Design Advice Needed

isabella__MA(z5_MA)July 30, 2011

The family finally built on some inherited land in Nicaragua (Leon Department-North Pacific Coast). As is typical in Nica everyone has a security wall around there property, with ours being no-exception. The concept of curb appeal, as related to a landscape is almost non-existent, as the house security wall/fence is what is seen from the curb with the garden/landscape inside of that secure encloure. This really has me thrown for a loop, as I'm geared towards the North American concept of curb appeal, literally from the curb, but now it has to be from within the wall or from the porch. Basically I don't know what my focus should be in regards to what direction to focus the eye. The North American view is to see the front door, entry into the family, as the eyes of the house and an important point of focus, but here that concept doesn't apply and to make it apply seems to be unfitting to the culture. I stuck as whethter to concentrate instead on views from the porch or the pool or instead of the curb to see the house from inside the security wall, which would be the entry to the garden and other areas. Here life is generally all outside under some type of shade, like the patio, with inside being reserved for securing "your-stuff" and to be enclosed while sleeping.

Pic below is the house from the front wall door looking North, guesta will more commonly be using the driveway though. The house is a simple beach type house with more patio for a breeze. Very high walls all around the property. As typical every where in Nica this house was also built with zero lot line construction. Layer of sand was put in atop the loam to cut down on mud during construction.

View from Northern side of property by the well looking south.

A caretakers house will be built along the south face of the wall in the future. The in-laws already planted some dwarf palms by the south side of the pool.

I asked on the tropical and palm forums for some plant material that could be used to fill the space, got some advice on flower.

The needs for the area are to have open areas in the front by the shower and the driveway strips for overflow parking and the kids to run wild in when they get tired of playing Wi. We probably can plant on the neighbors wall (west wall of the camionette) or even ask if we can smooth it.

My thought was to see the patio as the primary area for people to be directed to, so it should be the primary living area and the family activity area and to enhance the views from the patio. Oh yes somewhere in all of this there will be a Mary in a half shell... somethings are just the same the world over!

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Some Nicaragua friends always tell me,they like the exotic & exciting stuff,tired big shade.maybe you too.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 9:11PM
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I am not sure what your reply means. There are plenty of exotic tropicals, most native to parts of Nica but not the coastal low-lands. Most houseplants and orchids can grow in the garden, but I'm not ready for plants placement just yet. I was not expecting to get a completed, and quite elaborate detailed design, as my intent in posting was to get some advice on how to design for an inside-the-box (i.e the surrounding high walls) approach instead of the the road curb (or maybe that's still the approach).

From your very colorful and unscaled cartoon, I take it that you're advocating a design from inside the front wall gate? I'm confused, as the added pathways and circular forms seem to direct the eye away from the porch to the NE corner of the front yard. The plant forms also are obscuring the porch and house totally, while not a Grenada colonial facade is typical of how life is lived behind the facade of the house facade, if it's curb-side, or the "wall" if that is what is curbside, with the house form following that function. The addition of the caretaker (vigiante ..spelling?)will address some of those architectural issues in the future. This would be in the NE corner of the front yard in the direction as to where the paths shown in your figure are directed towards.

On a different note, do you or your friends know the heat zone there? I can find the heat/USDA zone for USA, Canada, China, NZ, Oz, England, and Europe, but Central America I can't... my guess is that it's heat zone 11 or 12 as I found one hard to read map. The other climate conditions are alternating dry and wet seasons and mild salt environment with near constant wind. Due to the approximate N-S yard orientation and walls the sun/shade exposure is alternating morning sun/afternoon shade for the west areas to the opposite (morning sun/afternoon shade) for the east side of the area.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2011 at 6:28AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

