Okay, I have a passion that seldom comes up on this blog, but which I finally need to talk about: I ADORE mid-century design. That includes everything from Atomic Age and Googie architecture, through Mid-Century Modern furniture, and all the way to quirky and kitsch decor pieces. So, when I say that I’m going to bring you Tiki garden ideas, know that it’s coming from a place of pure admiration for this weird, retro style phase.
What is Tiki culture?
That is an excellent question – I’m so glad you asked! It’s important to acknowledge that what we might call “Tiki culture” is totally made-up, and doesn’t relate to a real place. The style actually originated in California in the 1930s, at a time when travel to the South Pacfic was exclusive, exotic and highly-romanticised.
For starters, the word comes from Māori mythology – Tiki is the name of the first human, and is also used to describe wooden sculptures of him. So, using it to describe the tropical style of Polynesian islands would be totally alien to the people living there.
Initially, the style appeared in the form of Tiki bars, which featured jungle-themed decor, imitation carvings and strangely-named cocktails made with exotic fruits and lots of rum. Eventually, this expanded to include elements (real and imagined) from locations like Southeast Asia, and Tiki style started to become adopted in residential homes.
Eventually, the appeal faded (partly due to increased travel accessibility but also the impact of World War II). For a long time Tiki was considered a dated trend – or at least limited to niche cocktail bars – but there’s been a bit of a revival of retroistic styles in recent years. The phrase “Tiki culture” has only really been used since the 1990s, revival – originally the terms were used more specifically, like “Tiki rooms”, “Tiki torches” and “Tiki punch”.
Anyway, all this is to say that, when we’re looking at Tiki garden ideas, we’re really looking at features that might be inspired by authentic Polynesian culture… but which have all been painted with some delicious, retro, California wanderlust.
Essential Tiki Garden Ideas
Although Tiki style is based on a fantasy, there are lots of real ways you can bring it into your garden design. Let’s look at the key things you need to transform your space, and the various ways they can be used in a garden in the UK.
Fires and torches
Flickering flames are a staple of Tiki-style spaces, providing both heat and light. There are two really simple ways to incorporate fire into your Tiki garden ideas: fire pits and Tiki torches.
If you choose a fire pit, it doesn’t matter too much whether you choose a solid fuel fire pit or a gas powered fire pit. Tiki style often celebrates ways of living that are at one with nature – so a rugged, earthy-looking wood fire can look amazing. At the same time, the trend embraces kitschy, inauthentic features in man-made materials that are obviously “fake”. So if unlikely flames are leaping out from a stone table, that’s fine too.
Tiki torches are ideal for a tropical island aesthetic. Although you can get them made from metal, traditional torches are constructed from bamboo, with a container of oil and a wick to light at the top. You can actually get gas and electric ones too, as well as solar-powered ones.
Palm trees and exotic plants
Obviously, the next step in creating a tropical paradise is lots of lush green foliage. Palm trees, banana plants and ferns are iconic Tiki garden ideas, both in your actual plant collection and in the patterns and designs around you space.
But… let’s get real. You’re not going to be able to grow a slice of remote rainforest in the UK. So, like all good Tiki-style establishments… you’re going to have to get comfortable faking it. After all, an artificial lawn stays gorgeous year-round.
That’s not to say your whole garden needs to be planted with plastic. Instead, invest in a few completely artificial plants, and then use a few silk flowers and fronds to spruce up living native plants. Ultimately, happy green foliage is best (wherever it’s from). The trick to making your British garden look exotic with real plants is choosing varieties with big, majestic leaves – as if they’re been growing untouched for decades.
Although the concept of Tiki is about as artificial as it comes, the style does embrace a lot of natural, organic materials. Flooring is typically wood, sand or stone (lava stone would be most authentic). Walls are panelled with bamboo, abaca fibres, woven palm fronds or bac-bac matting (made from banana plant bark).
Of course… it’s completely fine to be a bit creative when you’re trying to achieve the look. Reed fencing can be bought pretty cheaply and looks like dried grass, and even the original Tiki bars would create “panelling” by buying cheap bamboo blinds and turning them sideways. Concrete – for which I have a newfound appreciation thanks to some of these concrete landscaping ideas – can be stamped and painted to look like just about any other wood, stone or masonry texture. One last trick – throw a woven fishing net over a surface for a quick and dirty “tropical” cover-up.
Exotic fruit motifs
According to the Tiki trend, pacific island life is surrounded by vibrant, fresh fruits – usually the kind that you’re not entirely certain you could accurately identify in a line-up. There’s pineapple, of course, and coconut, and banana… but also papaya, passionfruit, mango, and guava. When it comes to Tiki garden ideas, be inspired by these delicious natural treats, using their shapes and colours in the materials you choose.
Talking of colour – you really can’t go too far in a garden that’s inspired by Tiki style. On top of your natural materials like golden bamboo, rock and deep emerald leaves, you should have a riot of flamingo pink, lime green, ocean blue and, um, orange… orange.
