Environment & NatureThailand

How to build a tropical garden in Thailand for only $400

img_0001-1024x549 How to build a tropical garden in Thailand for only $400
The garden today

Before I begin let me say that this is not a tropical garden tutorial, otherwise I would have had to post in episodes which I didn’t want to do. If there are any aspects you would like more detail on please comment and I will do my best to explain.

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Day one

I started with a triangular piece of land, about 350 square metres, that had six overgrown and fruitless Lam Yai trees, nine clumps of untidy bamboo which was starting to get out of hand and plenty of rubbish, not just organic either. The trees blocked out virtually all the light so there was no grass or vegetation, except on the edges where there was some lemongrass and scattered unkempt herbs like kapow. At one end of the land, there was an old wooden structure with a cement tile roof, once a tiny house, now used as a garden shed. The main structure was solid, consisting of 6 square wood posts which I thought, with a bit of imagination and elbow grease, I could make into a very acceptable sala.

Planning the tropical garden

My tropical garden idea was pretty clear. I cut the trees and bamboo drastically and then cleared the ground so I could have an open view of the site. Let the dog see the rabbit sort of scenario. In fact, I decided to remove two of the Lam Yai trees completely to make more space. That job, using two men plus me (half a man) took four days. Labour is cheap here, especially mine, so that cost was only about 3000 baht ($100). I kept some of the wood cut from the trees for landscaping and gave the rest away so I had no transport costs but we did have a couple of big bonfires which is not good environmental practice but at least was all organic stuff. The garden now looked twice the size but some good topsoil was needed. One truckload did the job and with a bit of help, I spread it in two days.

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The dry season is long in Chiang Mai, approximately five to six months from November to April, so watering the garden is critical during this time. Irrigation systems do not have to be expensive, just functional and turning a tap on is not too demanding. So I bought 30 metres of 3cm black flexible piping, five cheap sprinklers (55baht each), some blue PVC, stop taps and connectors and built a simple five station manual system. Once we had sorted out a couple of leaks it was fine and has worked perfectly since.

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Rock, stones and old wood create the beds
Landscaping the tropical garden

I wanted a lot of natural local rocks to combine with the old rough tree branches for landscaping. I asked a neighbour who had a lot of rugged land on the hillside nearby if we could collect some. Many trips and many rocks later I had between 200 and 300 rocks for free although the chiropractor’s fees knocked a hole in the free bit! Laying out the beds was not difficult, just hard graft and things were starting to take shape. Still, a long way to go, though. I knew the grass would be the most expensive item and that would be one of the last things to tackle.

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Walls are now the ceiling
Building the Sala

Next on the agenda was to clear out and dismantle the old shed. Knocking the nailed wood panels off the walls was fairly easy but recycling them to make ceiling panels took nearly a week. I ripped out the many years of ‘Heath Robinson’ wiring that now looked more like a bowl of spaghetti which, amazingly, had failed to electrocute anyone. We then laid 10 sm’s of concrete to make the floor area up to 60 sm’s and the next job was to get hold of and cure a fair amount of bamboo to complete the sala.

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Bamboo day bed

Chiang Mai is home to so much bamboo that it really isn’t difficult to get the raw material very cheap or even free if you are prepared to go to the jungle and cut it yourself. Fortunately, I had some very good and willing helpers so a few trips and days spent cutting and trimming and I had all the bamboo I needed for next to nothing. Curing with boric acid takes a couple of weeks but is necessary to prevent the flys eating it away and leaving you with a pile of dust.

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Bamboo decor

I wanted to build some bamboo fencing to keep the dogs out and to make a bamboo daybed. Working with bamboo was a new experience which I found very interesting. It is such a strong, flexible and beautiful natural product. Rural communities use it in its raw state in their homes and farms as it is so easy and quick to grow (the fastest growing plant in the world, I believe) they don’t worry too much about preserving it. So now I had all the raw materials, except grass and plants, and it was a question of working to put it all together. From now on it was me and Cassid.

