5 Swimming Pool Landscape Ideas – Make a Big Impression on a Small Budget

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Bananas, Castor Bean, Cannas behind swimming pool

Of late, I’ve gotten a number of emails from blog readers all asking the same question – What are some inexpensive ways for me to get an exotic, tropical look quickly with landscaping around my pool? – or some variation of this.  Of course, I encourage them to get the backyard resorts ebook, but I do try to provide some ideas, even if they don’t.

Since I’ve gotten this question a number of times, I thought I’d toss out some of my ideas, and would encourage our subscribers to throw out some of their own ideas. Let’s turn this into an idea exchange that we all might benefit from!

So, here’s the  set up – assume someone has a new swimming pool, or one that has little or no landscaping and wants to start creating their own backyard resort, on the cheap and they want some quick impact.  I’m going to assume here that buying a reasonably sized hardy palm or two is not in the budget.  What should they do?  Here are 5 ideas I’d suggest:


  1. Banana’s, canna, castor bean, ornamental grasses around pool

    Bananas.  They are about as tropical looking as it gets and will make an immediate impact. Establish groupings around the pool.  Don’t line them up in straight rows! For those of you that have the Backyard Resorts Ebook, you know that, for better or worse, I’m all about a more wild, untamed look, not a formal, tidy look.  Bananas are readily available in garden centers (or on Ebay), reasonably inexpensive, easy to grow, and grow really fast if you plant them properly and give them plenty of food and water.

  2. Cannas. Use these as borders, between your bananas and other taller plants.  Bengal Tiger and Tropicana are a couple of really flamboyant varieties, but my favorite is a large purple variety that I’ve yet to identify. Not as flashy, but it holds up better in the brutal summer heat here in Dallas.  Experiment … there are lots of options, and they are inexpensive and very easy to grow.
  3. Castor Bean. This is just one of my favorite plants, and is an incredibly exotic looking large specimen plant.  You can learn more about it in this article I posted a while back.  It grows from seed to 15-20 feet tall every year for me and is stunning to look at.  There are green (biggest), red, and grey varieties.  You can get seeds on Ebay for next to nothing.  Once you grow it once, you’ll have all the seeds you’ll ever need.  Fair Warning – the plant and its seeds are poisonous if eaten.
  4. Containers with flamboyant flowering plants.  I know, attractive pots can get pricey, but there are inexpensive options out there.  Tropical hibiscus, plumeria, bougainvilla, mandevilla, and Angel trumpet are some real show stoppers in pots.  Create mixed plantings of varying colors and textures.  See this article I posted a while back on container ideas.
  5. Ornamental Grasses.  This idea often gets overlooked in my opinion. The linear form of ornamental grasses contrasts beautifully with large leafed plants like bananas and Cannas, and create an airy, seaside look and feel. Pampas Grass is great if you have the space, but can get huge, up to 7 feet. Maiden Grass is medium (up to 3 feet) and is beautiful in any kind of a breeze.   Aztec Grass or Purple fountain grass, with their beautiful colors, contrast beautifully with almost any green plant.  Most are readily available and reasonably inexpensive.
Backyard Resorts Ebook - Tropical backyard landscape, tropical pool landscape

Of course, if the budget is there, you have to be thinking one or more hardy palms but, if not, the ideas above will get you started without big bucks.   What other ideas do you have?

Cheers, and enjoy your Backyard Resort.

A Fun Idea for Your Tropical Backyard Landscape – Castor Beans

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I discovered this one early on in my Backyard Resort journey.  Castor Bean looks great in a tropical backyard setting or tropical pool landscapeCastor Bean is absolutely beautiful, very easy to grow, and guaranteed to bring an exotic, almost jungle feel to just about any area of your tropical backyard or pool landscape.  It has huge, palmate leaves that can be over 2 feet across, with great color and shape.

This plant is just fun. You grow it from seed at the begining of the season.  I already hear the grumbles from you impatient types but, fear not, it grows incredibly fast,  faster than you can imagine if you baby it just a little. Believe it or not,  mine consistently grow well over 12 feet tall every year.  Feel better? 

