How I Made a Tropical Backyard Oasis in Denver on a Cheap-Ass Budget

The air is cooling, (I actually had to put on a sweater last night). Fall is upon us, and all too soon I’ll be putting the garden to bed and hauling out the snow shovel. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my yard with you before the first frost hits and I’m crying over shriveled leaves.

The backyard is ever a work-in-progress. A constant battle to create something that feels tropical in dry-as-a-rattlesnake-fart Denver. (OK, MOST of the time it is dry here, the recent crazy rains not withstanding) I think this year is the best yet for my little tropical oasis. Ready for the tour? Here we go…


This is the view coming out our backdoor. That “L” shaped thing is the pond. It was a planting bed until 3 years ago when we had a wee stinky sewer line leak. I bribed the diggers to dig out the pond, too. (It’s amazing what men will do for homemade chocolate chip cookies.) The lotus mural on the garage wall I painted to cover up a bad repair job, and I wanted some color back there in the Winter when all is plain and dark. The vines running across the garden are Virginia Creeper that has been growing on the far North side of the yard for years, trained on strings of white lights that run from the gazebo to the big tree. They just keep getting thicker every year. I tucked a little hanging Spanish Moss on them to enhance the tropical look.


To the left of the pond is this oddly leaning tree that I dolled up with bromelaids this year. (You can see the how-to on that one by clicking “Bromelaids”) And of course the coolest cheap garden lighting ever is at the base of the tree.


Our poor Ganesha fountain here has seen better days. He is the victim of an unfortunate freezing incident in which he lost 3 of his four arms and most of his legs, though his face remains intact. I think it makes him look like an ancient relic. I especially like the ball of moss growing on the tip of his trunk. We’ve found the glass flowers at various yard sales for a couple bucks a piece. I love my little pond. The water iris with it’s leaves overflowing the pond started as divisions given to us by a neighbor are now completely taking over (anyone want some Water Iris? Seriously…) We have a hardy water lily that has somehow survived 3 Colorado winters and seems quite happy. There are 2 big koi, “Ghost” and “Spot”, a big fat fancy goldfish (named “Fatty”, I don’t have much imagination for names), and what was once a mere feeder goldfish, “Tiny”, who is now quite pretty and not so tiny anymore. They are rather camera-shy, but I did manage to snap a picture of Spot, who is now over 10″ long. (He was under 4″ when we got him) All our fish came from Petsmart.



The area along the fence is dark and dank and it’s nearly impossible to grow anything there, so all the plants are in pots. That monster tree philodendron was purchased at a yard sale for $10 when he had only 5 leaves. The thing has gone crazy this summer. I have no idea how I’ll get it back in the house for Winter. Almost all the ceramic pots were alley finds, a few from the thrift store. I bring all the houseplants out into the yard in the Spring. The plants are happy and really help to fill in the yard. I scored 5 more houseplants from a nice guy on Craigslist for free this Summer as well. The dwarf bananas in the big pots I bought last year, and they were super-easy to overwinter. You just pull them out of the pot, hack off the leaves and stick them in a box or bag, leave them in the basement and forget about them till the next Spring. I did buy a few sweet potato vines and coleus this year, but everything else I over-wintered from last year. The metal pedestals were surprisingly cheap. I bought them about 4 years ago, all three were about $60. (OK I admit I got them wholesale) And you’ll note two more of those awesome cheap garden lights on the ground.

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The iron and wood seats were here when I moved in, I just painted them white. The table was another fab alley find, as were the ceramic pieces on top. One of my neighbors is a potter. She sometimes puts “off” pieces in the alley. Love that! She came to a party here and loved what I did with these. The big wood candlesticks were found dumpster diving as well. I’ve had the white candles forever, purchased years ago at Big Lots.

What makes these plants look so good? Levels! The secret to a great display. Nothing fancy here, the pots in the back are up on top of other pots turned upside down.

Here’s a view looking back at the house, and Emma, my little pug-ham, getting in on the action.

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The North side of the garden is our ever-popular Gazebo (click for more details). It was easier than it looks, and everything in it came from yard sales and thrift stores.

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Looking out of the gazebo into the yard…

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And lastly, the Golden Duck, sitting on the edge of the pond, hidden in the Water Iris. Another great alley find.


This concludes our little Backyard Oasis Tour. I hope you enjoyed it!

DIY Exotic Asian-Moroccan Gazebo Restyle with Thrift Store Finds


My Backyard Oasis

In keeping with this week’s theme of Pre-Blog Projects Revisited, here’s one of my favorites. I’m sorry I do not have a “before” picture of this one (I did the bulk of this make-over about 3 years ago). It was just the basic structure when I moved in, being used for bicycle storage. I wanted to turn it into a seating area, but of course, it had to be cheap and easy. Since I don’t have my usual “in-progress” pictures, I’ll talk you through it as best I can.

I started by covering the “roof” with thick plastic sheeting (attached with a staple gun) to keep the rain out. There are Virginia Creeper vines that cover the roof of the gazebo every spring, so you don’t see the plastic at all. The seating was really easy. I measured the space, went to Home Depot and had them cut 3 pieces of 1″ thick particle board to fit (it’s cheap, strong, and practically indestructible). I bought clearance remnants of rain slicker-like outdoor material at Denver Fabrics, and 3″ thick foam for the seats at Joann Fabric (with a 40% off coupon of course). I placed the foam on the particle board, covered it with the outdoor fabric, and used a staple gun to “upholster” the seats and drape the fabric down the front to cover underneath the seats. As a base for the seats, I stacked concrete blocks that I got from a neighbor for free. That’s it! It’s held up great for the last 3 years. I may eventually change the fabric if I find something else I like better, but for now this works great.


Inside the gazebo


For the Seating, concrete blocks.

All the pillows came from the thrift store for $2-4 each, a couple of them I covered with fabric left over from other projects. Because they were cheap, I don’t really care if they get ruined being out in the weather, and I can easily replace them. The leopard throw came from a yard sale for $2. The Asian table in the middle was a $12 Goodwill find, and all the hanging lanterns and umbrellas came from various thrift stores and yard sales. The fabric that is draped around the inside and the purple curtains were from my old art studio, and originally came from Big Lots for just a few dollars. They are all in a nylon fabric that has held up well to the elements. The two big flowered ceramic pots with the banana plants in them also came from Goodwill, about $8 each.


More inside the gazebo…


Lanterns & Umbrellas


The Gazebo, another view.

For nighttime, I strung up a long string of clear led lights on the ceiling inside the gazebo, and added two short strings behind two of the umbrellas (I may add more lights in the near future) The “fire” you see in the night pictures is from a “Sungel” pot placed in a large heavy glass container I picked up at a yard sale, and I placed little battery led candle lights in the hanging lanterns (I know, the nighttime pics are not so great. I promise to update them as soon as I get a new camera). The whole project cost about $300.


Gazebo at Night


Gazebo at Night, close-up


Another Nighttime View

Everyone loves to hang out in the gazebo. It’s where people tend to gather at parties and after dinners. I love it, too. I often spend quiet afternoons out there reading, working on my laptop, or the occasional nap. (There is a small pond next to the gazebo, the sound of water is very soothing…) It’s my own little piece of the tropics, right here in Denver.

I hope this inspires you to create your own backyard Oasis! I’d love to hear about your backyard projects in the comments section.