towering oleanders. This is really the walkway to the backyard, but I was able to turn the side yard into a mini-oasis which tends to be about 10 degrees cooler than other areas of my landscape.

Many plants that we have come to know as house plants are actually tropical plants that cannot survive the cold temperatures that most of the United States experiences; we are familiar with names like pothos, dracaena and philodendron. In full shade, and with cold protection if the temperatures go below 40, these plants can offer tropical wonders for our patio oasis.

Plants that will tolerate more sun (but still will want afternoon shade most of the year) are the Rose of Sharon, hibiscus, sago palm (Cycas revoluta), daylilies (which offer clumps of arching sword-like leaves and can be evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous, depending on the species), agapanthus, butterfly iris, cordyline and coleus.

Full sun plants include many of our palm trees; the entire Yucca family (many of which are very tropical in appearance); and many broad leafed agaves.

Design tips:

  • Plan your tropical garden to be near your home, perhaps as part of your seating area. The majority of the plants require heavily filtered light; since you can appreciate similar conditions, why not make the garden part of your outdoor living area?
  • Plan the flooring to be as cool as possible. Non-reflective colors in earthtones or blue hues work well. You might consider adding an outdoor carpet to the seating area.
  • Think in levels or layers of plantings, as you would see in a tropical garden. Low plantings around the seating areas in low pots will do well; they’re also good for bordering walkways. Then add mid-height plants in taller pots or pots up on pedestals, as well as pots with trellises for some vines.
  • Further back—toward walls or away from the patio—think about larger plants and trees, while still trying to keep the layered effect of the three heights of plants. A couple of citrus or palm trees would work well, as would an evergreen pistache tree, with a mixture of hibiscus and a blue-leafed agave such as the Agave colorata. Definitely keep in mind your bougainvillea and birds of paradise, both tropical (shade) and Mexican (sun)!
  • Consider adding a water feature to your garden. It will add a lot to your tropical paradise in the desert.


Marylee is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the Desert’s Potted Garden Expert. Email her with comments and questions at, and follow the Potted Desert on Facebook.