It seems rather ridiculous to be concerned with curb appeal or even with creating a favorable view upon entry as your focal concern in such a tight space, that will feel even tighter with additional cars parked inside and an additional house. I'd suggest that you make the pool and covered patio the focus and plant tall skinny palms, ornamental bananas, heliconias and climbing flowering vines at the periphery to hide the walls and give you shade. As it appears now, it looks oppressively hot and claustrophobic to me. I'd also suggest that adding a window or doors with more overhead cover at the northern side of the house would make it much more inviting. I'd also think about adding a vine covered arbor over the car parking area, as well as adding a decorative Mosaic tile mural or wall fountain adjacent the pool, and extend the same paving to bridge the gap between house and pool. Do you have any opportunities to see nice garden solutions on similar sized lots? I am a fan of walled gardens in principle, but this just seems too small, and a second story with a balcony to overlook the garden and some tall growing trees or palms are urgently called for.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2011 at 10:11PM
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If I were you I would take a stick as there isn't much planted right now & go around area that will be for cars. I see they are on cement pieces probably to keep mud off the tires. Figure out that area & the area that the house will be placed in. if it's20 by 30 ft. or 10 x 15 ft. whatever it is going to be scratch out in the dirt where it will be(using the exact measurements). Then you know how much area you will be able to plant. But don't plant any of that area now as you will need room to get building materials in & the work done. Then when house is done you need to get parking finished, more cement pieces or whatever. So area you are "free" to work on now is around the pool & patio. If possible I would plant some trees that bear fruit, but as far away from pool as possible. Don't need things dropping in pool. Food is a huge problem in many parts of the world so a couple of tomato & pepper plants makes a lot more sense than some pretty plant to look at. If you have 1 square ft. of ground you can grow a tomato plant. You can save seeds from them to use the next year. I've sent seeds to countries that were losing their food sources. So some tropical fruit trees & few veggies & then a few pretty things you like. In a very hot area, shade is very important for everyone's comfort. Does the pool use chlorine to stay clean? Lot of things won't do well too close to chlorine if it is being splashed on it. Anyway this may help you figure out what to do 1st. You can't plant a tree in middle of front yard just to have to dig it up so they can get a truck in there with cement blocks! Hope if goes well & when you get the areas marked out then write it up on a piece of paper along with plants you might want now & will have to wait until work is finished on the other projects. Good Luck!

    Bookmark   August 1, 2011 at 2:07AM
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I would definitely focus on the view from the porch and pool. That's where most of the time will be spent. Visitors will remember that view much more than anything about where they parked.

I would be sure to add some gravel, rocks, dry river bed or a concrete channel where the water is draining through the front yard from the hose. With all the splashing and watering and showering, it could be a muddy mess much of the time without it.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2011 at 12:28PM
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As an aside, my MILs house in the capital originally before the devastating '72 earthquake was a small house on a lot not unlike a typical USA suburb. There was a yard and fruit trees abounded and an open driveway. After the quake and other social upheavals, the city changed and nearly all of the houses put up walls the houses then all became zero lot line houses with no yards - roof from front to back - side to side. Only small patio planters were built for very small walled in garden and room for pots. My BIL recently built a house, he has nearly 12-foot walls with a nice stylish gate and covered in Bouganville and a house sited nearly square in the midddle of the walls like a castle keep. As my BIL remarked to me, when I was looking at his yard.. nice wall! No real over-arching design other than grass a patch of lawn substitute near the patio and a few avocados and a guava tree.

Other houses I have observed or lived in have been somewhat limited, as most have similarily high walls so the designs can not be seen. One house about .5 miles from ours was built zero-lot line with very solid walls/bars and a roof over nearly every square foot except the pool. It held 6 cars lots of rooms and a kitchen. The second I stayed in was on the beach. The narrow lot had high walls on all three sides. Near the front road gate was the caretakers house and a yard big enough for 4 cars. No driveway, all grass with formal linear planting along all of the walls. Beyond the front yard was the house, followed by the pool with more perimeter plantings. After the pool was the palmera (i.e rustic wooden structure covered with a palm thatch roof), and a low wall (no wire) to allow observing the beach.

Over the top of some walls can be observed mango, palms, and Jacaranda trees, and over lower walls shrubs huge crotons and beautiful ixora's.

Basically I really have not seen many large open areas like I have to work with that had any apparent design (at least to my untrained eye), which is telling of itself that life is lived and focused around the family areas. That means, as suggested by everyones contributions which I appreciate, my focus will be around the living areas as well. Curb appeal concepts will be kicked to the curb... kind of exciting to be doing something totally new and different, and this will be in keeping with the cultural norms instead of imposing different ones.

Learning new plant has been exciting as well. Lots of the veggies and fruits I like can be grown -- too bad I don't have the room for lots of mangos, but plaintains and smaller veggies like Batata (sweet potatoe vine), malanga (eddo), and yucca (cassava) are an option.

