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Creating Eden in tropical paradise

But none of this would feel right without the correct surroundings – a tropical garden bursting with all those astonishing plants that Grandpa Herbert used to grow so tenderly in his greenhouse, plants with exotic names like bougainvillea, frangipani, jasmine, lotus and hibiscus.

In Phuket, one of the hottest spots, so to speak, for tropical holiday homes – where the likes of fashion designer Issey Miyake, Formula 1 ace Kimi Räikkönen and even Oprah Winfrey's lawyer have stunning pieds à terre – gorgeous tropical gardens are de rigeur, which is why the past 10 years have seen a flowering of landscape architects, designers and garden maintenance companies.

One of the first to grasp the potential was New Zealander Ross Palmer, who landed on Phuket 10 years ago. He landed right in the middle of controversy, too, with a brief to "fix" a beach in a national park, and the dunes behind it, in readiness for shooting of scenes for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach.

Murky Thai business interests vying for income from the large Hollywood crew persuaded naïve local eco-warriors that the movie company was destroying the environment along the beach. Protests followed and the movie makers were forced not only to restore the beach to its original condition – which had always been their intent – but also to monitor it for months afterwards.

"Partly because of the agreement with the Thai government and partly because of the pressure [from the environmentalists] the studio renewed my contract for another 18 months after shooting ended, and I came back to report and to do any necessary remedial work. I was here for three years on and off. They kept on paying me to come back – it was a great lark," says Palmer.

Getting the Plot: In between checking on the dunes, Palmer got to know Phuket well. Tired of jetting between garden projects around Europe and along the US East Coast, he decided he could set up a practice on the island.

But it could be hard going in the early days. Indeed, ten years later, it can still be hard to get people to understand landscape design. Architects at that time tended to take a bulldozer and backhoe to the landscape to make it conform to their ideas. Many still do. "Most architects don't look at land form – they alter the landscape to fit the buildings. Part of the services I offer [is to mitigate problems from this]. Few architects [even now] bring in the landscape architect at the early stages.

"It's amazing to me [that people try] to make the landscape conform to the architecture rather than the architecture being responsive to the land form."

Gradually, architects – or some of them – are getting the plot, and are calling Palmer in at the early stages. He has five projects at the sign-off stage in Phuket, two projects in his native New Zealand, and his biggest work-in-progress at the moment, a hillside resort hotel overlooking Kamala Bay in Phuket.

People can still be difficult, though, and not just architects. "I remember one site in the UK, a beautiful Elizabethan house on the top of a chalk hill and the owner – a big-name pop star – said. 'I want to put a lake up here.' And I said, "Don't be ridiculous. Why would you want to do that? I mean, if you want to do it for a specific reason…" and he said, 'No, I just think it would be interesting to see you try and do it.' I told him, 'No. Go away. You just joined my life-is-too-short list.'

"But because I have this approach, it's very rare for people to try to put me in this kind of strait jacket. With some clients I have to say, 'No, we're not going to work together. It's not going to work.' You need to be heading in the same direction. I don't like conflict. I don't want to bash my head against a wall – it's deeply uncomfortable. So with some clients, politely, no, it's not going to work."

The Village Gardener: For Australian horticulturist Tom Belcher, life is currently rather easier. The holder of degrees in horticulture and anthropology, he is assistant general manager and creator of landscapes at The Village – Coconut Island, an upscale beach-side property development on an island just off Phuket.

The beautiful houses in this resort-style development are just steps away from the water and, as befits a tropical home, each has wide glass doors that open to let the outside into the living and sleeping areas. It's therefore doubly essential that the gardens just beyond these doors are lush, green and inviting, with scents that will delight the occupants.

The boss, Chris Gordon, founder of boating holidays giant Sunsail, allows Belcher a pretty free rein when it comes to developing the landscape.

"I could spend hours with Chris and a computer [showing him plans and computer-generated images], but I find that walking around with some pictures of plants and throwing my arms around, he gets the general idea. He's pretty relaxed about letting me get on with it."

He recalls one day when some large trees, brought down from Bangkok by truck and then barged across to the island, were craned into position next to one of the houses.

"Chris was sitting inside the house doing some work for a couple of hours and [during that time] a whole load of palms and two big trees were put in place. He came out, he walked round the corner and was just flabbergasted."

Controlling interest: Things are sometimes less easygoing for Emily Gerrard, a former teacher from Inverness, Scotland, who has done landscape design part-time for many years and last year took the plunge, after 10 years in Phuket, turning landscape design and maintenance into a full-time business. Villa owners can sometimes be demanding, she says, and architects can sometimes be impractical in their demands.

"Affluent villa owners are invariably used to getting what they want and have been very good at achieving this in their lives, particularly in business, in many cases by controlling matters in minute detail.

