The Garden Guy: (Re)Creating Your Own Jurassic World

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Garden Guy Bruce Bennett
By Bruce Bennett

This past year, a couple of mothers asked me how to create a dinosaur land for their children and, last month, another person enquired about a design for a jungle oasis (which is one of the ‘In’ things for 2022) in his Bellevue backyard.

The visions of certain Stephen Spielberg movies and concept of global warming seem to continue the insidious creep into the minds of people in yet another interesting and fun way – a backyard tropical forest. So, considering our warming summers, let’s make this month’s column about creating a piece of tropical, Jurassic World in your backyard.

Kid Garden. Photo courtesy
Yes, you can create a mini-Dinosaur Garden in a terrarium or adjacent to a sandbox, but, I prefer a scale that would be fun and comfortable outdoor living for children and the adults of the household. Perhaps, I’m over-thinking the matter (it’s something landscape designers tend to do), but, let’s spend a couple of minutes to discuss ‘Jurassic.’ 

This was a time some 200- to 145-million years ago. It was characterized by a warm, wet climate with higher levels of oxygen (35% more!) and carbon dioxide than we now experience. Temperate zones, like present-day Western Washington, likely had climates that more closely resembled the present-day subtropical parts of the globe. Consequently, there existed forests of large, lush vegetation. With the way our weather continues to warm, we should be back to those temperatures within the next few decades or so.

Photo Courtesy
You might think gardeners would have loved this foliage-rich time period, but, probably not. You see, flowers had not developed by this epoch. Consequently, most gardens we design these days will have a ‘value added’ component – the color of flowers. 

Although, they can be kept to a minimum, the garden will still be visually interesting through the use of foliage, textures and leaf colors (and, with less deadheading for you). These color combinations may be more muted than most of us are used to and horticultural artistic license can come into play with the use of more flowering plants. 

Hardy geraniums, such as G. ‘Ann Folkard,’ G. ‘Diane’ or G. macrorrhizum would all be naturals for the venue as would the varying sizes and colors of hostas. Of course, there still exist some versions of the ancient flora and, in the company of other related or reasonably prehistoric looking plants from your favorite nurseries your own Jurassic Garden can be created. 

If you think it can’t be done in our USDA Zone 8, take a look at the background foliage of the Woodland Park Zoo. If native and zone-adaptive plants can change the look of the various biomes from tropical Malaysia to frosty Canadian tundra at the zoo, think what they could do in your own landscape.

Cycads Path. Photo from
Of the original 200-million year old Jurassic plants, some evolved and are still with us today. These include cycads (shown at left), cypress, ferns, ginkgoes, horsetails, metasequoias and pines. Many are relatively easy to find in the region’s better nurseries. Ferns and conifers were prolific and King of the Hill during this period.

Creating a prehistoric garden in the shade – part sun location is a great way to use a large variety of plants. Among the oldest plants found in fossil records, ferns, like the 200-million year old Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana) have adapted to climate changes and sprung up in new locations across the planet. 

Sword Ferns are evergreen northwest natives and readily available. Mosses should also be included when planning prehistoric garden designs in the shade. Elevate some containerized ferns and mosses on pedestals to provide additional visual dynamics.

Gunnera manicata Photo courtesy
If you have a seasonally damp area or consistently boggy part of the yard or decide to divert the water from your rain gutters, Gunnera (shown at left) and Petasides are sure to please with a ‘WOW’ factor. 

And, if you already have horsetail (Equisetum) growing in the yard, you are, in some ways, already ahead of the game (and be thankful you have today’s version versus the ancient ones that grew to be 60’ tall and 2’ in diameter). 

Horsetails are an ancient variety that refuse to give up in an urban yard. If you like the looks of it, grow these green exclamation points in a container, either above ground or sunk in the soil. It is not a plant to be left to its own devices in your yard.

Cycads Path. Photo courtesy
During the time when the dinosaurs ruled, conifers also dominated the landscape. These included redwoods, yews, pines, cypress and monkey puzzle trees. But, if your urban space is limited, you could use any of the hundreds of types of dwarf conifers such as pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, and junipers. 

The only familiar flowering tree from those ancient days is the Magnolia - which was pollinated by beetles at the time (Magnolia ‘Little Gem’ shown at left). If you have more sun, ancient trees, such as the Maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba), Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria araucana) and Sago Palms (Cycadmacrozamia) are other primitive plants that can thrive in more sun.

Kale acinto photo courtesy
Modern-day plants can certainly play their part in populating the jungle. Elephant Ears (Alocasia), Windmill Palms (Trachycarpus fortunei), Asparagus plants, Tree Ferns, Fennel, Hardy Bananas (Moosa Basjoo), Hostas, Junipers and Pines are among the plants you can use. 

Other possibilities, although they do flower, include Cone Flowers, Hardy Fuchsia, Ligularia, Mahonia ‘Charity.’ Oakleaf Hydrangea, Osmanthus, Rodgersia and Yucca. 

You could even use the very edible Kale ‘Toscano’ (aka, Dinosaur Kale – shown at left) in the design and be able to harvest it all winter long.

TRex Metal. Photo courtesy of
A primitive plant garden is easy to design when you’re working with an area that includes both sun and shade. It is fun to experience and let one’s imagination consider which beasties once traversed the ground where a home now sits. 

And, it is a great way to get the kid/grandkids involved in gardening. Just tell them they’re planting a dinosaur garden and these foliage plants are related to the ones dinosaurs ate all those millions of years ago. Of course, if your family is anything like mine, tossing in a five-dollar bill with the deal wouldn’t hurt either! Happy gardening all!

Contributing garden columnist, Bruce Bennett, is a Washington State University Master Gardener, Certified Professional Horticulturist, garden designer and lecturer. If you have questions concerning this article, have a gardening question or care to suggest topics of interest for future columns, contact Bruce at


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