Now making these area enjoyable with interesting short and long views is the goal.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2011 at 9:28PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

One mango tree, guavas, papayas,passion fruit, cashew, are all ornamental as well as ornamental. Too bad about living conditions having gotten so chaotic there, such a contrast from small town living I remember in Bahia Brazil some 30 years ago. I think I'd prefer the more traditional central courtyard surrounded by house of more traditionalLatin style if I were starting from scratch. Such a contrast also to Balinese style homes where all is open air and less obsessed with necessary security. Small and compact can still be beautiful, but it requires more attention to detail and layout.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2011 at 2:20AM
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Isabella: this is an interesting dilemma because 'curb appeal' is definitely a North American phenomenon and you can look to almost any other culture to find the enclosure you seek. The water within your oasis should probably be the focus and if you would consider making those grey walls more colourful you may have a good start.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2011 at 6:17PM
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Well that has been my angst... and challenge to wrap my head around this new in-the-box concept. Maybe just as well, as the house itself is more functional than grand in form. At least the street side wall has more character with the shape and colors that blend well with the neighborhood.

In keeping with the advice a more centrist design with central courtyard w/pool is being considered. The additional guard's house has not been finalized yet, and it's location can be changed and the driveway layout re-done.

there isn't an expansive yard, but making a long view, from the parts of the porch and poolside, out along an axis to the SE corner is being considered.

I found Plxx's old post (2008) on using MS paint for making drawings and will post a plan-view in a few days, and doing some more reading/research.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2011 at 10:12PM
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In your research you should look up Luis Barragan who did some amazing work with colour under a Mexican sky also make sure to see Some Islamic courtyards. Most of the online pictures of Islamic gardens are more extravagant than the everyday courtyards but still good for ideas. If you Google "Courtyard Gardens" you will see many English and French etc. examples, obviously these won't help with plant selection but will help with the concept.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2011 at 8:21AM
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Got my measurements transcribed and prepared a general layout of the landscape. This also includes the future addition (casa de vigilante). I don't know much about the plants in this region, yet but have been studying some books on tropicals that just came in from e-shopping.

The addition was moved to provide a more courtyard appearance to the pool area (main family/focus point), privacy and to open up the front area more. Additionally it will allow for more architectural improvements to the front facade of the house making it more symetrical in keeping with local housing. The colors will most likely be the green/yellow more traditional beach colors.

The general forms presented are where they will best serve to re-inforce the feeling enclosure/safety and to provide some illusion of spaciousness within this area. Many of the local landscapes are either very formal (symetrical) or just totally lacking any sense of purpose), so this is nod to the formal local traditions.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 10:29AM
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I'm confused (not uncommon for me). Is the green square at bottom the well house? And the green rectangle at curved end of pool the caretaker cottage? What are the blue stars?

Did you say that the parking area could be relocated, even if it would mess with the curved wall along street?

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 8:51PM
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My description was somewhat lacking. The figure is orientated with South at the top, as looking out from the porth is more important for the setting/feeling than looking in.

The green square at the bottom (north) is the kitchen, and the well is to the right of it.

The caretaker cottage is the green rectangle to the south of the curved section of the pool.

The stars are possible locations for some type of focal point. By the pool a mosaic or statue to take advantage of the pool as a reflecting pond, when the kids are splashing around. The other plants around the pool, are not determined yet, possibly dwarf palms to provide some distraction from the wall and repitition of the porch columns.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 11:04PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

While the idea of locating the Cass details vigilante has promise, your layout seems to ignore the obvious squeezed nature of the house abutting the pool. That just looks extremely awkward to me. I see that you are seemingly most intent on accommodating four cars inside parked in tandem, forcing the too cramped pool layout. I'd suggest you lose two car spots inside and/or go two stories with the caretakers living quarters built above the parking layout. I'd also consider using a turfblock installation for exposed to sun driveway area and planted in turf to de-emphasize the hard scape. I'm guessing you're probably on a tight budget and my proposed design elements probably are realistic for the conditions, but could definitely make the design more appealing as a garden to spend a lot of time in and feel less claustrophobic.__@@,?,

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 1:41AM
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I definetly appreciate the observations!

Unfortunately, I didn't have much input on the modifications to the original house layout, which is a major lessons learned for me, as the new addition and landscaping now have to address some of that awkwardness.