Castors are very versatile.  You can grow it as a specimen plant, or in groups to create a spectacular tropical screen. I’ve found that castor beans  combine very well with bananas, cannas, gingers, and other tropical looking plants.


Palm, Castor bean, Yucca in tropical backyard landscape
Palm, Castor bean, Yucca in tropical backyard landscape

I’ve used at least 3 different varieties: green, grey, and red.   The greens get the biggest by far.  They grey’s have a really cool stalk color.  But for max effect, I suggest you  look to the bronze/red varieties such as Carmencita as they provide an even more dramatic effect with their deep bronze foliage.

Castor Beans are annuals in all but the warmest zones, but are almost guaranteed to reseed themselves, maybe more than you want!  Plant the seeds in the spring, in well-drained soil and in full sun.  To get the most out of castor beans in the shortest amount of time, baby them a little by enriching the soil with compost at planting time and providing plenty of water early in the growing cycle. This is a tough plant and, once established, requires very little maintenance.  The only real downside once established is that high winds can sometimes push them over a bit.  When that happens, I just straighten and brace them, and they go right back to being happy.  Very tough cookies.  Get the Backyard Resorts Ebook

Seeds or readily available on ebay or through online retailers.  Trust me, you’ll only need to buy seeds once as you can collect seeds from your own plants once you have some established, and there will be far more than you’ll ever need!

Fair warning, all parts, and especially the seeds, of this plant are poisonous if ingested. I’d leave Castor Beans out of your Backyard Resort mix if you have young children.

Is My Palm Tree Dead?

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Is My Palm Tree Dead ?

In light of the last two terrible winters we’ve had here in the Dallas area, I did a recent article that questioned whether I should rethink which palm trees to use in areas like Dallas, where harsh winter temperatures over an extended period, while not frequent, can indeed happen.  The question that’s on a lot of people’s mind in this area, and I imagine many others, is “Is my palm tree dead?”.

You can drive through the neighborhoods here and see lots of palms, especially California Fan Palms and Mexican Fan Palms, that indeed look very bad.   The typically very resilient Sabal palms don’t look so great either.  Hell, even my big Windmill palms took a little damage this year, although they took it all in stride and are very much alive and well.   I won’t even talk about the terribly ill-adapted ones that people plant around here like Phoenix Palms that have no chance, even a normal winter.

But, are they dead or do they have a chance to make a terrific comeback?  Unfortunately, the best answer I can give is a uselessly non-committal maybe. Maybe they took a beating but will come back as the weather warms.   BUT, maybe they won’t.  What do I think?  I think a great many, especially the Mexican and California fan palms, will have succumbed to this last winters bitter cold temperatures and died, even big established ones like mine.  They are simply not built to handle such cold temps for such long periods.  I think most of the Sabal Palms will come back, and nearly all Windmill palms (if established) came through just fine.  But I don’t know, and all we can do is wait and watch.

Wait and watch … not a pleasant prospect I know.  There is one sure fire way to know if a palm is dead.  If it’s small enough, just give a sharp tug on the fronds that emerge from the cone.   If they pull free and come out, then your palm tree is dead, without a doubt and you can start the painful removal process.  If they hold firm, you still have a chance and will just have to be patient and see what happens.  No guarantees it’s alive, but it might be.   If, like me, you have fan palms that are too big for this little trick, then all you can do is keep looking for signs of green emerging from the cone.  I keep a small pair of field binoculars outside to help with the vigil.

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Be patient and see what happens as we warm up, and know that it could take a while for them to come back, even if they are alive.  I almost took out a big Mexican Fan Palm (in the ground for 15 years)  in July last year that I thought was dead, and just happened to notice the day before removal was schedule that new shoots were emerging.  A very happy discovery for me but, unfortunately, I don’t believe it made it through this past winter.  Last winter was likely just too much for an already stressed palm.  We shall see …….


Rethinking Best Palm Trees for Handling Winter Weather

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Mexican Fan Palm in DallasLast year, at the beginning of my Backyard Resort season, I posted an article that talked about how bad the winter had been here in Dallas and the damage I had seen to my palm trees and other plants, mainly due to lots of snow staying on the ground for a long time.  Later I posted a followup article that talked about some lessons learned.  In this article, I freely admitted that I lost palms, bananas, and other things that I had kept for years and years  because I didn’t do the simple things that I preach to everyone else (i.e. mulch heavily going in to winter). I slacked off because the preceding four or five very mild winters had lulled me in to a false sense of security.  Shame on me for getting lazy!

