Create it with tropical plants, exotic accessories, and the right frame of mind

At dawn on weekdays, Davis Dalbok tends his garden, then has breakfast “in the tropics” before dashing down the freeway to his city office. His tropical escape is his remodeled porch, which looks like it’s in Bali or Hawaii.

Welcome to Fairfax, California, where Dalbok has created his own resort using subtropical plants and exotic accessories to capture the flavor of the South Sea Islands. “Many homeowners don’t realize that they can take advantage of microclimates within their own gardens,” says Dalbok, whose front porch was once a drab concrete slab.

A plantscape designer who travels the world to discover unusual plants and accessories, Dalbok says that it’s possible to cultivate a subtropical oasis throughout the mild-winter West. The trick is to devise adequate sun shields with roofs, awnings, and tall plants to retain sufficient moisture throughout the garden. 

To set the stage for his garden, Dalbok ripped out much of the original porch and added French doors and granite columns. He replaced the concrete with colorful slate tiles and used those colors in his palette.

The 8-foot-deep porch is edged by a 12-foot-long garden bed, where Dalbok planted tall banana and palm trees to act as a backdrop and provide shade for more delicate plants like maidenhair ferns. To get smaller layers in front for visual interest and as a way of framing the space, he placed bromeliads and philodendrons in a 5-foot-long wooden trough at the edge of the porch. The trough adds 2 feet of garden to the porch and offers excellent drainage for potted plants.

Spots of color and luscious foliage come from large ceramic pots and containers filled with blooming plants, which are changed with the seasons. A mix of bamboo and teak furnishings and artifacts like Indonesian and African figurines complete the illusion.

Dalbok rotates brilliantly colored plants, such as this bright yellow canna, in and out of the garden, using ceramic containers for flexibility. A carved wood figure from the Ivory Coast is joined by a striped croton and a fanlike cycad.

DESIGN: Davis Dalbok, Living Green, San Francisco (415/864-2251 or


Use overhanging eaves and awnings, large trees, or decorative elements like umbrellas to provide partial shade.

Use troughs and containers to bring the garden onto a patio or deck. Don’t limit your “garden” to the existing dirt bed by your porch or deck.

Always layer plants, using tall ones in the back and smaller ones in front to create different levels to stop the eye and enrich the composition. Experiment with plant combinations and container placement before making final decisions.

Rotate showy plants, such as orchids, begonias, and bromeliads, into your garden for color all year.

Let plants grow full and loose so your garden always looks lush.

Pay close attention to watering subtropical plants. Some need more moisture than others. Bromeliads, for example, can survive up to a week without water, whereas maidenhair ferns need watering at least twice a week.

Look for exotic accessories in your local stores – many now stock reproductions of antique statuary and wood carvings at reasonable prices.

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