The four cars is a must have only as a overflow condition to accomodate the families during Holy Week, otherwise fewer cars will be there. Turf blocks are popular there as well as using the driveway strips (the red figure is just the allocated parking area, not inteded to be all paved) to reduce the heat sink effect.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 10:14AM
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How large is the caretaker's cottage? It looks very small in your drawing.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 11:30AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

I think I'd put the caretaker's cottage in the front corner extending N-S along the side wall. My reasoning is that the auto storage is at the front of the property, so put the caretaker's cottage there also, and leave the northern part for the family.

If you want something to separate the parking area from the pool area and give a courtyard feel, put up a wall. Perhaps a low stucco wall with columns; add wrought iron sections between the columns to echo the wrought iron used on the front wall. An arched entrance in the middle? Vines? [Or the wall could be decorative open blocks.]

What's the yellow line just south of the porch? Is it a trellis or something that could be combined with the wall I'm proposing?


When you first put up the thread I tried searching for your zone info (retired librarian; it's a Challenge). There wasn't much that I could find that was helpful. Firefox lost the reply I was working on and it didn't occur to me that the links were still there in the History.

This map shows zones on a one-dot-for-every-50-miles-of-the-Earth's-land-surface map.

Google "NAPPFAST global plant hardiness zones" and take a look at the first three that come up (sorry, but I can't get the complete addresses). To see more detail, Copy a map, open it in a Word document, Paint, or perhaps Photoshop?, then keep enlarging it until you can see what detail there is for Nicaragua.

For this document, the second and third maps are of interest (the second may be the same as the NAPPFAST map above?).

There is some monthly temperature info online, but nothing I could find for your area about record temps. If you're looking for local monthly temps, there's some info for Leon, and more for Chinandega (at least some of the time, Chinandega is the source of the Leon data). A National Park in the north had better temperature history, but I'm imagine it's meaningless for Leon.

Here's a page from the Nicaraguan government: "Temperatura Media mensual registrada, seg�n estaciones meteorol�gicas y zonas geogr�ficas (1990 - 1999)" for Chinandega, Corinto, and Leon. [Whadda we have to do around here anyway, to get accents to show up?]

Have you thought of talking to the consulate? Or perhaps someone could try to get in touch with whoever it is in Chinandega who keeps the temperature info: maybe some unappreciated biology teacher or civil servant who'd love to share info with someone who's actually interested....

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 1:26PM
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Missingtheobvious - good name for a librian! Aden zone 19 or 20. Got a Sunset code from HI tropical plants book, so it's H2 by there guide. Local emailed and said it's the "tropics", so it's just hot all the time.

Two seasons hot/dry and hot/wet. No frost heave there!!

The yellow wall in front has not been made... it's only part of the oroposed sketch, as a wall. The purpose being more architectural to provide a means of joining the two house masses together and to present a arch as a facade instead of a sloped porch roof (i.e to visually re-orientate the house).

I orignially was thinking about the caretaker's place on the east wall with a N-S house located there, but was thinking about the architectural balance of the house masses in this draft of the plan. That could be mitigated by the landscape instead.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 2:53PM
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Just a thought... But requires moving car park entrance, and relocating shower. Re: plants - I'm not familiar with the region, but the green shows, well, green areas. I drew a palm as a focal point near the caretaker cottage, lots of climbing vines on the walls, and a large pot or two for color. The second type of paving stone would tie into the lanai posts (I guessed number and placement).

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 12:45AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

It would be so much fun to do the landscape planting plan for a garden that is truely tropical, I've only been able to play around the edges of the possibilities with small balcony gardens when I lived in Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia which is subtropical desert in climate.

I could recommend though that you consider using red .sealing wax palms as one of your focal small palms. I would also definitely consider using some of the more ornamental heliconia spp's and flowering ornamental bananas. Some guava and citrus, papayas, maybe a mango if you are willing to have one really big tree, or a cashew tree. Bromeliads are an essential accent plant for tropical gardens, as are various gingers and torch gingers, plumerias, passion vines etc.

Personally I'd really like a second story with veranda over the car parking area to expand the sense of space and enjoyment of the garden.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 1:51AM
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Photo is from the Leon Art Museum, so good odds that what's growing there would grow for you too. I love the groundcover -- resembles baby tears to me. The photo is from the website, which also has a gardening forum (see link below).