I’m a laidback guy and my attitude at the time can be summed up as “Hey, this is a 30 year event here in this part of the country (Dallas), unlikely to happen again, and I’ll not make the mistake of being unprepared again.  Just part of it, not worth losing sleep over …”. Going in to this winter, I did all the right things to get ready.  All is good in the world, right?    Well, guess what?  This winter was again terrible, worse than last!  Only this time, it wasn’t snow …  it was unbelievably cold temperatures for very extended periods!  Like nothing I have ever seen here in North Dallas.

Now, I don’t know what got badly damaged or what I lost for sure yet. The good news is that doing the basic preparation helped.  I can already tell that my bananas are fine.  It looks like my big sago palm is fine too, although I can really do little to protect it. My windmill palms are fine although, for the first time ever, I can see some superficial cold damage.

Questioning Mexican and California Fan Palms and Cold Weather …

The big question marks are the California Fan Palms and a big Mexican Fan Palm (30+ ft).   I lost one big California fan last winter.  I believed that I had also lost the big Mexican fan palm as it was showing no sign of growth as late as June, but it showed new shoots around August!  Deep sigh of relief.   I had lost a whole season, but it wasn’t a goner.  Now, I’m not so sure  …..  Can it have survived two horribly damaging winters, back to back?

So, now I find myself rethinking California and Mexican fan palms.  I absolutely love the way they look in my backyard resort and had them for many years with no big problems.   But, looking at the last two winters, I have to ask are they worth the risk and hassle?  Or, should we stick with things like Sabal Palms and windmill palms, which are more winter hardy, for our tropical foundation?

On one hand, our Backyard Resort is supposed to be a stress-free zone, right?   Losing big tropical foundation plants like this is painful, stressful, and expensive, especially if they’ve been there a while and are key parts of your backyard landscape.  On the other hand, unusually cold winters occasionally are a fact of life and really should be a known and accepted risk for us Backyard Resort’ers.   What to do ….

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I’ll admit, I’m torn.  Am I having a knee-jerk reaction, or are California and Mexican palms in this area like the rich old man’s young trophy wife …. Just when he thinks he’s got everything perfect, she breaks his heart and costs him a bundle of cash … ?

In any event, I will be updating the Backyard Resorts ebook to at least more forcefully warn about the risks with both California and Mexican fan palms in Dallas and other areas that absolutely can get those tough winter years, and highlight the other options.

Ah well, it is getting very close to Backyard Resort season 2011.  Enough deep thought for now …

Time to enjoy my tropical backyard resortCheers …

Lets Talk Swimming Pool Landscaping

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tropicalpool1Landscaping around your pool … “cement pond” to tropical oasis

So, you have a swimming pool in your backyard. You’ve have had it for years, or maybe its brand spanking new.  When you first decided to put in that pool, you had visions of laidback fun days with your family or friends, some good Jimmy Buffet music or maybe some fun Reggae, and, yea, one of those fruity drinks with an umbrella.  Maybe a nice hammock out there to enjoy summer evenings too.  Ahh, the good life.

Did you get all that?  Or, did the new wear off pretty fast, leaving you with just something else to take care of?  Do you hang out with family and friends at your pool, or does it rarely get used?  Are you really getting that enjoyment you envisioned?

RELAX … here a sure way to make that original vision real.  Creative landscaping around a pool can turn that “cement pond” (and yes, I admit it, I’m a fan of granny from the Beverly Hillbillys) into an exotic, tropical oasis, and you can have a lot of fun doing it.  Take a step back and envision your pool surrounded by palm trees, maybe a clump of banana plants with those huge exotic leaves, and brightly colored flowering tropical plants everywhere. And, what the heck, let’s put one of those cool Tiki statues out there too.  Get the picture?  Landscaping around a pool can turn that “cement pond” is now your favorite room in the house, your laidback, relaxing tropical oasis.