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Christmas Day – Laying turf

By 20th December 2012, we had built the sala, installed the irrigation, built the beds, transplanted some shrubs plus a few new palms, shaped the old bamboo clumps into bushes and prepared the ground for the grass. The Malaysia grass turfs costing 6000 baht ($200) arrived on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day we laid them all. I watered the grass continually for a week and it took so well I was able to do the first cut in 8 days. We then had a huge ‘garden warming’ party where all the guests brought plants and shrubs for our budding tropical garden. In a period of six months, the area was transformed from a dingy, overgrown, mosquito-ridden place into a tranquil and relaxing tropical garden haven. $400 and some hard graft were well worth it.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2014 and was updated in November 2017.

13 thoughts on “How to build a tropical garden in Thailand for only $400

  1. Hi Jim, Interesting to see one of your former projects. I was especially interested about curing the bamboo with boric acid. I should have done that and maybe I will on the next sihlamb iteration but I don’t have a teacher. Did your native helpers know how to do it?

    1. Hi David. I found out from an American architect who is brilliant with wood and built many houses in the tropics. Kai knows where to get the boric acid in CM. You will need to build a channel in the ground 50cms deep by 50 wide and 6 metres long. Use blocks and cement. I can’t remember the boric to water ratio but could find out when you do it. Soak the bamboo for a week and the dry out in the sun. James

  2. I hired a landscape designer and paid a lot for the plan BUT I was given what they thought I wanted. So it was clipped hedges etc etc and not a “relaxed” tropical garden. I keep going to Jim Thompson museum to see what’s in full sun and what’s in the shade thriving.
    Congratulations on your garden….,

    1. Thanks for the compliment Carl. Where are you based? That’s important because as you will know weather conditions vary all over Thailand. I was lucky having had some experience of working with a landscaper in Cape Town. The only thing I really needed to find out was about indigenous plants and I learnt all I needed to know from the locals. Some plants I already understood from Cape Town, like frangipani, cordelyne and cycads. Grass was pretty easy to sort out and unlike most locals I am disciplined with cutting so they are amazed how good it looks all year round. I find if you work with nature and are observant you usually get decent results. Good luck with yours and keep well. James

      1. James, thank you….
        My house is in Rayong and I battle daily with native versus indigenous!
        I had a previous life in environmental restoration but I’m also a realist too.
        I’d love to send pics of the “landscape architects” idea vs mine. I can currently only send his images.
        Give me 12 months.
        Best wishes

        1. In 12 months, if you get it right, you should have a pretty decent garden. It should be a bit easier for you in the South as there is plenty of rain, pretty much, all year. It was tough for me in Chiang Mai as I started December with no rain till April. I’d like to see it sometime. James

  3. Hey James. Thanks for dropping by the blog. It’s pretty new for me too, and I’m also enjoying the learning curve. It’s cool to see how different people do different things, different approaches, etc.

    I like Thailand too, but I can understand that as someone living there you have a very different experience of it. As someone who is in and out for a few weeks at a time I tend to come away with mostly positive vibes.

    From the look of it (gardening and such) it seems you’re really settling in there. That’s great. ENjoy digging in, to the underlying reality (and the soil in your yard!) and keep in touch. Cheers!

    1. Just like you, I am HOME even though people say the same to me. When are you going HOME? Sounds very strange when you’ve been out of your birth place for 20 years. Keep in touch. JK

  4. Interesting post. I don’t live in Thailand, but it was interesting to see how people like you are making the most of your life there.

    I’ve been to Thailand several times (I live in Korea) and sometimes blog about Thailand too, and I’m always looking to connect with other bloggers who share similar interests. Please drop by Sweet Pickles and Corn if you have a minute. My most recent post is a tongue-in-cheek look at the things that I don’t like about Thailand (because I wasnt able to be there this winter and am stuck at home reading about my friends’ trips on facebook). Cheers!

    1. Hi Bosmosis. Thanks for dropping by. I’ve had a shufti at your blogs and, although you don’t sugar the pill, I like your style. I am sometimes a bit polemic and have to tone it down so people don’t think I’m a moaner. But I do like to get under the surface to find out the reality, don’t you? Unfortunately I don’t have any helpers on my blog so it’s very much DIY. I’ve only been at it 6 months and the learning curve is pretty steep but fun and I really enjoy interacting with new folk like yourself. I’ve got a whole list of other stuff you may not like about Thailand but I don’t want to spoil the illusion!! Stay cool. James

Your comments are welcome