Sunday 14 August 2016

Exoticising the garden

I think I may have inadvertently invented a new verb - 'to exoticise', meaning to change part of a traditional garden to one with densely packed planting giving a sub-tropical feel. Anyway, that is mostly how I have been spending my time over this season, and it has been a massive learning curve. I know I have not got it right yet, but it has been enjoyable learning about new methods and new plants. My partner has been gardening in this way for about fifteen years, so I have my very own maister to guide me. 

In some ways it is easier than traditional gardening, as mistakes can be rectified more easily. Most of the tender stuff is wheeled out every year, after the threat of frost has passed, and placed in position before planting. In a way it feels more like flower arranging, as you can move the pots around to get maximum effect, before planting them, so you can try arrangements out and improve them very easily.

I find the difficult bit about traditional gardening is that it just seems right and then a week later it CHANGES, due to plants dying back after flowering ! So many perennial plants look superb at the back of the border for a few weeks, then they inevitable finish flowering and fall into a rapid downward spiral of decay before finishing with a vanishing act. Then there is a hole in the border, and something else is needed to take over. A bit like spinning plates, it is an art to keep them all going. 

The majority of plants in this brave new world of exotic planting stay the same. You plant them. They get bigger. They may flower. They get bigger. You protect them at the end of the season. There is little staking, cutting back or bringing in replacements. They just stay the same. Bananas, palms, hedychiums, calocasias, cannas, dahlias, yuccas and lots of others, need little attention once they are planted.

The bit of garden we have exoticised was o.k. before we did it ... nothing special , but it was o.k. It had forgiving shade tolerant planting like ferns and hostas, but I never felt I had got it right. I grew things that survived easily there, like hellebores and castor oil. Once we took the decision to exoticise, we realised that a lot of the current planting would complement an exotic look, giving a hardy backbone, which could remain permanently in position.

In March we drew up a long shopping list for big plants - palms and tree ferns which we took to 'The Urban Jungle' near Norwich, and 'Evergreens' in Beccles. We needed a van to deliver everything we bought. Getting the big chaps planted was hard, miserable work in the cold days of March, and when we finished, it was incredibly disappointing as it didn't look sub tropical or exotic at all - it just looked like a suburban garden with a few palms dotted about in the mud.

Once the threat of frosts had passed we started planted out all the tender stuff.  I grew lots of it from seed, so plants were plentiful and cheap. I grew 5 different varieties of Ricinus, Tithonia 'Torch', nasturtium 'Empress of India',  Amaranthus 'Velvet Curtain' and 'caudatus', cactus dahlias and dahlia 'Redskin', swiss chard 'Bright Lights', and Begonia 'Illumination'.

Again, the annuals looked nothing when they were first planted out, as per usual. Despite all the nurturing and care needed to produce these young plants, they are so small they get lost in the garden until they start to put on growth. It is a real act of faith to plant them out as they look absolutely nothing initially, and it is hard to believe how much they will grow in a few short weeks. They are really filling out now, as they have established themselves.

Some of the annuals have been more successful than others and the Tithonias and Ricinus are now just about the same height as me. The nasturtiums have scrambled and climbed through the planting so that there are flowers, like little beacons, in unexpected places.

I am told that the key to successful exotic gardening is a good balance between tender and hardy so that a solid backbone remains in the garden throughout the year, while gaps are filled with colour and exotic foliage supplied by the tender plants. 

Some good hardy plants which add to a tropical feel are Euphorbia, Castor Oil, bamboo, ligularia, tall grasses like Miscanthus, Inula, gunners, rheum, ferns, hosts, cotinus, crocosmia, crambe cordifolia, cardoon, aucuba, some yuccas ... the list is endless, and is mainly dependent on foliage which complements an exotic look. Trachycarpus Fortunii is a very hardy palm and can cope with temperatures as low as minus 17. Ours got through the terrible winter of 2010 unscathed.

Hardy exotic looking flowers include lilies, hemerocallis, clematis, anenomes, bergenia, irises, crinum, ligularia, Inula and Phlox.

The next group is plants which will be hardy through most english winters, but may need protection in really severe weather, and include, cordylines, hebes, brunnera, Tetrapanax Rex, Musa Basjoo (banana), some eucomis and phormiums. They remain in the ground and will be fine unless the temperature drops very low (below around minus 8). Some may lose their leaves but are root hardy. 

This is knowledge we have gleaned from our own little micro-climate, and so will not necessarily be true elsewhere. We also learned very quickly that young plants need more protection and care than established, more mature ones.

The next major group is the tender group, which need to be kept frostfree all winter, and can only be planted out once all risk of frost is over. It includes dahlias, calocasias, alocasias, hedychium (gingers), Ensete ( more tender banana), abutilon, salvia, agave (will stand low temperatures but hate to be wet), aeoniums, some eucomis, begonias and persicaria.  Some of these will need a heated greenhouse in the coldest weather.

Persicaria 'Painter's Palette'

There is another group which includes plants which stay in the ground but need protection to ensure their survival. Some are left mainly because their size makes it impractical to overwinter them inside. They include tree ferns ( ours wear a jaunty cap made of chicken wire and stuffed with straw), some palms and some bananas.

Annuals make up another group, and the choice is fantastic ... coleus, nasturtium, tithonia, begonia, amaranthas, ricinus, cosmos, salvia, and zinnias for starters.

While the majority of planting can be accomplished using plants which are both easy to acquire and propagate, it is always enjoyable to have some which are more unusual. The tree ferns come into this category and lend a special atmosphere to the garden. We have also acquired a couple of Astelia (silvery, spear shapes leaves), Daisilirion (spikey, very spikey!), Yucca Rostrata, Podophyllum Versipelle 'Spotty Dotty', Tetrapanax Rex, Catalpa, Pawlonia, Agave Montana and Begonia 'Angels' (like Begonia Rex but will take lower temperatures).

Two bamboos have been added - a lovely golden caned Phyllostachys Viva Aureoulis and the black 'Nigra' too.

An additional benefit of a sub tropical garden is that it reaches its peak late in the season, when a  traditional english garden is beginning to wane. It really seems to extend the gardening season, as it is still improving at this time of year, and looking extremely fresh and lush.

I am definitely NOT looking forward to autumn, however, as there is the hard work involved in dismantling the exotic bits, and lugging all the tender stuff under cover!