Get the Backyard Resorts EbookNow, if you’re new to Backyard Resorts, you may be looking out the window at a temperature below freezing thinking I can’t do that.   Think again …     There’s a real good chance you can.  That’s what backyard resorts and www.tropicalyard.com are all about.   Windmill palms and other varieties are completely hardy at temperatures well below freezing.  Bananas, well anyone can grow and create a tropical pool setting with bananas.  All those tropical flowering plants like hibiscus, mandavilla, and bougainvilla …. yep, you can use those too.  And let’s throw in an Brugmansia, with flowers about a foot high that put out the most eerily pleasant scent, but only at night.  Let’s get a little taste of Hawaii with some Plumeria too.  Get the picture??

Interested?  Think your friends would be impressed? Think you and your family would enjoy your pool more?   Trust me, you’ll get the Wow factor, and you will get the enjoyment.  Tropical landscaping around a pool, to me, is just the way it should be.  There is no other answer.  So, get creative, get educated,  and create that tropical pool oasis …. your Backyard Resort.


Cheers …

Backyard Resort Essentials – Island Music

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Island and Caribbean MusicIf you’re going to create that tropical vibe and attitude, you just have to have the right tunes.   I listen to all kinds of music, but a key part of that Caribbean ambiance that I love so much when I go down to the Islands is the music.  So, of course, I want it at home in my little Backyard Resort.  And I’ve figured out how to get it.

Now, you could just go out on itunes and try to download a bunch of reggae or Caribbean music, or the essential Jimmy Buffet.  But, if you’re like me, you don’t always know the artists well enough to do effective digging and downloading.  Here’s what you do …. and you’re going to thank me for this if you don’t already know about it.

Fire up itunes on your laptop and go to Radio on the top left.  Kids, there are literally hundreds of radio stations out there, and there is one entire segment dedicated to Reggae / Island!     Uninterrupted music, with few or NO COMMERCIALS.  There are several stations actually broadcasting from the Islands.  Just think, a direct pipe to the Caribbean music scene.   What more do you want?

Get the Backyard Resorts EbookAn old (technically obsolete) laptop with a wireless internet connection is a key component of my sound system.  A simple RCA adapter from the headphone output on the laptop to my receiver was all it took.  Most newer receivers probably can accept USB directly.  I’m not going to try and get into all the technical setup stuff here.  The point is that the great music is there, and you can easily tap into it.

Plenty of reggae, Caribbean, and Island sounds.  Oh, and check out Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Radio.  I’ll admit, I’m not a huge country music fan, but I really like Kenny Chesney and his station is his take on that Island vibe.  Very cool.

Time to enjoy my tropical backyard resortCheers …

Pool Maintenance Gem – More Enjoyment, Less Stress for your Backyard Resort Pool

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I’ve been hearing from a lot of frustrated people about swimming pool challenges of late.   There seems to me to be entirely too much time, energy, money being spent on cleanup, chemicals, and services. It pains me to hear about it.  How dare cloudy, ugly water and unrepentant algae that is seemly immune to a low grade nuclear device detract us from the full enjoyment of our Backyard Resorts.

Pool Perfect PhosfreeWell folks, I have no such problems and I’m going to try and save the day for some of my fellow Backyard Resort’ers.   If you don’t know about it already, check out this post I did over a year ago about a product call Pool Perfect + Phos Free.

And for all you cynics, I’m not hocking any product and I don’t make any money from recommending this product (hmm… maybe I should).  It works beautifully for me, freeing up time and money for things that matter (good drinks, good tunes, good relaxing times) and I’m simply passing on a great find to you.

Let me know how it works for you …

Cheers …

4 Lessons Learned from Last Years Winter Damage to my Tropical Backyard Resort

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I’ve finally had to accept reality.  For the first time ever in the history of my Backyard Resort, I lost 2 large fan palm trees here in Dallas due to damage sustained last winter.  I’ve been watching one of them that still had signs of green, but the grim reality is that is is gone.  That palm was close to 30 feet tall and had been in the ground for at least 12 years.  I planted it when it wasn’t more than knee high.  I lost banana plants and several other things that had been thriving for years too.  Believe me, it’s been a kick in the gut.

