We're proud of our design and architecture traditions here on the West Coast, but there's always room for flights of imaginative and decorative fancy. As much as they are spaces, our homes are also ideas - and we're free to make of them what we will. A little escapism never hurt anyone, did it?
Usually, what I counsel for backyard design is a style that blends into its surroundings. This week, however, we're looking at how to create something more exotic, more pungently flavoured. Let's take a few pages out of a design travelogue that features hot-weather destinations like Morocco, India, and Indonesia, stealing from them a few key ideas for turning your deck or backyard into a tropical sanctuary.
Stay close to the floor
Vacationing is about rest and indulgence. You want a relaxed atmosphere that avoids formal Western protocols for seating and dining. In tropical destinations like the ones we're mimicking, it's more common to lounge on pillows on the floor. You don't need to go quite that far, but you'll want to keep your seating low-slung and informal. A good way to do this is with banks of upholstered seating.
For your main sofa, consider something long and deep, with a low centre of gravity. You'll want it to be 16 inches from the floor, with a depth of 30 to 48 inches. In an off-white, outdoor fabric, the sofa will provide a light background for the punches of colour you'll add later.
A couple of notes
Tables in your seating area should be mobile accessories, not fixed pieces. You want multiples of ceramic or wooden side tables that can shift to hold a cocktail or small plate of tapas.
And don't forget shade cover: It's essential if your yard faces south. A bright white awning or umbrella provides an easy escape from the sun, and allows you to stay outside without the fear of getting sunburned while you sleep.
Choose dark over light
In tropical countries, homes and furnishings are made from exotic hardwoods, palm leaves and bamboo. As a result, their rooms are dark and rich with texture. You want to aim for the same thing in your tropical oasis.
For your furnishings, choose teak, mango or rosewood. You can find them in import stores, many with elegant, hand-carved details. But remember, though they're rustic-looking, they're not indestructible: Oil them regularly.
An alternative to store-bought furniture is to have it made. If you go this route, choose cedar. The wood has an advantage in northern climates like ours - being native to the West Coast, it's full of natural pesticides and antifungal agents.
But in a tropical-themed space, cedar has one drawback: Its orange hue is hard to stir into the exotic recipe you're cooking up. An easy remedy is to simply paint the sofa dark brown or black. For a rich look, go with two coats of a dark, semi-transparent stain. Over the years, a few light sandings and restainings will give your cedar table the patina of an old leather coat.
Add natural textures
Look for products made from bamboo or sea grass. You can purchase inexpensive bamboo blinds at any Asian import store. They make a great shade cover on a veranda, or over a ground-level window that looks out into the yard.
On the floor, sea-grass rugs and cushions offer unpretentious comfort. Keep in mind, though, these materials don't stand up to bad weather, so use them only in the hottest summer months.
Punch it up with bold accents
Colour and pattern are the spice in this tropical recipe. When your seating and surfaces are in place, layer on bright, beautiful textiles and accessories. Decorative cushions come in all shapes and colours, so your options are limitless. For a Moroccan theme, choose cottons in an array of burnt reds, oranges and yellows. A caution: Left outside, natural fibres fade quickly, and anything not clothed in outdoor materials needs to be taken inside when the weather turns.
If you're not keen on taking down and setting up your patio with every weather change, order pillows and throws in outdoor fabrics. You'll be able to leave them outside from late spring until early fall without thinking twice.
For accessories like lighting and dishware, go with ornate details, saturated colours and sheer finishes. Choose lanterns made of pounded metal and stained glass, plates with baroque patterns and mosaic motifs, and baskets woven from sea grass or rattan as a home for books and magazines.
Pick bold and bright plants
Plants are the living backdrop for your backyard oasis, and the key elements here are strong forms and lively colours. There's no room for wispy grasses. If green is what you want, fatsia and banana plants are excellent. For a blast of colour, go with canna or tiger lilies.
To incorporate true tropical plants, you have a couple of options. First of all, get varieties that can survive Canadian weather and plant them as annuals. Put them in the ground in early summer and they'll last until the first frost. On the West Coast, the pineapple family does particularly well in a south-facing backyard with partial shade.
The second option - palms and other delicate tropical plants - is for avid gardeners only. The trouble is the labour: At the end of the summer, you'll have to either protect them or dig them up and bring them inside for the winter.