Build an Internationally Inspired Garden: Tropical, Mediterranean, and Alpine

BC's versatile climate allows gardeners to introduce international flavour into their garden design

BC’s temperate weather is the influence behind landscape designer Dave Demers’ take on three internationally inspired gardens

Sheltered by mighty mountains and tempered by vast seas, in B.C. we enjoy a mild climate and abundant rainfall favourable to rich and spectacular flora.

Spoiled for choice, regional gardeners and designers alike sometimes opt for a bit of everything, an irresistible temptation resulting in fun but stylistically unfocused gardens. A stricter approach often yields better results. As proof, here is a typical backyard designed three different ways, based on cultural themes.

Spared from any climatic extremes, it is easy for B.C. gardeners to push the conditions of a site. While summer irrigation and abundant compost allow lush jungle-like plantings to flourish, bright light and lots of coarse sand suit Provençal compositions just as well. Designed within a precise layout, around corresponding built-in elements and artifacts, these landscape designs are a ticket to a faraway destination.

Credit: Isabelle L’ecuyer


Brief escapades to Hawaii are the perfect antidote to our gloomy winters, yet our summers offer just enough warmth to create the look of a tropical paradise at home.

With full sun exposure and soil as rich as it is malleable, explosive growth and riotous colours can be expected. When selecting plants for this design, gardeners should aim for hardy ones – those that survive our winters. Tender plants will serve only as accents.

The jungle effect is achieved by overplanting – perennials are squeezed in, vines cover every fence post. From the far corner, a golden catalpa dominates the scene. Once established, its canopy can be halved in late winter, thus promoting supersized new leaves. While the green-leaved Japanese fibre banana (Musa basjoo) is perfectly hardy in coastal B.C., you can create a more dramatic effect with red-leaved Ensete. It will survive winter frosts in a greenhouse, or it can be used for one summer only, for it is a fast grower with tremendous impact. While cannas and dahlias are put out for the warmer months only, Chinese windmill palm and hardy hibiscus survive the coldest nights.

Through this medley of flowers and foliage, a meandering path is hacked clear and marked with mulch, tree ring stepping stones or simple flagstones. Tucked away in a corner is a simple shade structure built of bamboo poles with a slanted roof and open sides. For a more contemporary feel, a suspended shade cloth is preferred. Nestled in the shadows is a round daybed made of synthetic woven fibre and plush cushions reminiscent of iconic German outdoor furniture designer Dedon’s Swingcrest.

Plant List:

  1. Golden catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’)
  2. Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei)
  3. Japanese fatsia (Fatsia japonica)
  4. Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus ‘Blue River’)
  5. Red-leaved banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelli’)
  6. Upright elephant ears (Alocasia ‘Calidora’)
  7. Giant reed (Arundo donax ‘Versicolor’)
  8. Decorative dahlia (Dahlia ‘Rebecca’s World’)
  9. Lilyturf (Liriope muscari ‘Big Blue’)
  10. Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)

Credit: Isabelle L’ecuyer


At the height of summer B.C. offers glimpses of those rare, luminous, blue-and-hazy-white Mediterranean-like skies. With a pared down, quasi-monochromatic palette of plants and materials, this look can be translated to the garden.

Start with a simple cruciform layout centred on a water feature animated by a gurgler. Flush with the ground, this shallow pond is either cast in concrete or defined with a ready-to-use plastic insert. Paths are delineated with brick-like pavers, light-coloured, tumbled and mortared in place. The interior space is filled with light pea gravel. The farthest path meets a wooden bench while the two lateral paths each end with an elegant urn. For a cool patina look, the Pangaea Egg Vase from Vancouver-based 18Karat can’t be beat.

As the main plant anchor, a most reliable serviceberry tree marks each of the four corners – single-trunked specimens are recommended. The famed pencil-shaped Italian cypress is replaced by a hardier substitute, the powdery blue Arizona cypress. The rare seven-son flower shrub and white trumpet lilies add powerful fragrances. An overall emphasis on charismatic evergreen foliage ensures year-round interest. While most plants are grouped in sizeable clumps, some self-seeding annuals – poppies and verbenas – add a hint of laissez-faire so typical of the Med attitude.

Plant List:

  1. Serviceberry tree (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’)
  2. Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides)
  3. Blue Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica)
  4. Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’)
  5. Rock rose (Cistus ‘Silver Pink’)
  6. Bear’s breeches (Acanthus spinosus)
  7. Hybrid hellebore (Helleborus x sternii)
  8. Purple-leaved sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’)
  9. Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’)
  10. Royal trumpet lily (Lilium regale)

Credit: Isabelle L’ecuyer


Inspired by perpetual views of whitened, jagged peaks, adventurous gardeners may easily bring some of the wilderness to their own garden. Sans grizzly bears, yards can be tweaked to evoke the mountain in a few simple strokes.

Since nature abhors straight lines, this design approach focuses on fluidity. A few sizeable boulders judiciously clustered together set the tone. Laid irregularly along a gentle arc, a flagstone path leads from the residence to a far “clearing” where a simple fire pit sits. Qrater, the log-on-weathered-steel fire pit offered by Belgian label Extremis, or the gas-powered Zen by B.C.-based DreamCast, are suitable choices. For added fun, a few colourful beanbags complement this seating arrangement.

The plants look best arranged in large, irregular drifts – sun-loving perennials and grasses here combine to form a makeshift meadow. A tall, sculptural pine hovers above the fire nook and is echoed nearby by a few mounding cousins. In the opposite corner, cinnamon-barked birches of various sizes are tightly assembled together. Planted shoulder-to-shoulder, this grove can eventually be thinned out, the resulting logs stacked close by or burned for marshmallows.

Plant List:

  1. Sculptured pine tree (Pinus species depends on availability)
  2. Dwarf mugo pine (Pinus mugo ‘Pumilio’)
  3. Heritage river birch (Betula nigra ‘Cully’ HERITAGE)
  4. Dwarf oak-leaved hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee-Wee’)
  5. ‘Mission Bells’ rhododendron (Rhododendron ‘Mission Bells’)
  6. Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
  7. Aster (Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’)
  8. Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
  9. Moss phlox (Phlox subulata ‘Purple Beauty’)
  10. Brass buttons (Leptinella squalida)

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.