Here is a link that might be useful: gardening forum

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 1:01PM
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Away last week in Nica installing the landscape. Many of the plants that I wanted were not available, because they were not in season or the nurseries simply didn't offer them. In the US there are about 8 great nurseries with anything located within 50 miles of my NE house, but in Nica not quite the same availability. Whatever, the local backyard nursery has cutting plants for is what's available. Had to drive up to the volcanos to get some better choices and more interesting plant material to choose from.

Really wanted lantana, as I remember it from my childhood, but not ready yet. Replaced that with Gardenia, which the spouse remembered from her childhood. Got some material from the relatives, which was an offer I couldn't refuse, so they had to be moved around and replaced later as more building is completed. Got a ficus from the MIL, but that was actually useful. Got two unknown plants from the caretakers mom's house (the two sickly looking cuttings).

From driveway

From the patio

    Bookmark   August 24, 2011 at 7:07AM
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I admit I did not take the time to read all the posts about this. I'm just responding with visual ideas. The first shows a view toward the house. A flowering vine on a simple trellis disguises the entrance to the porch area and converts it into an arch. (The finials on the posts are only to show that it's decorative; I'm not making a specific style suggestion.) Overall, the space would be nicer if the paving were upgraded and expanded. A clinging vine (such as creeping fig) covers the block wall. A large tree-form flowering shrub in a bed of groundcover, with low hedge at back, could add interest to the end of the house. I sketched in some bananas at the far end of the yard, too.

The second photo shows the view from the other direction. Flowering Bougainvillea is trained to the top of the wall.

Details would need to be worked out in plan view, but there is probably room for more shade in the form of palms or other some other trees.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2011 at 6:37PM
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I had thought this thread was coming to an end as the plants are in. Admittedly, the as-built landscape is not as nearly as impressive as those big-buck TV shows with a professional LD leading a crew of 20 working overnight putting in large plants and carpets of sod, but as the thread is back, I will provide more about my cross-cultural design experience and my own implementation of the design process, because I still have a lot of exuberance for the whole adventure.

Several differences in national cultures and plant culture do present themselves, which put constraints on the design, and were some paradigm shifts in thinking , which a few years ago this would have just blown me out of the water, but with some limited experience, reading, and being inspired by these forums this whole process really interesting and fun! Changes were made to the design (though not apparent in the above photos) to accommodate more parking and courtyard views as insightfully suggested.


Hawaii Lanai life style or a pre-AC/TV southern veranda/porch outside lifestyle is probably the closest US equivalent to how outdoor spaces are used here. AC is available, but very expensive to operate, and not really necessary despite the heat. Sitting outside in the shade with a rocking chair or laying in a hammock and chatting is very common, especially in the evening hours.


Nicaragua is one of the safest nations in Central America, but walls/perimeter security are a necessity as an engineering control to the prevalent opportunistic re-allocation of ownership� after all if you really wanted to keep it then you would have secured it. From a N. American perspective perimeter walls and iron-bars do take getting used to.

On my first visit, I was staring at my BILs tall walls and thinking I was in Alcatraz, but he saw my expression and remarked very affectionately his feeling for the walls� keep the problems of the world outside and the enjoy the family on the inside. That is the other cultural difference the very strong influence of family and family bonding, which is reflected in this house architecture (actually more of a beach bungalow in N. American concept), with rooms off the common porch for each family and a common kitchen.

His wall is representative of more modern architecture� bottom 4 feet in solid concrete and the upper portion finished off to about 10 feet in a scalloped picket fence of sharpened angle iron, which allows a view of the house. Very safe, can�t easily scale the picket of stakes with a ladder, and doesn�t block the breeze.

There a wall is not considered an eye-sore to be covered up but rather something that enhances your comfort because it satisfies a primal need, and seeing a tall solid-built wall enhances that immensely � a wall as art and function. Typically walls are just smoothed/painted and occasionally bougainvillea are used on parts of a walls for more color/form and additional security.

Tropical "Look"

Nica ladies like their flowers, but in-country there were not many of the lush tropical vignettes with bright colors and widely contrasting foliage suggested in tropical design books and websites. If their plant material were replaced with zone 6 plants, then many of the landscaped locations I saw would like very much like a typical N. American landscape- very bleak perimeter and foundation plants and usually very formal/symmetrical.

No huge swathes of color that could be had from a bed of crotons or coral trees, but lots of shades of green, dull and shiny, and varied textures leaf shapes - figs, ixorna, gingers, mangos, palms, and aloes.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2011 at 1:59PM
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