However, yesterday as I was lounging by the pool with a really un-manly tropical drink, I decided to just not sweat it.  My self-therapy is telling me that as much enjoyment as I get out of my backyard resort year in and year out, I should be willing to accept a little heartache now and then.  I knew from the start that, with my severe case of zone denial, a freak winter like we had last year could cause me grief, and one finally did.  But, it could have been worse.  Sure, I lost a couple of beloved palms, but I have 5 more that came through just fine.  Banana plants are inexpensive and easy to replace.    I felt better already …. and decided to go make another Mai Tai …

I then decided to take a step back and look at this as yet another backyard resort learning experience.  So (another sip), I started jotting down what I had learned and how might I do things different to keep it from happening again.   Here are a few things I came up with ….

  1. Use the fan palms in areas that have some natural protection … micro climates.  Use Windmill palms and Sabal Palms, both of which appear to be absolutely bullet proof,  as major palms (foundation tropical).
  2. When I know abnormally cold temps are coming… and I did know … take the time to go out and water everything thoroughly.  It matters and can help get them through.  I make this point in the Backyard Resorts Ebook, but didn’t follow my own advice last winter.  I had before, but I know last winter I just got lazy.  Any guarantee it would have saved my big palms??   Nope, no guarantee, but it just might have and then I could have been writing about how smart I was ….
  3. Mulch, mulch, and mulch some more.  Now, I’m almost 100% sure I could have saved ALL my bananas with this one.  A thick layer of mulch would have been a game changer.  Again, the Backyard Resorts Ebook makes this point over and over and I’ve written an entire article on banana protection in the winter!  What did I do … I got lazy and didn’t take this simple little step. ( At this point, I went in to make another Mai Tai, a little stronger this time)
  4. Don’t let 3 or 4 mild winters lull you into thinking that normal (or worse than normal) winters aren’t going to happen.  They will.  Do the basics and things will likely be fine.  Don’t …. and, well, you could be lamenting your sins just like me.   But the Mai Tais sure are good ………

So, there are 4 simple lessons that I’ve learned or, more correctly, reinforced when it comes to my backyard resort.  Does this take anything away from the joy I get from mine?  Nope, not at all.  It just reminds me to do the simple stuff that I know needs to be done to keep my Backyard Resort thriving.  Winter cold is our only enemy …  and it is an enemy that, with a little effort, can be vanquished.

Any war stories, or success stories from fellow Backyard Resort’ers??

Cheers …

5 Great Container Plants to Kick your Tropical Backyard Landscape up a Notch

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I had some friends hanging out at the pool today, and got a lot of questions about some of the plants I’m using in pots.  For those of you who have gotten the Backyard Resorts Ebook, you know I advocate a layered approach to build your backyard resort.  Start with the base foundation, add the tropical foundation, then the tropical flash, and finally the finishing touches.  The more I refine my approach, the more I think containers fit in the tropical flash AND finishing touches category.

The containers themselves can make a big statement if you want them to.  You could go for a purely Caribbean look, or spice things up with an old-world Roman or Greek look.  There are all kinds of possibilities.  But, let’s talk plants here  … container plants that will really make a statement for your tropical backyard resort ….