"However, nature doesn't work like that and sometimes clients need to learn to be more flexible when working with nature. Horticulture and landscaping don't fit easily into preset boxes like, for example, accounting does.

"Planting an eight-metre coconut tree on top of a concrete septic tank or creating an English meadow on a salt-burnt monsoon coastline is not going to be successful, no matter how much you want it to be."

She has clear ideas about designing a garden in the tropics. For instance, she says, "I like a garden that fits in with the natural surroundings. If your house backs onto a plantation of rubber trees and you put a hedge in there, or formal borders and flower beds, it's going to look odd. The same if you put in palm trees; the rubber forest behind is going to look like a wall.

"If you plant more forest-type trees, or natural flowing shrubs, they will blend in. This will make the garden look bigger, too. You can still have a modern minimalistic garden, but you do have to look at how it blends in with the surroundings. That's very important."

She's not, keen, either, on "too many colours and textures" but, in the end, she concedes, "that's my own personal taste – it's their garden, after all".

Palmer tries to get such matters ironed out early on, and has enough work these days to walk away if it looks as though he and the owner or architect won't see eye to eye.

"I'm not an artist. I'm not trying to make a point. Landscape architecture is akin to building architecture – it should fulfill the client brief and respond to its situation. In terms of stylistic issues that you might have with a client, when you begin to design it's the battle you come across most often. At that stage you are at the whim of people who say, 'That's what I want and you make it happen'.

"At my stage in my career, if people don't know what I'm doing, they work it out when they begin to talk to me and if it's not going to work it's not going to work, so I tend not to have those kinds of battles now."

The Journeyman: He studies voraciously everything he can find about the creation of gardens and has developed his own philosophy of garden design. "People tend to see themselves as separate from nature. There's this twin-track world we're supposed to live in. But it's just not true.

"This understanding informs everything I do. I'll look at the system that exists on the land. In my head there is no split between man and nature, and so I'm never worried about seeing the hand of man in any of my designs."

He is also convinced that a garden, in a philosophical sense, is not a static thing with the owner of the property as its centre and apex.

"All landscape for me is about journeying. If you're walking through a forest you spend most of your time looking down because of the tree roots. You can't rely on the walking surface. But on a flat street, you can walk along looking at your friend and chatting with him.

"I'm very interested in this, forcing people sometimes to break their step. In a garden in London I placed three rills across the path, out of step. I wanted to make people aware that they were crossing something. I don't believe life must always be comfortable, so why must gardens always be comfortable?"

Ask Belcher how he goes about creating gardens at The Village, and the reply is distinctly more down-to-earth. "Ground preparation is key. That takes more than 50 percent of the time. Ground leveling, making sure the water is running off in the right direction. Putting in the compost, sub-drains where necessary."

The landscape crew at The Village – currently 25 people but expected to grow to 60 – make their own compost to mix with the local soil, which is thin and poor in nutrients. "We use 3,000 bags of cow manure and two 10-wheel trucks of coconut mulch every two months, mixed together with gypsum. It's the foundations of the garden. If you don't do it, then it won't work."

Very little in the way of chemicals is used, Tom adds. "We just put on more compost and chopped coconut with a little bit of chemical fertiliser to help the coconut break down."

Pointy Bums: Both Gerrard and Palmer are, of course, well versed in the practicalities, too. Gerrard notes that while it's easy to grow stuff in the tropics – "You turn your back and what was a small shrub has turned into a jungle" – there are also an awful lot of pests to do battle with. "They're under the lawn, in the tops of the palms and everywhere in between. It doesn't take them long at all to strip a plant."

"I'm learning about more natural remedies using Thai herbs. You can use wasps to get rid of a lot of pests. But of course, wasps sting – that's why they have pointy bums. If it was my garden then I'd try [these and other natural remedies], but I can't do that when I'm paid to look after someone else's garden." Chemical warfare is sometimes a regrettable necessity.

Palmer says, "Bugs don't worry me so much. If you set up an environment where you respect local conditions you tend not to get too many problems. I'm not an organic person at all, but all my experience tells me that the fewer things you put in that need attention, the fewer problems you're going to get."

He concedes, however, that rubber plantations can be a problem, especially if you have one right next door – and Phuket has thousands of hectares under rubber. "Rubber is a particularly poor ecosystem. Very little can live in there, so you're surrounded by big green deserts." As a result, all the pests that can't survive in those deserts move into your comfortably lush garden, and feast.

But these are challenges that Palmer, Gerrard and Belcher excel in overcoming, so that the owners of tropical homes such as those at The Village can enjoy the dream to the full, surrounded by all the astonishing lushness and vibrancy of a tropical garden.