If you happen to live in the right climate zone--subtropical to Mediterranean, such as Florida or coastal Southern California--you can maintain your own tropical paradise outdoors in your yard. And some of the most enticing designs can be accomplished in a small space.
Designing Your Garden
Measure your side yard to see how much available planting space you have. Map it out on graph paper. Then start sketching out your ideas.
Keep in mind two rules of thumb: Any garden, regardless of size, needs a central focus, and plants look better when planted in groups of three. Let's tackle the central focus first. The best choice is a water feature, like a little lava rock waterfall. Just make sure you have a power supply nearby to plug in the pump. Other options include a tiki, a firepit (with screened top), or a little seating area--just two chairs and a table. Sketch your focus pick into your garden "map" and then start choosing your plants.
Choosing Your Plants
Tropical gardeners are in luck, because one of the staples of any tropical garden, the king palm, is regularly sold in clusters of three. Buy two pots of king trios, maybe 5 or 6 feet tall, and plant either in each corner of your small side yard or directly on either side of whatever you have picked as your central focus. Then fill in the rest of the "back" area of your side yard with ferns, hibiscus, banana trees or birds of paradise. New Zealand tree fans are a good choice because they don't grow as fast, or as big, as their Australian cousins, but they do develop a gorgeous treelike shape while maintaining density in the middle. Then fill in the front with smaller plants: ferns or fuchsias or impatiens or all three.
Now take your design to the nursery and buy what you need. Back home, prepare the soil by raking and mixing in potting soil. If the soil is very hard, break up with a pickaxe, remove about 6 inches and replace with potting soil. Then start planting, leaving room for your central focus. Start with the big plants in the back and work your way forward. Cover any remaining dirt areas with little red or brown lava rocks, set up a few torches and you're all set.