  1. Tropical Hibiscus.  I know, I know … everyone already knows this one, but it is simply not optional.  It’s hard to think of a more reliable flamboyant flowering plant.  The fun here is that there are hundreds of varieties, all kinds of sizes, colors, and textures.  Look for some of the wilder colors … think bright ORANGE … it exists.  Your local big box home and garden center may not have them, but other specialty brick and mortar and online nurseries will for sure.  I treat these as annuals as they’ve always been very slow to come back if I try to overwinter.
  2. Plumeria.  Think Hawaiian Lei flowers.  Like Hibiscus, there are many varieties and lots of colors.  I have a candy stripe variety that is a show stopper.  A couple of years ago, mail order was the only way to get plumeria, but now I see them at my Home Depot, although they seem to be a bit pricey.  You can find many varieties sold on ebay even.  I’ve grown mine from 12” cuttings to multiple 6ft tall plants.  Now, I can propagate my own.  Even though the pots are big, I make the effort to bring mine into the garage before the first freeze.  It’s well worth it.
  3. Angel Trumpet.  Here’s another one that I used to have to mail order, now I see them regularly in garden centers, although they can be pricey too.  This one is a real show stopper with its huge 1 foot long trumpet shaped flowers.  I have yellows, but there are many colors available.  And another little bonus … the flowers have an eerie, but very pleasant, scent.  The quirky thing is that they only put their fragrance at night and put it out, they do!  Just ask your neighbors.  Use a good sized pot as they can get top heavy.  Shade and lots of water for this one.  Like my plumerias, I bring these into the garage to overwinter.  They come back quite nicely.
  4. Canna, Tropicana or Bengal Tiger variety.  I have cannas in the ground all over the place at my backyard resort, but I like to use these two varieties in pots.  Both are very flamboyant and flashy and can really make a statement.  Maybe it’s just me or the terrible soil we have here,  but Tropicana cannas in the ground tend to bleach out in the late summer here, and not look so great.  Not so in containers.  I just keep watered and they keep putting on a show until frost.
  5. Bougainvilla.  OK, I know this beasty has those nasty thorns and can be a hassle to tame, but what a show it can put on.  I have never been able to get bougainvilla to bloom reliably in the ground here, but in good sized containers …. Wow!  Don’t overfeed or overwater as they guys seem to thrive on a little stress.   Again, lots of different colors available, but I like the bright reds.  I treat mine as annuals just because I don’t have room to overwinter everything. They are very fast growers anyway, and inexpensive.
  6. Bonus. Go to the houseplant section of your favorite garden or home improvement center.  You know, there is really no such thing as a house plant, right?   Plants want to be outside.  I would say 90% of the houseplants are understory tropicals.  Put them in pots on the patio or other shaded areas, and just watch.  They’ll grow twice as fast and look twice as good as they would if you had them in your living room.

There you have it, some of my favorite container plants to play with.  Join the conversation.  What container plants do you use to make a statement in your Backyard Resort?

Time to enjoy my tropical backyard resortCheers …

Nature Plays a Dirty Trick – Dead Palm Trees in Dallas

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Well, I guess it had to happen sooner or later.  Here in the DFW area, we just had one of those once every 50 year winters where it was  very cold, very wet, for a very long time.  I saw temps for days below 20 degrees, falling all the way to the low teens.  We had 6 inches of snow … TWICE!!!   We’re really just now starting to feel spring/summer, and that means I can take stock of the damage, and folks it’s not pretty.

My big kick in the gut was the loss of a 12 ft California fan palm.  It’s a clear goner.  A sharp tug on what was left of the cone told the tale when it pulled completely out.   It had been in the ground for 7 or 8 years so who would have expected that.  And, I see plenty of other Fan palms all over the city whose owners I’m sure are hoping for the best, but if they’re not showing signs of life by now,  they’re goners.    Gotta face reality.

More bad news … I probably lost half my banana plants.  The ones that did survive are just now starting to come on strong.   Now, I have to admit something on the bananas ….  I talked the talk (See Banana Plants in the Winter), but I didnt walk the walk.  I’ve gotten so spoiled with mild winters for the last few years that I didn’t do the basics, like applying that thick layer of mulch going into the winter … and it cost me.  If I had just followed my own advice I probably wouldn’t have lost a single one.   Get lazy and you can definitely get caught …

Everything is very slow to come back this year, but other than the above at least it is all coming back.  Windmill palms, of course, showed ZERO ill effects (See this article for a good discussion on cold hardy palms).  My 40 ft Mexican Fan Palm pulled through.  My big Sago Palm made it.  It looks like all the Ginger made it and, to my great surprise, an Angel Trumpet (Brugmansia) I had in the ground is coming back.  I did take the big potted plumeria into the garage, so no worries there.

I suppose it could have been worse.   I’m bummed out over the losses, but I guess this is just one of those times when nature plays a dirty trick on we Backyard Resorters.  Was the terrible winter an anomoly?  Probably.  Is there anything practical I could have done to save my big California Fan Palm?  Probably not.    There …..   I feel better now.  I’ll just plan on enjoying my slowly recovering backyard resort for our first 90 degree weekend ….

Time to enjoy my tropical backyard resort

Cheers …..