Okay, another quick history lesson (and a reminder that “Tiki” generalises many unique cultures through a Western lens). Hula dancing is a complex traditional art form that originates in Hawaii – however there are many similar but different dances from across Polynesia. Even in Hula, there are styles based in ancient practices and styles that have been influenced by Western tastes, music and culture.
Anyway, hula dancing and related costume pieces like hibiscus flower wreaths (leis) and grass skirts are recurring themes in the Californian Tiki style. You might want to nod to this with your own hibiscus arrangements, grass fringing… or even with one of the most polarising of kitsch tchotchkes, a dancing hula girl lamp.
Relaxed, informal seating
When you’re adding furniture into your Tiki garden ideas, think carefully about the materials as well as the style. Natural wood, bamboo, wicker and rattan will create the “earthy” island vibes, although your chairs and tables can be ornately carved or covered with hand-printed fabrics.
In these low-key materials, you can afford to go big with shape and form. Garden swing chairs and hammocks will help you literally put your feet up, and big, peacock armchairs will make a statement focal point. Think casual-regal.
Dramatic water features
All Tiki garden ideas are really about escapism, and creating the illusion of being somewhere much more exotic and fun than you really are. So, tropical rainstorms, cascading waterfalls and tranquil lagoons are all part of building the scene!
For example, the layout of the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in San Francisco has a huge turquoise pool in the middle, and heavy “rain” falling from pipes hidden in the ceiling. Tables are positioned around the edge of the pool, protected from the weather by grass umbrellas and roofing. Every twenty minutes or so, the water comes down even heavier, and flashing lights and sound effects make it feel like a thunderstorm!
How you achieve anything to this effect in your garden is up to you. But a vertical water feature (or a water curtain), could be a good start. I’ve also seen beautiful resin tables that resemble clear bodies of water, and even installing rills in the floor of your patio could create the bubbling ambience you’re looking for.
You’ll need somewhere to stay sheltered from the epic rainstorms (and the sizzling sunshine) of your tropical island. A pergola or gazebo is perfect – a parasol or cabana will work in smaller spaces. Stick to natural materials, like wood, canvas and grass thatch, if you can.
An elaborate layout
Tiki-themed venues are rarely simple spaces. They’re often designed to look like huge caverns, with open-air sections, large bodies of water, and different side-rooms for drinking, dancing and conversation. Back in the day, some venues even had maps so guests could navigate between floors, across bridges and between waterfalls.
When it comes to Tiki garden ideas and landscaping, there should be no half-measures. Commit to creating the effect of a totally new location, using water features, bamboo screens and murals to hide any evidence of regular UK surroundings. Try dividing your garden into separate sections, connected by winding stone paths or bamboo platforms.
The carvings associated with tropical gardens and Tiki rooms are inspired by actual sculptures found in Polynesian cultures. Made from wood or stone, these carvings usually depict human figures or faces, and tend to represent significant ancestors and deities. If you choose to incorporate these striking carvings, each statue should be unique.
If, like me, you appreciate retro paraphernalia, then a fun, Tiki garden is the perfect place to showcase some of it. The era produced all kinds of kooky merchandise, like collectible ceramic cocktail mugs, postcard-esque art prints, and novelty ornaments with tropical themes. Mix in any exotic souvenirs you might have from your travels elsewhere, and enjoy giving your collection a fitting home.
Your own Tiki bar
No tropical, Tiki-style garden is complete without a cocktail bar of some kind – whether it’s as simple as a bamboo-covered bar cart or as extensive as a completely converted shed. If you want some inspiration from the OG Tiki bars, check out pictures of Don the Beachcomber, one of the original Tiki bars, which opened in Hollywood in 1933. The owner later moved to Hawaii and opened another famous bar, Waikiki Beach.
Although tiki bars traditionally keep their unique cocktail recipes secret, there are a few classics you can start serving: Blue Hawaii, Corpse Reviver, Mai Tai, Navy Grog, Sumatra Kula, Zombie. There’s a great YouTube channel that I love, called How to Drink – you can check out this video on making a Pearl Diver, another Tiki bar staple.
However, if you like the idea of having your own signature beverage then get shaking! Choose any variety of rum, orange liqueur, tropical fruit juice and a dash of bitters. Mix up a brightly-coloured blend, serve it in something unusual (hurricane glasses, decorative ceramic cups, hollowed out fruit etc.) and add a flourish – umbrellas, fresh flowers, dry ice or even actual flames.
Make no mistake, transforming an ordinary UK garden into an exotic, tropical paradise is an ambitious project. These Tiki garden ideas should give you a sense of how much (or little) you’re prepared to take on, and what Tiki-style features could work in the space you have.
If you’re looking for more garden-overhaul ideas, check out these gorgeous Greek garden ideas, mystical Moroccan-themed features and formal French-garden inspired tips.