Guzmania plantPlanning and Adorning Your Tropical Garden with Lush Greens and Brightly-Colored Flowers

One of the greatest joys of living in Hawaii is the ability to have a lush, tropical landscape in your own backyard. Planning and tending to a tropical garden in our warm, humid climate is not difficult. Here are some easy guidelines for your tropical, Hawaiian garden.

To create that jungle-like environment of a true tropical garden, you’ll want to use a rich mix of textures; dense, large-leafed plants; and, vibrantly-colored flowers. Be sure to plant in soil that is rich in organic matter to help hold moisture in the soil. Add additional organic materials, such as fertilizer, if necessary.

In order to create an abundant appearance, think vertical layers; a canopy of trees, a layer of shrubs and perennials and a final tier of low plants and ground cover.    

The best way to nurture your tropical garden can depend on which microclimate you live in, according to Paul Okuhara of Koolau Farmers Plant Nursery in Kailua. For example, here on or Windward side, in the Keolu Hills area where soil has large amounts of clay in it, it is best to add chicken manure or another soil conditioner. Okuhara recommends Menehune Magic Soil Conditioning.

In wetter areas, such as Maunawili or Kaneohe, it is beneficial to add cinders for drainage so that roots don’t rot. If you live closer to the beach, you’ll need to remove sand and add soil and manure, Okuhara said.

There are many flowering plants that work well in tropical gardens, according to Okuhara. For sunny spots, he recommends gardenias; mountain orchids, which are available in a variety of rich colors; vincas; New Guinea impatiens; and marigolds. For shadier areas, he suggests mondo grass, which is not flowering; guzmania, a type of bromeliad; and palms.


The University of Hawai’i at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Cooperative Extension Service is a great resource for the best native plants (both edible and non-edible) to start or add to your garden.

Favorites for landscaping include:

Koai’a (a smaller version of the familiar Koa tree)

Kou (a medium-sized tree)

‘A’ali’I (small tree)

Nanu (fragrant flowering plant with white flowers)

Ma’o Hao Hele (ground cover with yellow flowers with a dark purple center)

Ohi ‘A Lehua (dark red-flowered tree)

Naio (fast-growing shrub or small tree  - ok in wet area)

Pritchardia Martii (small palm)

Hawaiian Soapberry (tree)

Beach Naupaka (hedge, filler, groundcover)

For more info on vegetables to grow in Hawaii, go to

For herb gardens, Okuhara recommends creating a raised bed. There are endless possibilities of herb choice, such as basil, Chinese parsley, rosemary, spearmint, thyme, lemongrass, and cat grass (to aid your feline friend’s digestion).


For accessories, browse through Geobunga, which has stores in Waimanalo and Honolulu. The store’s web site ( includes an inspirational gallery and a blog with ideas. Geobunga sells an array of choices such as decorative rocks and gravel, beautiful pots, stone Buddha statues and delicate water features to add ambiance and style.

Now, it’s time to get planting!


All photos taken at Koolau Farmers Plant Nursery with permission: 

A guzmania plant, which grows best in shaded areas

2. Flower varieties that thrive in sunshine

3. Rows of herbs